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Experts’ Roundtable: Key Fundraising Topics

By J Batt, Alabama; Jesse H. Marks, Miami (FL); Chris McFarlane, Pitt; Chad Weiberg, Oklahoma State

In the latest edition of the Experts’ Roundtable series, AthleticDirectorU chats with four athletic development professionals on key topics related to fundraising in college athletics.


How many full-time, front line fundraisers do you have? And, what type of annual metrics are you & your team expected to hit?


J Batt – Senior Associate AD for Development, University of Alabama


Our Crimson Tide Foundation team utilizes seven full-time, front line fundraisers supported by an operations, research and financial team of eight additional team members. The entire Crimson Tide Foundation team as well as each individual fundraiser’s performance is measured through activity and financial performance metrics. Both the team and individual fundraisers are held to a monthly and yearly goal for substantial interactions with donors.


Additionally, the team and each fundraiser have specific dollar goals to raise. These goals are distributed amongst gift types (capital, endowment, planned giving, etc.) and reflect the needs and goals of the department in a given year and/or capital initiatives. Each fundraiser and the director of athletics is advised as to their individual, and most importantly the team’s, success on a bi-weekly basis and performance to goal evaluations are held bi-annually.


Jesse H. Marks – Senior Associate AD for Development, University of Miami


We are a relatively small operation with 5 full time fundraising staff members. All of our fundraisers have some administrative responsibilities as well. We do this to keep our front-line fundraisers tied into the operation of the office and are a part of all planning and strategy. While fundraising is the top priority… if all they do is make visits and are on the road, burn out will occur and we will not be able to develop our staff to be leaders in the industry. They need to be well versed and involved in the operation, not just a hired gun on the road.


In terms of our fundraising metrics, we are very focused on quality visits and as a sub-tier to that new prospective donors. We have done a great job identifying and closing on gifts from the donors we do know. I always ask who else is out there who relates to our mission and let’s bring them into the fold. So on top of 20 face-to-face visits with 5-7 solicitations (bare minimum), we are really focusing on identifying the next group of major gift donors to UM Athletics. We ask that 5-7 of those calls be to potential donors who we have not visited before or who have been lapsed for over 3 years.


Chris McFarlane – Executive Associate AD, Philanthropy & Engagement, University of Pittsburgh


At Pitt, we currently have seven front line fundraisers — with plans to add 2 additional team members with front line responsibilities in the next couple of months. Heading into the 2019-20 academic year, we plan to be fully-staffed with nine of our 16 talented professionals serving in a front line capacity, representing the University of Pittsburgh, and connecting our robust constituent base of alumni, parents and fans throughout the country with the tremendous pride and traditions of Pitt Athletics.


We are really fortunate to have a nice balance of skills and experiences within the group. Collectively, it’s a unit that boasts experience from institutions within nine different division I conferences…those experiences matter.


Regarding what metrics and measurables we pay attention to, there’s undoubtedly always an emphasis on the fundamental goals of any successful development operation: visits, solicitations, gifts closed, and dollars raised.


Having had the amazing benefit of spending five years as a colleague of David Lively, an expert in the world of fundraising and performance metrics, I feel like I have a clear understanding of how those fundamental core measurables, while certainly necessary, typically fall short of telling the full story. With that knowledge, we’ve started to try to take it a step further by also prioritizing metrics associated with qualification visits, frequency of contact, average gift, unique visits, event attendance correlation, donor retention, and decreased portfolio sizes – all things that promote purposeful and meaningful donor engagement.


As a new leader here at Pitt, it was important to me coming in that we weren’t focusing in on introducing and implementing metrics in a manner that would create unnecessary angst or pressure; we were working to establish a culture that highlighted consistency, collaboration, and an understanding of what constituted true productivity. At the core of all the fancy jargon about metrics, data, and performance standards, lies a simplistic belief that being donor-centric and building genuine relationships will allow for the data and numbers to ultimately take care of themselves.


