Stirring Up the Hornets' Nest
New leadership restructures a northern California high school athletic booster club to help turnaround declining memberships.
by Danielle Catalano
Things were starting to look grim for the AHS Athletic Supporters, a non-profit sports booster club at Alameda High School in northern California. Membership had been dwindling for several years, and community apathy toward fundraising was increasing. Two presidents resigned from their posts, exhausted that their efforts were not producing results. Communication among parents was also breaking down, and the rate at which revenue was being raised was slowing down dramatically. A feared impact was that teams that once requested support from the booster to help fund their needs would no longer have a major resource to turn to.
At the suggestion of Hornets baseball head coach Ken Arnerich, Principal Mike Janvier and the school superintendent asked Ron Matthews if he would to listen to their concerns about the booster club and, if he was up to the challenge, would Matthews want to become president of the organization?
Arnerich suggested a meeting with Matthews because, even though Matthews' children graduated two and eight years ago from Alameda, Matthews remained an active member within local youth sport associations and was accustomed to working with volunteers, as he was one during the time his children played high school sports.
"What was happening was membership was floundering," Matthews says, describing the meeting. "Revenue was floundering. Everything was going nowhere fast. So, like any CEO or CFO, you take a look at what's wrong before you actually take a project on, and that's exactly what I did."
Matthews reviewed the booster club membership policy and immediately notice two red flags: membership was elective and it cost $35 to join the Hornets' booster club.
"When I looked at that, I told the principal and the superintendent that if I become the president, I want the parents to know they have to be a part of this," Matthews says. "I told them that I would cut membership almost in half to $20 per familybut make it mandatory. The way I looked at the situation, it was failing. The light switch wasn't up. We didn't have a choice."
LIGHTING UP CHANGE
Janvier and the superintendent agreed, and in August 2007 Matthews became president of the booster club. A few days later, following a letter to parents and press release posted on the booster club's Web site (www.hornetboosters.org), Matthews and school officials implemented the change in booster club policy.
To encourage the transition, different levels of membership were available to members. While the $20 was required, parents donating $50 received passes to a limited number of football and basketball games. If they donate $100, members have free admission to all football and basketball games.
With 700 athletes, some of whom are multisport, the effect was immediate. Not only did the Hornets reverse its revenue trend, but it had the most valuable resource to help continue the booster club's restructuring: volunteers.
According to Matthews, the only thing asked of the volunteers was that what ever time the they could offer the boosters , no matter how long or short, that time be fully committed toward achieving the booster club goals.
More change was coming. Matthews asked former booster club president and close friend Bob Sutter to rejoin the organization, and started creating committees. With Sutter's previous experience, Matthews named Sutter chair of the fundraising committee.
"The committee process, is the best process," Matthews says. "When you have a meeting with more than 50 people involved, you don't accomplish anything. It's too big. So I immediately appointed a fundraising committeeobviously, the most important committee. I then asked the members of this committee to come up with a couple of new ideas for fundraising, innovative ideas."
In order to combat community apathy toward fundraising, Matthews was adamant about the committee's creativity. "The biggest challenge we face is the community," Matthews explains. "The population of Alameda is 7,000 to 8,000 people, and it's primarily a bedroom community. It's an awesome community: residential and not heavily commercial. We're in a unique position where we have a lot of smaller businesses sharing a lot of the brunt of requests for all of the sports around town, such as Little League, Babe Ruth, and girls softball, basketball, and soccer.
"So, it's not easy fundraising in a small community like this with everyone asking the same people for the same amount of money," continues Matthews. "It's hard to go too far out of town into a commercial area because you have to think, Why would someone a long way from here want to help someone in Alameda? There is no benefit for them."
Sometime around the second week of September, the fundraising committee presented two easy-to-run fundraisers suited to the community's characteristics: a year-long raffle and a New Year's Eve Booster Ball.
The booster club's raffle has a simple design: Each athletes in every sport sells 10 raffle tickets at $5 a piece. Based on last year's number, the expected money raised during the 2007-08 school year is $35,000. Tickets are drawn periodically, and winners are awareded as much as $500. The committee continually monitors the exchanges of money, with assistance from the coaches.
The 21-and-older Booster Ball was also simple in design, but required more footwork and weekly planning meetings. "The committee really had to have to their stuff together to pull off a black-tie event for 200 hundred people," Matthews says. "The volunteers organized everything, from catering to the music to the publicity. We didn't want to pay for the publicity because it would eat some of our revenue. So, the women who chairs communications did a great job creating the press releases and branching out, hitting the local newspapers and magazines. We got a lot of publicity in the last few weeks, which really helped."
What also helped generate publicity was the booster club's Web site. The site has been established for eight years, originally by Alameda's football booster club. The athletic booster club took over the site six years ago when the football boosters became part of the athletic booster club. Since that time, it has been the Hornets' main communication outlet. Matthews is diligent about updating the site, and when plans for the Booster Ball were announced, he worked with the site's Web master, Jim Grigg, on designing the online brochures for interested parties to download.
The athletes participated in the publicity, creating an indirect form of word-of-mouth advertising. They talked to the high school's newspaper staff about running an article discussing the event, and an article was published in December. The idea was that if students were talking about it, their parents would be listening, or parents would the newspaper to find out what was happening at the high school. Additionally, a number of athletes were responsible for maintaing messageboards throughout the high school's properties, as part of their course cirriculum. The athletes maintained constant displays of the event.
It might come as a surprise to some, but making money was never the goal of the inaugural Booster Ball. "The 2009 ball's goal is to raise money," Matthews says. "where as the 2008's primary goal was to get it off the ground, with the prospect in mind that we would make the money this year and during the ensuing years."
"We raised moneynot as much as we wanted tobut on the other hand we knew the real issue was getting the word out that this would be an event that would take place for years to come," Matthews continues. "It's like getting your foot in the door. We got out event in the minds of the community members for an event like this, and they had fun and they'll come back and bring their friends."
Matthews estimates that about 10 percent of attendees were from neighboring communities, such as San Leandro and San Ramon. "It became recognized not just in the community but through the people who were part of the event as well, such as the band. The event was public, and since people knew the band, they came to the ball."
While many changes have occurred over the last six months in helping turnaround the AHS Athletic Supporters, Matthews still sees the booster club as a work-in-progress. "I do see signs of change mainly because we changed the elective nature of membership, we added, the raffle program, and we added the Booster Ball," he says. "Am I happy about that? You bet. Did we gain a lot of revenue? No yet. We won't know how much we have raised, until the end of the year. We won't be totally successful until the second year, as it takes that long to move a ship, and that's what we've got.
"It takes time," continues Matthews "It was interesting with the Booster Ball, because that was the most exciting part of fundraisingit was a really innovative idea. We were raising money and still having fun. But it also didn't require much more than having everybody and friend to come and enjoy a community-staged environment."
For more information about the Alameda High School Athletic Supporters, visit: www.hornetboosters.org.