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Pass Go, Collect New Donor

Uncovering new donors requires thinking about the fundraising game in a systematic way. It also means leaving no stone unturned.

By Anna Barber

Anna Barber is Associate Director of Athletic Development/Director of Major Gifts at Michigan State University, and the former Assistant Director of Athletic Development at Miami University (Ohio). She can be reached at:

If your athletic department is like most, you probably need to raise more money this year than you did last. Whether it's a capital campaign or more ambitious yearly goals, there is always a push to bring in more than before.

But where do you find that additional money? How do you uncover new donors, especially those people who are not already involved in your athletic program? This is one of the biggest challenges in athletics fundraising—and it takes both careful planning and creativity.

On The Same Page
When trying to attract new donors, most people think about identification and cultivation. However, before any of those hands-on tasks can be undertaken, thoughtful and thorough planning are necessary. Much of this work centers around making sure everyone is in sync.

First, all development staff should be able to clearly articulate the athletic department's vision. One cannot successfully sell a product without a clear understanding of what that product consists of and what its objectives are.

Just as your department is competing with other schools for wins, it is competing with other non-profits for dollars. Your program needs a clearly defined purpose so potential donors can distinguish it from other organizations seeking philanthropic support. The key to turning prospects into donors is showing them that your needs match their values.

It is also important that athletic administrators and fundraisers are in sync on fundraising goals, which should be set in conjunction with the institution's and athletic program's mission. Leaders must develop and agree on both short- and long-term goals.

Staff members also need to be on the same page in a more literal way. An athletic development office must plan internally in order to be successful externally. And that can only happen by answering some specific questions.

How will the dollars raised be spent? This sounds like a simple question, but in many cases, development officers do not know the exact answer. Make sure everyone on your team knows how funds will be distributed: Does the money go to support student-athlete scholarships or the general athletic department budget? Will individual teams directly benefit from sport-specific annual gifts or will that money only indirectly help their programs? How will endowments be used—as supplemental or replacement dollars for individual team budgets? Being prepared to answer these questions gives credibility to a development officer and builds confidence within the donor about your program.

What is the plan for reaching our goal? Based on your fundraising goals, you will need to devise a strategy for identifying and approaching your prospects. You will also want to set goals and benchmarks to evaluate your progress in turning targeted prospects into donors.

How will we brand our image? Sending a consistent brand and message gives your prospects a sense of familiarity that increases their inclination to give. Therefore, when sending out any external communications, use consistent colors, logos, and phrasing to make your department easily identifiable. For example, when you see a light sky blue color, what school immediately pops in your head? Did you think about North Carolina? That's the power of the brand.

Part of branding includes developing campaign statements that draw on the department's mission, values, and goals to explain why you need financial support. Even though case and campaign statements will seek private dollars for a variety of projects at numerous levels, all your statements should reinforce a unified message to create a clear identity for your athletic program.

Finding Donors
Of course, planning is only the first step in expanding your donor base. The meat of the job is identifying viable prospects. This can seem like an overwhelming task: Where does one turn when looking for new donors? Amazingly, many new donors can be found quite easily, if you look in the right places.

As athletic departments, we are fortunate because we have built-in constituencies. Former student-athletes, players' parents, season ticket holders, school alumni, and members of the local community have a natural affinity for our programs. To fully tap into these resources, familiarize yourself with the intricacies of your school's donor database system. At many schools, a research staff may be able to do this work for you, which is fine—but if you don't fully understand the capabilities of your database, you won't be able to get the most out of your requests.

For instance, here at Michigan State University, we have an "evaluations" section in our database that includes individual prospect ratings based on demographic research, surveys, and feasibility studies conducted by a development consulting group. Knowing where to find this information, understanding how to interpret it, and using it when identifying new prospects is critical for an effective search. Without a solid understanding of your donor database, a lot of good information can be overlooked.

Another avenue is to talk to your current donors about helping identify new prospects. Who knows people with money better than the people who have money? In most instances, your current donors will be more than willing to help bring in new donors. Current donors are already invested in your program, and will probably want to encourage others to invest as well.

Finally, take the time to read the local newspaper every day, paying close attention to the business section. You will be amazed at the amount of information you find about potential donors. As you read about someone, look for information on schools attended, extracurricular activities, philanthropic interests, business relationships, and investments. (If you don't have time to do this, have a student highlight the stories that may pertain to prospects.) Reading newspapers from major metropolitan areas near your institution may also be advantageous.

For example, we identified a new prospect in a newspaper article that mentioned his alumni status and business affiliation with one of our large donors. The article implied he had the capacity, and our donor confirmed it. Combined with intense cultivation efforts by our office and encouragement from our current donor, the lead resulted in a $100,000 gift. Not bad for a few hours spent reading the news.

Educate & Engage
Cultivation is the next step in bringing in new donors. If you want those you've identified to actually open their wallets, you must educate and engage them in your program.

Educating your prospects about your program means teaching them about the department's mission, values, and goals. It includes explaining the many different areas they can give to and the different methods of giving (cash, securities, planned gifts, real estate). If you neglect to tell your prospects everything you want them to know, you will most likely not maximize a gift or have people give to the right area.

Sometimes the keys to educating a prospect are preparation and persistence. When I was at Miami University, there was a prospect who was very difficult to contact. However, we systematically and continually sent information and called him. After 10 unreturned phone calls, he finally called back. I was prepared to talk to him on the spot about our program and how he could fit in. From that conversation, I was able to schedule a meeting, which resulted in a discussion about a gift of $1 million.

Engaging your prospects gives them the connection they need to the athletic department. The stronger the connection you are able to build, the more motivation prospects have to give.

For example, ask prospects to serve on functional campaign or advisory committees that directly or indirectly influence the direction of the department. Talk to them about implementing a job program in which they hire current student-athletes. Host events where prospects can mingle with student-athletes, coaches, and administrators. And entice them with donor benefits that include connections to your student-athletes and coaches, such as a dinner with the coaches. Be creative and think outside the box!

Expanding a donor base in a world of ever increasing demand can be difficult, for sure. However, with the right planning and a little creativity, there are no limits to success.

This article originally appeared in's sister publication Athletic Management. To read more Athletic Management articles, visit: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.