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Experts’ Roundtable: Development

By Monica Lebron, Fred Smith, J. Locklier
13 min read
With the continuing financial pressures in Higher Education & those in college athletics, most notably around facilities, coaching pay, sport program support & the student-athlete experience, how often are you engaged with your university’s central fundraising team on how to most effectively develop the largest donors & potential donors within the overall portfolio? 


Monica Lebron – Tulane (Deputy AD/Chief Operating Officer): On college campuses, collaboration is key in order to successfully achieve the overarching goals of the entire university. That sentiment holds true when reviewing campus Advancement efforts, as well. I don’t believe there is some magic number as to how often athletics development officers and central development officers should meet, but the collaboration efforts should feel constant. As fundraisers, we all know and understand there is a high likelihood that donors will have multiple campus interests and if we, as fundraisers, work collaboratively to learn those interests and secure multiple gifts the campus will ultimately achieve its greatest success.


Fred Smith – Northwestern (Associate AD for Development): At Northwestern, we are fortunate to constantly engage with the rest of the alumni relations and development professionals on campus. Our primary work spaces are in the building that houses the majority of the alumni relations and development staff and we report to both sides. Within formal and informal settings we have the opportunity to interact with frontline fundraisers, research professionals, and other staff to craft and refine cultivation, engagement, solicitation, and stewardship strategies throughout any given day. This proximity has allowed us to maximize our relationships across campus and have a seat at the table for all conversations, from the critical to the mundane. We pride ourselves on being fantastic team players on campus.


J. Locklier – Cincinnati (Assistant AD/Major Gifts): Here at the University of Cincinnati we operate on a centralized model. Every front line fundraiser on campus is a University of Cincinnati Foundation employee regardless of role (annual fund, major gifts, planned giving, regional, etc.) and regardless of unit (i.e. Athletics, Medicine, Law, Business, etc.). This model is very conducive to collaboration and cooperation across campus. As a major gift officer for Athletics, I am in constant contact with my colleagues across campus when it comes to multi-interest donors and prospects. We have quarterly meetings with all campus gift officers throughout the year to discuss campus goals, initiatives, and priorities. Lastly, we have monthly planning meetings in regards to top priority prospects where timelines, strategies, relationships, and funding interests are discussed at length.


The UC Foundation does a good job of fostering and encouraging collaboration amongst all gift officers on campus. We have a good protocol in place when it comes to prospect management, cultivation plans, and solicitation plans in regards to major gift donors and potential donors. In the rare case of concern over contact with a donor or cultivation plans for a donor, our Foundation leadership does an excellent job in sorting things out to best maximize the donor’s potential support and to ensure continued support of UC as a whole.



Through what methods & tools do you keep your Athletic Director appraised of on-going fundraising efforts & where you need his/her involvement? 


Lebron (Tulane): It is not that cut and dry. I believe, as fundraisers, we must have the abilities to recognize and understand our athletic directors. Some athletic directors are more comfortable within the internal ranks in which case we will position them in more stewardship roles. Other athletic directors spent their entire careers in development and therefore can assist throughout the cultivation process and even serve as the closers. As for keeping our athletic directors informed, that, too, is based on the personal preferences of the athletic directors. Especially in a campaign, it is probably healthy to inform the athletic directors weekly of: the donors who made new pledges within the week, how much cash came in the door, how much new money was committed through pledges, and where the team is in terms of achieving campaign goals. Some athletic directors are comfortable receiving this via email while others need a weekly detailed meeting. Again, there are various approaches and it is the responsibility of the fundraiser to learn which approach his/her athletic director prefers.


Smith (Northwestern): Our Athletic Director was and continues to be a very successful fundraiser so keeping him in the loop has been paramount. Four members of our athletics development team sit on the athletics and recreation senior staff. Additionally, our deputy athletics director for development is on the executive team within athletics and recreation providing ample opportunity to update our Athletic Director as well as the senior and executive staffs. We discuss fundraising efforts and goals through regularly scheduled meetings, visit prep meetings, and informally at games, events, and via text and email. We constantly have a running list of people with whom we’d like our AD to meet, call, or email when appropriate and available.


