Today, the role of an Athletic Director in higher education is constantly evolving. The challenges of the position become more complex all the time. Higher education is an ultra-competitive business on multiple levels and intercollegiate athletics is often at the forefront of such competition.

In order to successfully improve their brand, institutions must raise the needed revenue to reach university goals. Funds are vital to building facilities, attracting and retaining quality staff, providing scholarships and student support, and strategic reinvestment. Fundraising methods are a unique blend of science and art that challenge any organization.

Ultimately, revenue generating efforts can break down into five main categories: major gifts, annual giving, corporate partnerships, multimedia and ticket sales. Major gift development has to be the primary component of the direction of fundraising efforts for Athletic Directors. Here are some of the methods that have proved successful in my experience as a former athletic administrator at three major institutions:

  • Success in Athletics is a University Decision – I strongly believe that, “coaches win games and administrators win championships.” A strong and focused university administration is committed to winning as a team and understands revenue generation is key to that success. It begins with the university President and his/her strength to effectively lead, communicate and set a unified vision.
  • A Vision Statement Keeps Eyes on the Goal – The power of a vision statement can go overlooked at times. It should not be taken lightly.

If you know what you want and you can envision the goal; you’ll work tirelessly to overcome adversity along the way. An athletic department–specifically the revenue generation component–must have a clear aspirational vision statement that falls in-line with the strategic plan of the university. In good times or bad, a vision statement maintains the goals you need achieve when you might be tempted off course.

  • Put the Plan in Action, Then Keep Planning – With a vision statement in place, now it’s time to develop a course of action. Define the goals – both short and long term. Articulate the mission, educate potential donors and show them how their individual gift can make an impact in allowing the university brand to grow and student-athletes flourish.

Once a case statement is established, develop a comprehensive plan to incorporate all the goals and strategies into well thought out action steps. Strive to revise as needed. Make necessary adjustments and do a thorough year-end evaluation to make improvements for the following year. One must hold the staff accountable and communicate with university leadership regularly.

  • Build Great Relationships and Trust – Building trust with donors, university staff and fans is a comprehensive process that, over time, yields short and long-term success. There are many places that donors can give their hard earned dollars and we cherish those who have decided to invest in the future of our program. A tremendously important relationship is one with the university president. The AD-President relationship is paramount for success at all levels of higher education. Additionally, one must foster substantive, long-lasting relationships built on trust and integrity with state legislative leadership, university boards and the senior staff/cabinet of the school.
  • Set Aggressive Goals – Establishing lofty goals, and holding oneself accountable to those goals, has been essential in my various experiences. Be bodacious, be aspirational, be courageous–be fearless. Once a person or organization becomes fearless, life and fundraising become limitless.
  • “Fundraising is a Contact Sport”: Go Face-to-Face – Make regular, consistent in-person meetings whenever possible. In order to build substantive relationships, one must develop trust with a person. That is accomplished in person. Trust begins and ends with in-person visits and “face time.” These meetings can be formal and informal. Just get in front of your prospects. Donors do not give to e-mails or social media. Rather, they give to people they trust, the vision of the leadership and how they can effectively affect positive change.
  • Listen – Listening is arguably the most important aspect of successful fundraising. Without listening, you can’t learn. It is imperative to take the time to listen to what the prospect/donor is expressing in terms of wants and needs for their gift.

Often, they have a different desire for where and what their gift is to be used as. Listen and stay the course so you can learn about them. After the in-person meetings, be diligent when comparing notes with staff on what was heard from the donor and how best to proceed. Follow up sessions with your staff and university leadership are often the most interesting sessions. They can yield the extremely important next steps in the major gift process. Great fundraisers need to be pleasantly persistent with potential donors while also listening to what prospects/donors tell us.

Make technology work for you when it comes to communicating

Make technology work for you when it comes to communicating

  • Make Technology Work for You –  As stated earlier, fundraising is a contact sport. While that is true, communicating with your prospects/donors across multiple platforms is essential as technology continues its emergence in communication. With all of the technology at your disposal, you must ensure that your process makes good use of: social media, email, website and apps all in an effort to engage, educate and excite potential and current donors to learn about your vision while providing an avenue for gift giving.  
  • Spend Your Time Wisely – Smart allocation of resources is essential in any role. I strongly believe that the majority of time of staff should be spent on major gift development as it produces the greatest return on human resource investment. Spending a great deal of time on fundraising events are important and necessary, but they do not yield the dramatic results based on the amount of time ultimately invested.

Be sure to sort out the energy and tasks of the staff in the proper manner to maximize revenue generation efforts. Athletic departments have natural gathering points to educate and cultivate prospects/donors. These gathering points are the games; use them as important event opportunities to bring together and engage the donor base.

  • Enlist The Right People – Be sure to enlist the right people at the right time. Whether it is a coach, administrator, university president or a key volunteer, be sure to enlist the right person or people in the fundraising process. Often, coaches can play an integral role in this endeavor. In order to be a highly successful coach, he/she must first be a great recruiter. Who better than a highly successful coach and recruiter to sell a prospective donor on your vision and mission?
  • Ask! – The most important step: The Ask! If you don’t ask; then you don’t receive.  The Ask is similar to sales in a private company–it’s the most important aspect of the process. In turn, it is about how well you treat your customer and stay ahead of their needs. Whether it is part of the annual giving program, corporate partnerships or a major gift, be sure that you are always working towards The Ask. Ask appropriately and in a timely manner – but be sure to ask in person. Communicate the mission, educate the donor, celebrate the success, continue to build the relationship and ASK! The leadership of the organization must have a staff that are unafraid to ask. Too many good staff members often set the table, but won’t eat (Ask).
  • Stewardship – A focus on stewarding donors is essential in the major gift process. No matter the size of the gift – thank them, educate them and, once again, let them know how they helped write the University’s story.

Keys to Securing Major Gifts – Summary

All the components of fundraising should lead to major gift development.

In short, create specifically tailored plans for each donor and execute those plans throughout the year. Each plan must be unique in its complexity, length, management and reflect the goals of the institution. Major gifts are crucial to fundraising success. The first step in the process is to identify those prospects that have the network, ability, and the capacity to make a major gift. From there, train, manage and hold accountable advancement officers to develop a portfolio and develop substantive relationships focused on The Ask. Meet regularly to discuss the next steps, whether or not the strategy must be altered and eventually make the proper ask. The length of the process varies with each prospect but plan for 18-24 months as the average length of time to secure a major gift. During that time, it usually becomes clear as to the level and purpose of the ask. At that time, decide on how to make the ask and who should attend the meeting. Once the gift is secured, set up a detailed plan for the next phase to properly honor, recognize and celebrate such a meaningful gift.

Finally, continue to recruit, educate and communicate with the donor. One gift always leads to the next.

Jim Fiore is now the CEO of Dynamic Sports Management and President of Fiore41 Consulting and former Director of Athletics at Stony Brook University for 11 years. He was named 2012 Under Armour Northeast Region Athletics Director of the Year. Prior to that, he served 11 years as an athletic administrator in the Ivy League at Princeton University and Dartmouth College.

Follow him on twitter @Jim_Fiore_