Matching donors with specific student-athletes can yield many benefits—as long as you are aware of the compliance risks.
by Jane Myers
As the need for donor dollars escalates, the need to better engage those whom we solicit is at the top of every athletic administrator's to-do list. For some schools, a successful tactic has been matching donors with specific student-athletes in order to personalize their gift.
The biggest benefit from this is that athletic donors can connect with a student-athlete and follow his or her athletic and academic career. For many alumni and fans, this is the incentive that propels them to make a significant gift.
While matching scholarship recipients with a respective donor is a long-standing practice in academics, college athletic departments have traditionally shied away from the practice for fear it could too easily lead to improper booster handouts to athletes. However, more recently, schools are finding it possible to allow a booster and student-athlete to develop a relationshipwithout fear of violating NCAA rules.
HOW IT WORKS
Here at Bowling Green State University, donors can become part of the Champion's Circle distinguished level of giving through an annual donation that is equivalent to the cost of tuition and fees for an in-state student. We began this program in 2007, with an amount of $9,135 per donor, but that figure will vary each year based on any tuition increases. In return, donors are assigned a student-athlete from the sport of their choosing to personalize the relationship.
The student-athlete assignment is made jointly by the head coach and the athletic director. One of the great benefits of this program is that it allows student-athletes an opportunity to further their leadership skills by interacting with top level donors, who are usually accomplished individuals. Student-athletes develop both social and communication abilities through personal correspondence and attendance at department social functions. Therefore, we carefully choose the student-athletes based upon their leadership potential and ability to make the most of the experience.
At the University of Notre Dame, the Reverend Edmund P. Joyce Athletics Grant-in-Aid program, begun in 2007-08, requires an annual gift of $40,000 and supports the tuition, fees, room and board, and required text books for a student-athlete. While a four-year commitment is encouraged, a donor may opt for a one-year gift. Like at Bowling Green, a Notre Dame donor may choose the sport, but not the specific athlete.
At Bradley University, the Braves Scholarship Society requires a $15,000 annual donation and a three-year commitment. The society has grown to 52 members since its inception in 2002.
It's important to note that these student-athlete-donor pairings are only symbolic, since funds may not be earmarked for a specific student-athlete's support due to NCAA rules. In addition, at most schools, the donation places donors in the top level of supporters where they receive that level's benefits.
Schools that have implemented this type of program have found it quickly appeals to athletic donors. But the key to its long-term success is the ongoing stewardship provided by the athletic department. Year-long calendars must be developed with specific events and contacts scheduled. Whether it be a phone call from the athletic director, a note from "their" student-athlete, or a recognition event, it is critical that there be continuous activity.
At Bowling Green, we kick off our program by hosting an early fall reception involving the Champion's Circle donors, the student-athletes, and the head coaches. At that time, we present portfolios with recognition certificates, schedules of all events, a special Champion's Circle pin, and a thank you note from the student-athlete to the donor. A photographer takes a photo of the donor with his or her assigned student-athlete, which is later presented as a recognition plaque. Additional donor benefits include the opportunity to travel to an away game with the team (specified by the athletic department), accompanying their student-athlete to the academic honors night, and being recognized as a Champion Circle member on the field/court at a home game.
At Bradley, there is one fall and one spring gathering in a Society member's home every year, which brings together the donors and their student-athletes, along with athletic administrators. The school also hosts a Braves Scholarship Society hospitality room for a pregame chalk talk and halftime socializing throughout the basketball season.
Notre Dame further personalizes its stewardship program by sending special cards and gifts throughout the year. The athletic director sends flowers to the donor upon receipt of the commitment, and specially designed Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day cards are a clever touch that lets donors know they are appreciated.
While the benefits of this program are widespread, athletic administrators must also understand its pitfalls. Anytime you allow a relationship between boosters and student-athletes, you must be very aware of the potential compliance risks involved. Any benefit a booster provides directly to a student-athlete can lead to NCAA sanctions.
The key to overcoming this problem is for everyone to be very conscious of NCAA rules regarding improper benefits. Best steps include educating the donors about what they can and cannot do, making sure school representatives are present at the athlete-donor receptions, and monitoring the relationships. In addition, only those student-athletes who have demonstrated compliance with rules and regulations should be chosen to be part of the program.
Because it's critical that no donors overstep the rules, relationships between donor and student-athlete are best formed during group events. That way, there are fewer chances of inappropriate contact and everything is monitored. Donors can still take pride in following their student-athlete on the field or courtand our student-athletes often will casually acknowledge the donor at a contest and write notes to him or her during the season.
With the above steps taken, this new approach to personalized giving has great potential. It has much appeal to today's donors, who want to see first-hand that their money matters. It also provides student-athletes with not only a learning opportunity, but a chance to understand philanthropy up closeand hopefully become the donors of tomorrow.
Jane Myers is Assistant Athletic Director and Director of the Falcon Club at Bowling Green State University, and past President of the National Association of Athletic Development Directors (NAADD). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.