Boston College Associate Vice President of Major Giving and Development Wesley Ellison Stewart and Oklahoma Senior Associate Athletics Director for Administration and Development Zac Selmon sit down with former Athletics Director Kevin Anderson to discuss what makes a successful fundraiser, cultivating donors, the balance of the annual fund and sport-specific goals, and much more. Ellison Stewart and Selmon also touch on their career aspirations, career paths, work-life balance, and developing future fundraisers.
The Development Position: Boston College’s Ellison Stewart & Oklahoma’s Selmon
- - What skill sets are required to be a successful fundraiser?
- - How do you identify, involve, and cultivate donors? (Ellison Stewart)
- - How do you determine what kind of gift or how much you’re going to ask for? (Selmon)
- - How do you balance annual fund giving with sport-specific fundraising goals?
- - How do you determine when to bring the athletic director or the coach into the fundraising process?
- - How are you coordinating with university and other department to get people to come to games? (Selmon)
- - Explain the process you went through to bring Boston College's first athletic campaign to the public. (Ellison Stewart)
- - What was your career path that brought you to your current positions?
- - How can your ADs or the people that are in your positions at their universities help you, not only be successful at your job, but your career aspirations as well?
- - With your job being on 24/7, how do you balance your work and your private life?
- - How do you lead and develop your fundraisers?
- - What are your career aspirations?
- - How do you manage different generations of individuals?
In college athletics one of the most important positions with regard to resources for an athletics department is the development position. In this video, Athletic Director U presents insights on working and development from two experienced industry professionals.
Zac Selmon is the Senior Associate Athletics Director for Administration and Development at the University of Oklahoma. A former student athlete at Wake Forest, Selmon has worked under some of the most influential ADs in the industry, including in his current position with Sooner Athletics under Joe Castiglione.
Wesley Ellison Stewart is the Associate Vice President of Major Giving and Development at Boston College. Moving over for athletics, Ellison Stewart was the Senior Associate Athletics Director and Director of Development for Athletics for the Eagles. A former student athlete and fundraiser at the University of Michigan, Wesley has also worked at the University of Texas with the Longhorn Foundation.
Moderating the conversation is Kevin Anderson, former Director of Athletics at West Point and the University of Maryland. A fundraising veteran, Anderson spent time in development at Cal Berkeley and the University of Oregon, before being appointed to the chair at the United States Military Academy.
Now, to Zac Selmon, Wesley Ellison Stewart and Kevin Anderson on the development position.
Kevin Anderson: So let’s start off and let’s talk about your jobs and what you do and a lot of people sometimes are asking, “What do development people really do?” So my first question is what skill sets are required to be a successful fundraiser?
Wesley Ellison Stewart: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I always look at our work as very entrepreneurial and so it really requires you to be a self-starter, creative, really thinks strategically because as you know no family or donor is alike. And oftentimes you know what your revenue goal is or capital project goal and then you’re told, “Figure out a way to get there.” Right? So it’s on you to come up with personalized plans and strategy. So I always look for people that have that entrepreneurial spirit.
KA: So Wesley just shared with us some of the things that you need to do to be a fundraiser, but, I mean, how did you come into fundraising? And some of the things you talked about, how do you develop those skills?
Zac Selmon: I think it’s overtime. And to Wesley’s point being a self-starter is something I think every successful person has to have. But I think it’s having great teachers, great mentors for us and for every development operation I’ve ever been and it’s very collaborative, so sends to being great teammate, being coachable, learning some of those fixed habits, I think we can get better over time and being trustworthy. What we do isn’t rocket science, there’s strategy behind it, but I think it’s being a great listener, being authentic to who you are and honestly kind of aligning with the mission of your athletics director, your department of how you’re going to want to execute some of the goals that you have.
KA: So Wesley, let’s go back and talk to me about the cultivation process. How do you identify donors? What kind of activities do you involve them in? How do you get to know them better? All of those things make a successful fundraiser, am I correct?