Locklier (Cincinnati): Our AD, Mike Bohn, is a tremendous asset in our fundraising efforts. He is kept in the loop on our fundraising progress through scheduled weekly updates and at times, daily updates. Mike wants to be a resource for every member of our development team from annual fund officers to major gift officers. We have been able to utilize his time with donors on both ends of the spectrum and he is always engaging regardless of dollars given or giving potential. Mike is also big on transparency within our fundraising efforts and has hosted several town hall meetings and Q&A sessions for our donors at every level.


As we have recently passed the half-way mark on our Campaign for Fifth Third Arena, we have had some success introducing Mike and partnering him within the corporate community here in the Greater Cincinnati area. In order for us to consistently reach our fundraising goals and to finish a campaign of this size and scope ($87 million), we need to have more involvement from the business community. Mike has done an excellent job illustrating to various business leaders that “what is good for Bearcats Athletics, is good for the entire Cincinnati community.” Mike’s involvement during his tenure on campus has been crucial to our fundraising success the past few years.



What’s the best story in your bag of a sizable gift from a donor who you didn’t initially think had significant capacity? Or, one where long-term engagement led to a notable donation that belied the donor’s giving history?


Lebron (Tulane): I’ll give you one that showcases teamwork and wasn’t realized until after I had left the institution. I was working at Florida when our Director of Stewardship mentioned to me that someone living up in New York City had given $250 each year for a few years, but because he didn’t have season tickets he had fallen through the stewardship cracks. When I saw he worked at Goldman Sachs I instinctively thought if he is giving $250 consistently without so much as even a thank you note, there is a good chance he could give more. Thus, I reached out to him and invited he and his family to Gainesville for a game and offered to comp their game tickets on the next visit. Sure enough, that fall, as he always did, he and his family attended a game at which point I met him for the first time. I continued to cultivate the relationship over the course of the next 10-12 months, but when it came time for me to accept a major gifts position at Cal I introduced the donor to my Florida fundraising teammate and assured him he was in good hands. Within the next year, I received a call from my Florida teammate informing me that WE had just closed a $250,000 gift with that donor. It meant the world to me that he called me to share news about the gift and to recognize we had closed it together. That donor hadn’t even turned 40 yet, which leads me to believe his giving had only just begun. And, it was all realized because we worked as a team and followed a hunch.


Smith (Northwestern): A very good and loyal annual fund donor was classmates with a top university administrator and said to multiple other classmates that he wanted to have his name somewhere on campus. The administrator had told us many times that the donor was all talk and not worth our time. They were friends for almost 50 years so many would have written the donor off, but we didn’t want to make the decision for the donor and his wife, we wanted to hear it from them. Through steady and strategic cultivation we were able to secure a visit with the donor to discuss our upcoming projects. We presented a menu of items he and his wife could help fund ranging from mid-six figures to mid-seven figures. Subsequent to the visit we continued with our engagement and cultivation much to the disdain of the administrator on campus. Eighteen months later, while I happened to be on my honeymoon, the donor called my Athletic Director and said he and his wife wanted to make a multi-million dollar gift. The donor then delivered the first $1 million check to his former classmate at his office on campus. This was the first seven figure gift I was actively a part of and solidified for me that a fundraiser shouldn’t make decisions for prospects and donors. As long as someone is still responsive, I want to hear from the prospect/donor what he or she would like to do moving forward.


Locklier (Cincinnati): When I worked at West Virginia University several years ago we had a gentleman stroll into our Mountaineer Athletic Club offices as we were closing up shop on a Friday afternoon before a home football weekend. The gentleman was wearing a pair of old blue jeans with a hole in them, flip flops, and a WVU t-shirt. He said that he’d played football for the Mountaineers years ago and that he’d “been thinking about donating to WVU” and wanted to know the best way to do so. As many of us know, a lot of potential donors athletic careers while in school are greatly embellished and even fictitious at times. For all intents and purposes this gentleman did not dress the part of someone who could help at a high level and he certainly didn’t have the stature of a former FB player. However, I was able to engage him for a few minutes and told him that I’d be in his hometown the following week and that I’d be glad to sit down with him and go over some ways he could help the program. He agreed and I fully expected him to dodge my calls the following week.


