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Cashing In

From food sales to annual auctions, any fundraising project has the potential to be successful. The keys are understanding your resources, coming up with a strategic plan, and keeping volunteers motivated. In this article, a longtime coach and fundraiser explains what he's learned over the years.

by Lem Elway

The art of fundraising has become an imperative part of athletics. Whether it's for keeping athletic budgets in the black, or for doing something special, the need for money has increased. Fundraising is essential.

Raising money is like competing in athletics. It involves preparation, the action or skill itself, and the follow-through. All three are necessary, regardless of the scope or ambition of the project. I'm going to deal with the action and the follow-through in this article, but what I'm most concerned with is the preparation. As coaches say, championships are won in the preseason. It's the same with fundraising. You can't succeed without a good plan.

A plan establishes a focus and makes it easier to sell your objectives to the people who'll be involved. It creates a clear road map to the ultimate goal and identifies potential pitfalls and roadblocks so they can be handled proactively before minor obstacles become major. It puts money in the bank.

Many fundraising plans start with deciding what to do to raise money, but that's premature. The first thing is to determine how much money you need and what you can realistically accomplish. This can be critical, because future fundraising is built on previous success.

First, assess your needs. At this stage, you must try to answer these questions: Why are we having a fundraiser? What is the specific purpose of the money? How will the money be used? Will it be for uniforms for a particular team, for equipment, for travel? Are we raising dollars for facilities, and if so, which facilities?

Tie your needs to your grand plan for fundraising. This grand plan answers the questions, Where are we going? How do we get there? How long will it take? This will affect not only the current project, but your subsequent fundraising work as well.

The answers to these questions can help you form a goal. The goal must be written on paper for everyone's examination and discussion. The goal statement should be concise and explain direction and parameters. People involved must agree upon and know the goal from the outset. Be prepared to alter the goal if circumstances change—key people drop out or join, needs change, economic circumstances evolve, or an insurmountable logistical roadblock emerges—but the important thing is to set and promote a goal that anyone involved can understand and appreciate. Having it written down for everyone to see and internalize helps make sure there are no hidden agendas.

With the goal established, write a mission statement. It should identify needs and the goal, but also lay out the mechanics of the project, putting into writing what will be done for everyone to view at any time. It must create and communicate a vision that motivates the people who want to be involved, connecting them to the project emotionally and financially.

The mission statement is the cornerstone of any successful fundraising project. It helps deal with one of the major human tasks—making sure no one starts to think he or she is bigger than the project. This especially helps with recurring events and long-term fundraising initiatives because as your success grows, people join in, but many may see other needs for the money. Having the mission clearly defined—and written—helps keep you on the original task.

Is one big project the best, or do many smaller ones better fit your organization? Some organizations like to do a lot of small fundraisers, while others with ample manpower and focus prefer large functions that allow them to make all their money in one shot. Each has certain characteristics and purposes that fit various financial needs. Your job is to determine which fits your situation. Consider some of each. As time goes by, success is determined by diversity—and making it fun.

Short-term projects are usually designed to make about $5,000, while annual events can bring in more than $10,000. In short-range fundraising, the mentality is to make as much as possible in a short time and move on. In a long-range endeavor, the idea is to cultivate ongoing relationships with donors. In this type of project, a foundation might be set to make $10,000 the first year with the idea of making $50,000 in three years. Long-range strategies must be established because many potential participants will decide whether and how to commit based on how long an obligation they'll be taking on.

Don't overlook small efforts, particularly if you have a relatively small, defined need, such as new uniforms. I've used bake sales, candy sales, magazine-subscription sales, and the like. Not only are they doable with the resources you have on hand—the young people themselves often do much of the work—but they are a great way to get started, build interest, and find leaders. The actual method of raising money is limited only by imagination and enthusiasm. Fun should also be a part of the formula.

To make decisions on types of projects, a good place to start is by assessing the human resources available to you. A successful fundraiser runs on organizational skills and a continual flow of volunteers. Whether these exist or can be cultivated will largely dictate the type and scope of project you can take on. Committed people are a necessity, and their personality and character are critical for fundraising success. The job is to match your needs and objectives with your human resources.

Poor choice of leaders is perhaps the most common reason fundraising projects don't fulfill their potential. Whether an individual or a core group of individuals, they are responsible for keeping everyone else on course and must be set up to succeed. As the instigator of the fundraising effort, you have the job of making sure people in leadership positions have the necessary organizational, time-management, follow-through, and people skills to direct others through the inevitable mine fields of the project.

As the overall leader, your task is to read people. Some may never have been in leadership positions before, but you may be able to see potential or at least willingness to take on the task. It's an opportunity to nurture people in new roles—which in itself can attract energetic, enthusiastic volunteers.

To make sure the key leaders are set up for success, ask these questions:

Also assess the rank and file. Volunteers are a critical part of project continuity, and they must posses the personal and learning skills necessary to fit the needs and objectives of the fundraising project. Whether innate or developed, the presence or absence of these traits will greatly dictate success on a short- and long-range basis. Their strengths and weaknesses need to be matched with their tasks. Introverts aren't going to succeed in courting donors or cold-call selling of fundraising items. But they might be great at behind-the-scenes detail-oriented work that you'd rather not leave to social butterflies.