WES: Absolutely. People get to people, right? And so how do you build that bridge to the institution that they love, right? And through those experiences, I really focused on creating moments for these families, because oftentimes you can’t control the outcome on the field, right? So our team can control the experience leading up to that. So my focus is, A, getting to know someone really personally, asking questions about their spouse, their kids. A lot of times you meet couples who met at that institution, why is that place so special to you? And then it’s going backwards and building out experiences that remind them of those … That passion and that emotional experience that they had at that place.
KA: So Zac, tell me how do you determine what kind of gift you’re going to ask for? And how do you determine how much you ask for?
ZS: Yeah, I think it’s what project you need. I think there’s a gut feeling of what you know and to Wesley’s point about you got to get to know the donor that you’re working with. And you can pick up on different signs, you can pick up on what their interests are, what their giving capacity is and there’s also the scientific approach and the technology that we have. So for us at Oklahoma, we align with our office of advancement on campus, kind of our analytical team there that can really help us with some of the donors wealth screening. But I think as much as there’s science, there’s also the personal feel too of you got to have their heart essentially.
KA: So one thing that keeps coming up that I hear about is that you know you have an annual fund but then you have sport-specifics and sometimes there’s a conflict there. So I’m just going to leave to either one of you how do you go about doing that? What do you prefer? Do you prefer just annual giving and have a go into all one pot or do you have sport-specific goals? And how do you determine what you’re going to ask for and who you’re going to ask for it?
WES: So I always use the house analogy. So the annual fund is what pays your mortgage, right? So you can’t operate without having a robust annual fund and how you educate and get your donors and also coaches to understand that you need those dollars to operate is really key. But then for you to build a new capital project, a new locker room, that’s where … That’s the renovation, right? So when you’re renovating a house that comes out of a separate fund to build and so I think that’s how I approach it. We have 31 sports at Boston College so we really do rely heavily on sport-specific fundraising but at the same time it’s the educational piece of how does the annual fund operate and then how can get specifically to those targeted programs, enhance those teams.
ZS: Sure. I think it’s well-said and I love the house analogy. For us, it’s the educational piece too, because we have to have our annual fund. And now as we know what the fan trends are of getting people in seats, what the Generation Z-ers, the Millennials, we know … We can predict where people’s habits are going to be. So how do we combat that? And for us, it’s a lot, the growing of annual fund from the transactional side to make it a lot more philanthropic as far as why should somebody give to Oklahoma. So it’s sharing our stories of education and opportunities for it.
The major gift side and the capital projects, we’re not going to build a bond and then add the dollars, we’re not going to build projects if we don’t have those donors that are investing in the capital side, the facility side and it also helps with the … Keep our personnel here, because we need great coaches too.
KA: So I know both of you are involved through senior associates and that from time to time, you’re either going to get your athletic director involved in an ask or some of the coaches. So I’d like you to share with our viewers, how do you go about doing that? And how do you determine when to bring the athletic director or the coach into the process?
WES: Well, I have had the fortune to work with some very great fundraising athletic directors which makes our work a lot easier frankly. But I think what’s the most important is protecting their time and their energy and so knowing what are the right people to put your athletic director in front of. And in also, what’s the best environment for that … for he or she to really shine and make the strongest case of support. So I’m really thoughtful about when do I bring Martin on the road? Where … what markets do I bring him to? Who are the people that I put him in front of? And on the coaching side, I think you have his coaches who their strength is more external and then you have coaches who their strength isn’t that and that’s okay. You embrace that.
And I often use … I love analogies. I use the recruiting analogy for our coaches because it helps them see that our work is very similar to them going out and recruiting a student athlete. We’re researching donors, we’re looking into their interest just like they’re watching scouting films and going to high school basketball games. And then you’re bringing the parents on campus and you’re cultivating them just like we’re cultivating our donors. And then you’re making them a scholarship offer, in the same way that we’re making an ask. So I like to share that so that they feel like, “Oh, fundraising is not very different from what I do every day.” And that has helped me get them comfortable being in front of donors.