As it turns out, this gentleman was genuine in his wishes to support the Mountaineers and had indeed suited up for the football team. In fact, he was one of WVU’s most decorated players as a kicker during his career. After a few months of cultivation and relationship building he joined the Mountaineer Athletic Club at the highest annual fund level, made a sizable gift to a football facility project we had going at the time, as well as fully-funded some other special projects we had in the works to honor former lettermen and team accomplishments. The old adage, “never judge a book by its cover” certainly held true as this gentleman turned out to be a tremendous donor to WVU and is still involved at a high level to this day. What was most impressive about this donor was his low-key personality and his constant desire to deflect any recognition or notoriety he may have received personally for his giving to instead recognizing his former teammates and coaches for the opportunities they had provided him.



What Development department in college athletics or Higher Ed, other than your own, do you look to as an example of effectively executing on multiple fundraising levels (annual fund, major gifts, capital campaigns, key facility projects, etc.)?


Lebron (Tulane): This may sound completely biased, because I worked there from 2012-2015, but I continue to look at the Ole Miss Athletics Foundation as an industry model for how to do athletics fundraising really well. From its consistent annual fund to its philanthropic giving society to the commitment it has shown to facility projects over the course of the last 5-7 years it soundly covers all facets of athletics giving. And, it does so, as a unified front. From interns all the way up to the athletic director, everyone is pulling in the same direction which benefits not only the department, as a whole, but the entire university. This, too, will sound biased, but I am also extremely proud of the fundraising accomplishments we had, and they continue to have, at the University of Georgia. We closed last fiscal year having raised just shy of $57 million which is not only a testament to the amazingly supportive donor base, but also to every single person who works in The Georgia Bulldog Club. Every person on that team contributed to breaking UGA Athletics fundraising records and I am proud to have called them teammates. I pull from those two experiences every day as we strive for greatness here at Tulane.


Smith (Northwestern): As a daily reader of the D1.ticker and active NAADD member I do my best to keep up with what’s going on all over the country at various levels, but find myself often looking at comparable institutions and institutions located in metropolitan areas.


I think UCLA has done a fantastic job of growing their annual fund donor base while transforming and adding new facilities. Stanford is always a place I look to when it comes to examining ways to build perpetual funding and steward those donors who make endowment gifts. Additionally, giving back is simply in the DNA of their institution much like Princeton, Harvard, and other Ivies. I like how Duke has been very specific in stating they want to raise $100 million in philanthropic support to transform their facilities. The Wolfpack Club at NC State continues to be a great model for engaging donors and utilizing volunteers to maximize their reach. I make sure to pay attention to the University of Indianapolis- they don’t have the staff size of the previously mentioned schools, but they maximize their resources to raise funds in support of student-athletes on their campus. Finally, I keep tabs on other Big Ten schools as many continue to evolve from a ticket and benefit driven model to a more philanthropic approach of major gift development. The nuances of the different campuses provide fresh ideas. There are plenty I’ve missed, but the best part is colleagues from other institutions willing to share what has worked and not worked whenever asked.


Locklier (Cincinnati): Here at UC we’ve been fortunate that our donors and UCATS members have embraced some change and new procedures the past few years. We owe a big thank you to the annual fund operation at Ole Miss in helping us develop a new “per seat” model as well as implement some new giving levels and benefit structure. We also leaned on Michigan State when developing some new annual funding models. On the major gift side of things, we always have our eyes open to the latest trends and things that may be working at a campus similar to ours. As we make an endowment push over the next few years we have borrowed some things from LSU and WVU. We also like some of the endowment programs created at Southern California, Texas, and Oregon State as well as the marketing and publicity dedicated to them.


We are fortunate to have great leadership and resources within our UC Foundation that has helped us on the key facility project and capital campaign front. We have a campaign director and several marketing experts within our foundation that have brought some good perspective and ideas from other stops during their careers and have really helped us with our Campaign for Fifth Third Arena. We also borrowed some priority point incentives for giving to specific facility projects by certain deadlines from my time as a graduate assistant at Washington State.


Our goal at UC is to be the “Class of the League” and that applies to our fundraising as well. We benchmark ourselves against multiple Power 5 institutions and are always on the lookout for things that we think can add to our success here in Cincinnati. When it comes to support at the highest levels, I’ve always been impressed with some of the tremendous success that places like Auburn, Miami-OH, Northwestern, East Carolina, and Kansas State have been able to achieve. Those schools always seem to do a bang up job despite some limiting factors such as geographic location, professional sports competition, alumni numbers, and fields of curriculum. In my opinion, the key to fundraising success is taking those tricks and tips from other universities and tailoring them to fit your institution, donor base, geographic location, and culture.