Here at Pitt, we’re still in the relatively early stages of implementation, including adding a team member that will focus in on the analytics piece. Making sense of the data will allow us to improve our performance across the board and, more importantly, position us well for a successful campaign.


Chad Weiberg – Deputy AD, Oklahoma State University


We have two front line major/capital gift fundraisers. We also have three positions in our annual fund department that have front line responsibilities, one of which is currently open. There are another four people in our development units that provide support to both the major gift development and annual giving unit and interact with our donors on a regular basis providing service to them.


We are fortunate to also have in our Athletic Director, Mike Holder, a person who has developed the vision for our athletic village and has had great success building key relationships and raising the funds to transform our facilities.


At the beginning of each year, we discuss our overall goals for the major/capital gift fundraising staff based on the projects we are starting or are working on and then we measure our success against those goals.


For the annual fund staff, we measure our success relative to pledges made and gifts received in our various funds compared to the Year to Date receipts from previous years, giving us an idea of how we are tracking and where we are making progress or where we may have concerns. We also measure the number of donors in each level relative to previous years.


To what degree are the still relatively-new tax code changes impacting overall giving and how is your team attempting to combat any tax code challenges?


Batt: The full effect of the recent tax changes are yet to be realized across our donor base, however fundraising has remained strong to this point. We have seen some donors slightly reduce individual ticket allocations and thus corresponding donations on the annual fund side, but strong demand has absorbed a majority of that excess.


On the major gift side, we have worked hard to walk donors through these changes. We have found that donors may have additional questions and require additional work with their tax professionals, however our outcomes have remained strong and ahead of previous years.


Marks: In terms of tax reform, I feel we were extremely proactive in setting our course for how we wanted to proceed with the current understanding of the new law and any future guidelines. Over the few years prior to tax reform, we were slowly moving away from ticket related gifts and moving to a more philanthropic model of annual giving.


In 2017, we began to structure our Hurricane Club annual giving program around three pillars of support 1. Philanthropy 2. Benefits 3. Priority (for anything not tied to a seat). Anyone of our donors giving to our annual fund will make a gift to fit into one of those areas and we solicit year round segmenting around those three pillars.


We have grown significantly in philanthropic annual gifts and not being tied to the season ticket process further enhances our ability to drive home our message to prospective and/or current donors about how and why they would make an annual gift while collecting meaningful behavioral data through the process.


At UM we realized we are a viable philanthropic option with great benefits to offer, we knew we could stand on our own without the per-seat donation model and the results have created an environment where philanthropic donors self-identify daily instead of us guessing who is simply buying a season ticket.


McFarlane: The tax law changes have continued to be a significant discussion topic in our world. As is the case for many of our peers throughout the country, those impacted contributions have been an important part of our fundraising efforts for years. For some institutions, that revenue represents a very significant percentage of their overall annual revenue. At Pitt, we had a very conservative reaction to the tax law change and it has certainly resulted in some donor attrition on our campus.


The bottom line is that, in many cases, it means higher out-of-pocket costs for some of our most dedicated and supportive donors and season ticket holders. Even more than a year later, there seems to still not be a great understanding of what exactly the impact is and how best to combat it. The reality is there is no magic resolution. It has however energized the creative brains of many development professionals, seeking unique ways to ensure we continue to have the resources necessary to compete each and every day.


Our focus continues to be on education. While balancing the importance of not providing tax advice, we think it’s key to communicate with and educate our donor base as effectively as we can and keep that open conversation going. Equally as important for us has been continuing to maintain a similar dialogue with our internal partners in the Office of General Counsel, Compliance, and Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement.


None of us are focused on changing the law or creating loopholes. We’re simply trying to do right by the passionate supporters that prioritize sharing their resources with us to impact the experiences for the young men and women that represent the University of Pittsburgh as varsity student-athletes. We’ll continue to monitor it, and I have already partnered with a handful of other development directors here in the ACC to ensure we have a larger discussion alongside our broader staffs at the end of the month.