ZS: Sure and I think working for Joe Castiglione in Oklahoma, it’s putting them in a great position to win. Obviously his tenure there has been unprecedented, so really to eliminate surprises, so when we’re going on the road with people, I’m respectful of his time knowing his time demands but also getting ourselves in the position where this is going to close a deal because obviously having the boss in the room is always helpful. And then being a great promoter, his vision throughout the rest of the day is to … We’re in alignment with what Joe and other leaders on our campus are wanting to do and this is something that we feel is going to put us in successful, so I think really just doing the legwork of the donor prospecting, setting up to Wesley’s point about what’s best for the environment, how can you have it. So think about from multiple perspectives, whether it’s getting stuck in traffic, so I think every little, the whole thing is every little detail that matters.
KA: So, Zac, you touched upon this earlier, let’s talk about how development coordinates with media rights, with ticket sales and all of that because I know we’re all challenged now with getting people to come to games. And with media and being able to be at home and have your access to every game you want to watch, how are you working with university, with the department in getting people in this dance and coordinating all of these efforts?
ZS: Sure. I think Wesley hit on it too earlier just the experiential side of it. So what do we have … what do we possess that you can’t get through a team, whether that’s a smell, whether it’s a sound, whether it’s a feeling. I mean, I think Dr. Angelo said it best when people remember how you make them feel. And so for us, we want everything to be a great feeling to people. So not just a game, but it’s … Oh, a bonding moment from a father to son, or a mother and daughter. Whatever that is, a lifelong memory and sometimes I think working day to day in it, we can get jaded. And so that one crystallization of reminder of, oh, remember when … Maybe it’s from a donor, a fan, a colleague of how special college athletics is.
KA: So Wesley, we were talking earlier, so you’ve developed and you’re about to bring to the market your first athletic campaign for the university. Talk to us about how you went through that, the process, who you worked with in central development on campus and everything that you had to do up until this point?
WES: Yeah, so it’s a huge undertaking, it’s the first time ever in the history of Boston College that we’ve had a athletics only comprehensive campaign with an ambitious goal of $150 million. And so, it really required a buy in from our university leadership, so I actually have a dual reporting line to our vice president of development and also our athletic director which has allowed me to really align central development with our vision and direction. And I think the fact that our athletic director and our VP have a really strong relationship and they’re very communicative and transparent with our goals has helped us move along. The key has been also identifying what are our priorities. Like I said before, we have 31 sports. Martin always says, there’s never enough, right? So how do you really prioritize? What are those key pillars in our campaigns, so that was a big part of the process is leading up to determining those initiatives and then building the case of support, collecting stories from student athletes, collecting stories from coaches that really make our cases strong as possible.
KA: So I probably should have started off with this but I doubt the two of you majored in development when you’re going to school?
KA: So, would you share with our viewers how you even got involved in development and I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there that will be interested in how you can become part of this path.
ZS: Sure. I was a religion major in college. I went to Wake Forest University, played football there and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Just always had the passion and the natural curiosity for religion. So I did that and then I was working in outside sales in Oklahoma City and ran into Joe Castiglione at my sister’s wedding and that’s really kind of how it happened. I didn’t know … We had no, really, idea of what I want to do and didn’t know what athletics development was but started off as an event management and a couple months later, I got moved over to development and I’ve loved every minute of it.
WES: So, I was similar to Zac. I was a student athlete. I played water polo with the University of Michigan and I was actually in the School of Art and Design, so I had every aspiration to work in fine arts. And I happen to participate in Michigan’s Development Summer Internship Program. The summer in between my junior and senior year. And it’s a … It was an academic course that exposed you to the field of philanthropy and placed me in the law school development office. So it really opened my eyes to this field and I was really passionate about my experience as a student athlete. And so when I saw that you could kind of marry the two, I immediately sort of lit up and found that development could be a great path for me. And so I’ve kind of been on that journey ever since.