To fill a continual pool of volunteers, look for people who will use the money now or in the future. For example, if you're raising money for a high school program, ask middle school parents whose sons and daughters will be in the program in the future to get involved. Parents of this year's varsity are happy to help because their kids are on the team this year and perhaps next. But what about after their children graduate? They might drop out of the fundraising group or try to divert the money in a different direction. You need to be ready to cycle in new people to keep on task year after year.

Whether you're selling food items, magazines, raffle tickets, holding a banquet, or courting large one-time donors, there are some central considerations.

Timing is critical. The big questions:

These questions must be fully answered to set up success. For example, in the first year of a sports-memorabilia auction to benefit youth sports in a community in which I used to live, we made some enemies out of members of a Rotary club because they had an event that conflicted with ours. When the Rotary event didn't go well, they blamed us. Another point about timing: Aim for the first week of the month. That usually is payday for many people, and they feel good about spending money.

Many short-range projects don't require a facility, because they involve selling on an individual basis. But when you do need a facility, be sure to consider location, availability, and type needed. This can be critical. With a large facility, a big crowd is needed or the building will look empty and create a negative image. On the other hand, an overcrowded small facility can be a negative venue as well. Find a facility that best fits your needs, and remember that the decision can be a key factor in success or failure.

Don't forget to consider special accommodations involving decoration, bookkeeping, cleanup, and other duties associated with using a facility. It needs to present a professional, intimate, and user-friendly environment that stimulates success.

In a big fundraiser, make sure everyone who attends or is asked to donate, no matter their income, can buy something or otherwise contribute. Organizers must create ways for people of different economic means to spend their money. This could entail buying an item or being part of a raffle.

Depending on the situation, you may need to think about advertising as you make your plan. Sending information to media outlets, using reader boards, and word of mouth will all greatly increase your chances of success. I've found writing "letters to the editor" before the event helps build interest. But it's also important to write letters to the editor afterward, thanking everyone who helped and donated, and soliciting interest in the next event or the same event next time.

As the nature and scope of your project become clear, and after a schedule for short- and long-range goals are agreed upon, an agenda must be developed. Establish an accountability timeline with deadlines, and put together a committee roster of project personnel grouped by committee.

To keep the project moving forward, get everyone together regularly. When planning big-expectation fundraisers, set up organizational meetings six months in advance in order to map-out strategies, designate responsibilities, and report progress on established intermediate goals. These meetings should be held approximately once a week depending on whether everyone feels comfortable with how the project is progressing. Don't get complacent. Stay focused and keep energy levels high. As with any competition, energy and enthusiasm need to keep building until the day of the event. These meetings offer chances to brainstorm, restore collective energy, and maintain direction.

Make plans to keep those who can't come to meetings in the information loop. This is true whether you are planning an auction to raise $15,000 or a campaign to build a football stadium. Everyone needs to feel important and informed. At all meetings, try to head off any negativity. Politely but firmly say that negativity will not be tolerated. Focus on how to do things, not why they can't be done. If someone has an idea that won't work now, ask them to write it down, tweak it, and come back with it at the next meeting.

As the function draws near, group meetings might need to be accelerated to make sure all the "i's" are dotted and "t's" crossed. That is a leadership decision, but it must allow time for solving surprises and trouble shooting. Remember, Murphy's Law is always in force.

It may seem strange in an article about preparing for a fundraiser to talk about what happens afterward. But as in any athletic movement, follow-through is a critical area that's often overlooked. The follow-through is the evaluation procedure at the end of the fundraising project. It comes in two steps: Constructive criticism about what happened, and how to improve on the next project. For best results, these questions should be considered separately.

The constructive-criticism phase is not the time to tell everyone what a great job they did, but to be critical. As any coach knows, the best way to get better is to strengthen your weakest link. How did everything operate? How will did committees function? What areas need adjusting? What are the strong and weak areas? The leader or leaders must ask these tough questions and be ready for answers. Seek outside opinions from people who weren't involved. Accept as much feedback as possible and from as wide a range of people as possible.

For the annual sports-memorabilia auction and dinner, we were sure to ask buyers—and non-buyers—each year what they would want next time. The answers ranged from kayaks to ski gear, and we got great information that helped the event grow each time.

Making an action plan for improvement is the final order of a fundraiser. Those who attend year after year should see that the organization wants to always get better. Never staying the same and always trying new things are the marks of good and profitable business ventures.

Fundraising can be a high-maintenance undertaking but can provide rich rewards. Many factors contribute to success and failure, but two things are crucial: Promoting creative thinking so that people are stimulated, and the ability to foresee problems and deal with them in a positive proactive manner.

Remember, regardless of the magnitude of a fundraising project, the ultimate goal is to provide the financing to give all athletes the opportunity to have a positive and maturing experience through athletics. That in itself is the reason our efforts need to be well-planned.

Lem Elway is the former Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School and a member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame. Currently a special education teacher at Rochester (Wash.) Middle School, he has taught at the middle and high school levels for more than 25 years in a variety of sports. 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.