Weiberg: So far, we have not seen a major impact to overall giving. Some of that may be because we had a good number of donors that paid future pledges in December of 2017 prior to the new tax code taking effect. Our team has been spending a considerable amount of time exploring possible options post tax reform.


We truly believe that a large majority of what our fans and donors contribute is with a philanthropic mindset because they want to support not only our football team, but all the other teams that their gifts support — golf, wrestling, softball, baseball, tennis, etc. We are exploring ways that we can structure things that may better reflect the philanthropic intent separately from their seating obligations.


How much of your day is spent face-to-face with donors/perspective donors versus filling your funnel or strategizing how to approach individual donors?


Batt: In this role within the Crimson Tide Foundation team and The University of Alabama Athletics Department, each day is unique. In order to ensure that appropriate time is allocated to face-to face donor interaction we work with our Director of Athletics to maintain an activity and financial goal set for me personally. On an average week I try to limit internal meetings to 2 – 3 days and focus on being in front of donors the balance of the week.


Defined activity and financial success metrics ensures that this remains a focus regardless of other tasks that develop throughout the week. It is important that the fundraising team leads continue to practice the hand-to-hand art of fundraising as often as possible to both lead their team but also manage a leadership gift portfolio.


Marks: Our office has been very lucky to have great continuity over the past eight years which has enabled us to really establish our operational efficiency. This is a great thing because it enables our front line fundraisers, me included, to dedicate our time where it matters, which has created long lasting meaningful relationships with our constituents. On average I am out on donor lunches 4-5 times and week and about 3-4 times a week, I do dinner or another PM event.


Weekends are pretty full as well attending social events with some of our key supporters. We really focus on using our assets in South Florida to create memorable experiences for our donors, whether it is boating/fishing, a concert, or playing an exclusive golf course, our entire team is encouraged to use our portfolio of assets to create value for our donors and build a meaningful relationship which really helps in the relationship/philanthropic process.


McFarlane: Still only seven months in here at Pitt, my approach with our donors has varied. Early on it was very important for me to get in front of the key stakeholders face-to-face, to share my vision, listen to their thoughts and what mattered to them, allow them to feel connected to me, and begin establishing a level of trust and comfort. I then spent a large part of months 3 thru 6 strategizing with members of our staff on their prospects and developing proposals to set them and our AD, Heather Lyke, up for success, and capitalizing on the great relationships they had worked to establish prior to my arrival.


Continuing to build and establish relationships within my own portfolio has remained a priority. Now, we’re getting to the point where it’s all starting to come together, and we can start to move the needle a bit.


While my role calls for me to serve as a leader and primary point of contact for many of our top donors, I’m big on the relationship being the top factor in donor and prospect management, so it’s about continuing to instill confidence and empower our staff to move relationships forward.


For a number of reasons, there are still a very large number of prospects that we simply don’t know yet, so my days are really spread balancing all three of the things you mentioned – face-to-face interactions with donors and prospects at leadership levels, filling the funnel with donors at all capacities, and strategizing on how to best connect our passionate donor base and their philanthropic priorities with the needs and ambitious goals of Pitt Athletics.


The opportunity to lead our team to success and help transform the Pitt athletics department through donor involvement remain the primary reasons why I’m excited to get to campus every morning. I’ve also been unwavering on the importance of not skipping steps along the way.


The culture we design, the processes we implement, and the direction we chart will together set the stage for all our interactions with our amazing donor base. We are extremely fortunate to have a Chancellor who intimately understands the value of intercollegiate athletics, an Athletics Director whose contagious energy and inspiring vision permeates throughout campus, a dedicated and loyal fanbase, and the luxury of it all to come together here in Pittsburgh – the city of champions!


Weiberg: In my current role, I try to spend 3-4 days a month with our Sr. Assoc. AD for development traveling to see donors, which is not as much as I would like, and also through as many opportunities as possible around home events. Our team has been spending a significant amount of time working to improve our processes for filling our prospect funnel.