KA: Great. One thing I’d like you to do now is both of you share … The athletic director’s that are viewing us today, how can they help you or the people that are in your positions at their universities, how can they help you not only be successful at your job but your career aspirations as well? What are some of the things that you think they need to share with you and get involved in to help you on path?
WES: So I’m really fortunate to have an athletic director who’s really committed to coaching and mentoring. And what I value most about my experience with him is that he’s really transparent about his decision making process and including us in part of that and really that helps me from a growth standpoint, from what I need from him, it’s really … I always .. It’s clarity, right? It’s really knowing what do you want to accomplish and how does our team provide the financial resources to help you get there. And so when that’s not clear, that’s tough on us.
ZS: Sure, I think clarity is a huge thing though. I think time and access as well, just to be able to pour into you. So blessed to have great mentors and Joe Castiglione again is one of the best and not just in his professional career but in life too. I mean working our business, there’s so many rewarding elements but there’s also a lot of challenges, a lot of time, commitments that some other jobs don’t have. So I think having an athletics director that’s there, that’s encouraging, that really is fighting for your highest good, that’s challenging you in a big way but also supporting you in a big way, I think that is something that all of us as people that are reporting up to an AD are really happy about having and really any time you have somebody that’s investing in you, you work harder for them.
WES: I would love to just add on that because that’s something made me think of … Martin always reminds me of pace and really helping you learn how to slow down and know when to take a break and to focus on your family or personal life and I think with all of us who are high achieving, we’re all former athletes, we want to hit our goals, it’s really refreshing to have a leader who sees the value of self-care and taking time for yourself so that you’re your best self at work.
KA: Well, take this opportunity now because you touched on a very valuable point for all of us, that balance of life. How do you balance your work and your private life? And I think that everybody would like you to share because we’re all on … Particularly development officers, you’re on 24/7 but family’s very important and you’ll find that you’re about to have an addition.
WES: Yeah, I know.
KA: So talk to me, what do you do now and what do you plan to do in the future because you’re going to have a little one running around?
WES: I know, I’m a little nervous. So I think it’s setting boundaries upfront, I think that’s really important and I’m also really cognizant of when do I email or text my team and being very aware that that time they have off is really important to be off and unplugged and that starts with setting your own boundaries. I’m very active, so for me, it’s also setting up time whether it’s in the morning or over a lunch to work out and whatever that looks like so that I can get my mind right and take a mental break from the grind.
And then I think it also comes down to having an … I have an amazing partner who really understands that sometimes, I have to be on and I have to be on the road and he really is my number one champion and I think having that makes it work, right? You have someone that you can rely on and we’re about to embark on parenthood for the first time and so that will be a … its own journey in itself and I think we’ll have to even create that balance even more, right?
ZS: Yeah. For our family, it’s always been just integrating work and life and everything. So my wife and I, we’ve got two daughters that are eight and four and so they’re at all of our athletic events that they possibly can be. So as long as they don’t have a conflict with dance or school or something like that, they’re there and they love it. So we started them off early and I learned that a lot working for Bob Cunningham in North Carolina is it’s okay to have your family there, it’s okay whenever you can fit it in and from kind of a practical side, my daughter’s school is right next to campus, so I can run over there, have lunch with her and try to just remove all the time barriers that you can maximize your day. But for us, yeah, it’s like Wesley said, having a great wife, having a great partner to support kind of our hopes and our dreams as family is really, really valuable. And so I’m obviously always grateful to Rachel and what she does to support us.
KA: So let’s talk about it. You’re senior associate athletic directors of development. So we’ve talked about the fundraising piece of this but let’s talk about leadership and management because you’re in a unique position but talk about how you lead and how you develop your fundraisers.
