Donor Relations, Major & Principal Giving, Prospect Research & Management

In June of 2020, BWF published an advisory regarding the importance of maintaining momentum in athletics fundraising amid unprecedented disruption. Now, nearly three months later, that disruption has not abated. Like so many aspects of our lives, intercollegiate athletics now finds itself facing directly into the headwinds. Colleges and universities and their athletic departments are all trying to figure out how to move forward with their programs and their fundraising efforts. Given the myriad changes athletic programs have faced (and continue to encounter) since our first posting, and because philanthropy remains vital to their success, we thought it would be helpful to update our message. BWF has the game plan to help you succeed with your athletics fundraising.

This is a time when the fundamentals of intercollegiate athletics have completely changed. But it is important to remember that donor relationships are long term. Your closest supporters were here before COVID-19, and we all want them to be here after this tumultuous year. The fundamentals for maintaining donor relationships have not changed. In fact, maintaining them has become even more important as we continue to experience the most uncertain of times in intercollegiate athletics.

Academic semesters and player careers were cut short in the spring, fall sports have been moved to the spring, and now football is being cancelled or postponed by several conferences, with others likely to follow. Racial tensions, protests, and the social unrest that have continued through the summer add to the complexity as national attention centers on these issues. College athletes are mobilizing and using their collective voice in unprecedented ways on issues of equality and player health and safety. Across the country, everyone in collegiate athletics is grappling with these converging issues. What does it mean for our campuses and our athletic programs? The imminent start of the 2020-2021 academic year offers little clarity.

Through it all, philanthropy remains critical for both player well-being and team success. What is the game plan for athletics fundraising in an unprecedented time like this? How have priorities shifted? What does the game plan look like now going forward? Our best coaches may provide the playbook to answer questions like these that we all need right now—a playbook that focuses on the fundamentals.

1. Keep Your Donors Close

Donor relationships are the foundation of philanthropy. Reach out regularly to your supporters. They want to hear from you, as both a source of normalcy and for hope that they will be in the stands cheering again soon. Prioritize consistent outreach to loyal donors with updates on plans for fall and winter sports, how remote off-season workouts and transitions back to on-campus training are proceeding, and to simply check on their well-being. Listen sincerely and without judgement to perspectives they share on challenging current events. Phone calls, emails, personal notes, Zoom conversations, and short video messages from coaches all offer the chance to stay connected to the donors who will be with you through this period and for years to come.

2. Prioritize the Student-Athlete Experience

Strengthening the student-athlete experience should be at the center of all that you do. Adjust your case for support to lead with what truly matters most—scholarships and critical programming that allow your young men and women to thrive in both their studies and training during these challenging and socially distanced times. Delays to large facility projects are a real possibility due to the financial impact of major scheduling alterations and outright cancellations of revenue-generating sports seasons. Even if renovations and new construction do proceed, keep the student-athlete experience at the heart of your fundraising program.

3. Be Exceptional at Digital Communications

Be flexible and innovative by incorporating a comprehensive digital strategy. Great coaches adjust their strategy as the game unfolds. Getting “in front of” donors is simply not possible right now with the frequency our profession was built upon. Now is the time to commit to a digital fundraising strategy, one that is more comprehensive than simply trying to reach all your donors via Zoom calls. Train your staff to build professional Facebook communities via Pages and Groups, to consistently incorporate short, impactful video messages, to utilize texting and all available social media platforms, and to build relationships and cultivate and solicit gifts remotely. This will be a lasting change that philanthropy adopts from the current era. Positioning all your gift officers now to be skilled in digital philanthropy will be critical.

4. Play the Long Game

Don’t lose sight of your long-term goals. The path to a championship is a long one, and there will always be hardships in the journey. The campaign you were planning, the vision you had outlined for your department, and the fundraising program you were building—keep all of these close at hand and do not be quick to abruptly change course. While quick action may indeed be needed to address immediate issues, be deliberate in your decisions and don’t hastily stop long-term progress. Donors and board members we have talked with in recent months remain committed and passionate about their top causes forging ahead with important fundraising efforts despite current challenges.

5. Be Bold

It is striking how differently various organizations have experienced 2020. The attitude of their leadership and the decision—whether consciously or unconsciously—to remain confident and bold or to act from a place of fear sets a tone for their entire institution. A common strength of collegiate athletic programs is the diversity among athletes and coaches that may or may not exist across the campus writ large. I urge you to maintain the mental toughness that great athletes possess. Be vigilant and believe that you will win no matter the present challenges and lead your team to believe the same. And remain open to the possibility that positive changes may come from the arduous but rewarding journey that teams and programs travel together.

The best coaches taught me life lessons that apply as much to my professional and personal life as they ever did to sports. One of the most essential lessons I learned was the importance of concentrating on what really matters, a proven and time-tested method for long-term, sustained success—on and off the field. That focus is needed now given that game plans have been upended and the field of competition doesn’t look quite as it did last season. It’s time to focus on the fundamentals.