In your view, what’s the symbiosis between winning an new or upgraded facility projects? IE, would you rater have a 6-6 football team that needs some facility upgrades, a 10-2 team that needs very few facility upgrades or a 4-8 team that needs a considerable amount of facility upgrades?


Batt: Throughout my time in intercollegiate athletics, we have operated fundraising paradigms with all levels of on-field success. I have found that each stage of team performance provides its own unique motivations for donors. It is important that the current state of a team or program is presented as a step in the process towards reaching a goal and the clear impact their gift can have towards that end.


Further, setting a clear expectation for success, a constantly evolving standard of excellence and an aspirational as well as high level vision is the most important aspect to enable truly impactful giving. No one stage of on-field success is preferable for fundraising to another, however each presents an opportunity for a specific message and ask.


At The University of Alabama, our fundraising message has focused on the constantly evolving standard of excellence that our student-athletes, coaches and supporters require. We have been able to leverage a recent history of incredible on-field success for fundraising gains around both immediate and future improvements. We have branded this effort as the Crimson Standard and have set a 10-year, $600 million vision to achieve these constant standards of excellence. This bold, high-level vision has yielded very strong fundraising results to date.


Marks: Great question and challenging as well. Obviously, it is best to be successful in competition while launching or having a facility campaign in progress. The winning really assists in spreading the message and creating an overall positive environment for solicitations and especially new prospect identification. There is no doubt it helps, but it is not controllable.


For our core constituents and those who will grow into that core, the ideal situation for us is regardless of our record (will use football in this example) we have a pressing and clearly identified need (Not just a fund for private jet travel). In this case, The Carol Soffer Indoor Practice Facility was much needed severely affecting practice times and scheduling in the lightning capital of the world. That need was easily conveyed and relatable to our core donor base.


The campaign was executed over 18 months with over $35million raised during that time, that would not have occurred if the project was not essential nor communicated effectively to our donor base. The real effect on giving occurs, once those who support the project witness first-hand how the project positively affects the program, student-athletes and university. At that point they are ready for the next project, whether the program is winning or losing…that’s where the meaningful relationships continue to move them forward in the process regardless of competitive success.


The winning effect, really assisted in bringing new donors to the table, but that does not take the place of having an impactful project that constituents can rally behind and we as an institution can deliver on.


McFarlane: This is sports – is there another answer besides 10-2?!


From my perspective, where the relationship between upgraded facilities and winning is most evident is in everything that leads up to game day. Top-notch facilities allow you to recruit higher caliber student-athletes; attract and retain world-class coaches; improve efficiency by streamlining many of the day-to-day activities of a student-athlete; increase revenues via ticket and external revenue sources; and, provide a stronger sense of what is possible…or even a step further, what is expected. Simply put, it raises the bar…it says, “we’re here to compete.”


Do newer facilities directly equate to more wins? Unlikely. However, new facilities do lead to enhancements of each of those areas mentioned above; and those things DO lead to more wins. In the way that laboratories are necessary to produce elite scientists, and studios are necessary to groom world-renowned musicians, training, development, and competition facilities are necessary to produce high-level results athletically as well.


There are few things more rewarding than witnessing a young man or woman realize their full potential because they were provided with the vital tools, resources and amenities to match their drive and ambition.


Weiberg: Our goal is to be prepared to capitalize on the opportunities our teams provide to us. I believe that undefeated teams can provide a great deal of momentum among our fans and donors that, if done right, can be powerful motivators to make sure that we continue to have that kind of success.


Likewise, if done right, I think we can also motivate donors to help our teams that might be struggling with whatever it might be that they need to compete. We want our donors to recognize that their philanthropy is directly tied to creating champions in the classroom and on the court or field. We want them to understand that support like theirs made possible every one of our 52 national championships and their continued philanthropy will be critical to us winning the next one.