ZS: Sure. I think … Leadership for me is always just about influence and built on service. My family’s always … My parents always taught us about to lead is to serve. So for us, it’s always, “Hey, how can we help?” And I do think the leadership model is shifting if you look at it over time and now the most influential leaders. So I really want to know what our team members’ goals are and how we can help them get there and also be clear what our responsibilities are, expectations are with our jobs but really, it’s having a vested interest in their highest good and so not just looking at it for this position but how can we help you grow professionally, personally, spiritually, however that might be.
WES: Yeah, I would very much agree with the philosophy of servant leadership and I think for me, again, one of the challenges I believe in our industry is retaining your staff and really helping grow them so that they have a great career and they’re able to reach their individual team goals, personal goals. So I meet with my individual team members separately once a month, usually outside of the office, just to talk about what’s your three, five-year plan and where do you want to be and what are the experiences that I can provide access to or exposure to so that when you’re interviewing or up for that next great opportunity, you’ve had that experience and you can speak to it. So I’m very committed to growing people because again, back to the success of your fundraising, people give to people. And so when you lose and you have turnover, it’s tough to keep those donor relationships going, right?
KA: Well, to this point, you’ve both been very successful in your careers and you just talked about three to five-year plans. I’d like you to share what your plans are next, what you see and how you’re going to grow your career and what are your aspirations, is it be athletic director or something else that we could share with everybody because everybody who does it shouldn’t … Should think very hard about being athletic director. But what … Can you share with our group that … What we want to do next?
WES: Do you want to …
ZS: Sure. Yeah, I’ve never had a … I’ve got an idea but my whole philosophy’s always been just get a little bit better each day. So it’s no different than Wesley’s time as a student athlete, my time as a student athlete, work out, get better that day. And if you do that, the output will take care of itself. So for me, if we can get … If I can get 1% better, if I can lead myself better, then who knows that the future will hold, because I’m smart enough to know the best thing that have happened to me are not by my plan but plans of others and plans that … Doors have been opened for me.
So I think it’s just commitment to getting better, to be an … Curious to be a lifelong learner, those sorts of things and it’s exciting though. I think if you ask Wesley or I where we could predict ourselves to be if we were to go back in time five years ago, we’d probably want to … She’d probably wouldn’t say Boston College, I probably wouldn’t say Oklahoma, so I think having a commitment to getting better every day and obviously the next step would be an athletics director and would embrace that opportunity but just how can we get better every day.
KA: That’s a great message because particularly with the younger generations that we’re dealing with now and work for us, they’re there in the job for six months and they want a promotion.
WES: Yes, that’s …
WES: … one of our challenges.
KA: So I want you to answer the question but then we’ll end up our conversation but let’s just talk about managing the different generations and what it’s like for you.
WES: So I think just to follow up with Zac’s sentiments, I’ve … Similar to him, it’s being present in the job that you’ve been hired to do and really excelling in that and then opportunities have come, right? Because you’ve … You’re living every moment. I, similar to Zac, have aspirations of being an athletic director but I think as we embark on this new family, we’ll see if that still is something that I want. As far as how do you manage the different generations, I think that’s definitely a challenge because I love the energy and fire they bring because they work hard and they want to keep growing and growing but there’s value in … Especially in our work.
I saw the most growth for me personally at year three and four during my tenure at Michigan because I finally had those relationships established with donors, I got to work on more complicated, multi-unit gifts and that wouldn’t have happened if I had jumped ship after a year or two, right? So I think it’s how do you show them the value of putting in time and a place and also coach them along the way, so.
ZS: Sure. Yeah, it’s an ongoing challenge. I think learning as much as you can with the technology that we have while staying abreast of things that are going on, learn something new, a new app every day but also … I think to Wesley’s comment about coaching people, being vulnerable of, “Hey, these are some mistakes and failures that I’ve had in my life,” and that I’ve seen, learned through others that think we all need to be mindful of and if we can help eliminate the barriers that we see in our team members, I think we can be successful leaders.
KA: Well, thank you. Wesley, Zac, thank you very much, and I want to thank everybody who’s viewing today and join us again for Athletic Director U.