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Athletics Development and Fundraising Amidst the Pandemic and Beyond

Athletics Development and Fundraising Amidst the Pandemic and Beyond
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By Dr. Kevin T. McGinniss |

Though development and fundraising were not easy before the pandemic, they have become even more complicated now—but they do not have to be impossible. The presence of a national or international crisis does not preclude a successful capital campaign. For example, in August of 2001, I was hired as the Director of Athletic Development at Quinnipiac University. They were embarking on their first-ever capital campaign, an effort complicated just a short month later by the tragedy on September 11. In 2007, I was hired as the Associate Director of Athletics for Development at the University of Rhode Island. I served on the leadership team for their Making a Difference capital campaign, which was, again, complicated by the Great Recession that lasted from mid-2007 to June 2009. Despite occurring on the heels of crisis situations, both of these capital campaigns were successful. They not only met their goals but exceeded them.

Though those two events are certainly different than the pandemic, they carry similar takeaways. At Quinnipiac University after 9/11, we suspended all fundraising for the remainder of that calendar year, resuming in January 2002. For the remainder of 2001, we communicated with our donors without asking for financial support. Despite this lack of direct requests, though, we made more cultivation and stewardship communication than ever, a strategy that carried over into my work in 2007 at the University of Rhode Island. Communication, in the end, was key. We created relationships that sustained our organizations, despite trying times. Though it might have been easier to stop communicating with donors, there is a certain danger associated with doing so; as evidenced by Stiffman (2020), in discussing the aftermath of 9/11: “Many organizations stopped talking to their donors. They stopped asking for longer than they should have, and I think ultimately it hurt them. Or donors went to other causes that seemed more relevant” (4). Instead of halting communications, organizations would be better suited following the advice of Martha Schumacher, chair of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Early in the pandemic, she most eloquently stated, “We’re in a moment where social connection, caring, empathy, and coming together as a community has never been more important” (2).

This community is often more important than the ask itself. Many years ago while I was attending an Institutional Advancement Consortium, one of the paticpants asked, “How do you train your volunteers and staff to make the ask?” I felt that too much emphasis was placed on making the ask, at the expense of the two most important components of the development process, cultivation and stewardship. Another attendee related how she had been trying for months to schedule a lunch with her president and one of their top alumni prospects. They, however, had a reputation for asking for a donation during these lunches and, well aware of this, the prospect would not commit to a date.  When the prospect did eventually schedule, the development officer came up with a different strategy: the president would not ask for a donation. Instead, he would update the prospect on his vision for the university and all the ways in which they were enchancing the student experience and increasing the value of the prospect’s degree. The prospect came away from this luncheon so enthralled that she subsequesntly gave the university their largest donation ever! Though this consortium occurred long before the pandemic, its principles still hold true. Development professionals have said that now, more than ever, their constituents want to hear from them, not asking for money but providing institutional updates, etc. They are looking for relationships. The social demand for community and relationships provides an important opportunity for a lesson on fundraising: It must be more than merely asking people to donate to a program—an ask which can often be difficult and can make even successful professionals uncomfortable. Think of fundraising in terms of building and maintaining lasting relationships instead.

To obtain support, you must invest considerable time and effort in nurturing and “developing” this assistance. A sustained development effort neither begins with asking for support, nor does it end with a gift. It is a cyclical process that has many components. For example, a number of years ago, one of my former colleagues secured the largest individual gift to his institution, almost $2 million to endow an academic chair. The best part of this substantial contribution is that my colleague never asked for a donation. He re-connected alumni with the institution and then concentrated on building a relationship with the potential donor.

Building upon earlier work, it has become increasingly more evident that obtaining and regaining support is a by-product of the two most important, yet widely overlooked, components of the development process: cultivation and stewardship (3). Both of these must be incessant. You have to give people something before you ask for something. Many years ago, as a public-school athletics director, I frowned upon the multitude of fundraisers our athletics teams traditionally held. They were “nickel and dime-ing” our constituency, asking the same people over and over for support. There was little, if any, effort made to show the teams’ appreciation for, and thanks to, these people.

I charged myself with developing a more centralized approach. In the process, our girls’ swim coach approached me about holding their annual car wash anyway. The most significant value of the event, he argued, was not the money, but rather the camaraderie his team developed while washing the cars. In appreciation of this intent, we determined that they would have a free car wash instead. After they provided this service, they could then ask for donations.

As you might expect, the team washed more cars than they had the previous year. They also made more money—not just in terms of total funds raised, but in donation amount per car, as well. You must position your potential donors to want to help you. Whether it’s a business relationship or a personal relationship, fundraisers cannot continually ask for people’s help without, in author Stephen R. Covey’s words, making deposits into their emotional bank account (1). This is what cultivation and stewardship are all about. Organizations must continually make deposits with potential donors. It may be a monthly newsletter or, even better, a personalized note or a phone call just to say hello.

Once a gift has been received, the organization must make it a priority to thank the donor—and then thank them again—before resuming the process of cultivation. This philosophy will not only improve the institution’s chance of securing more and larger gifts from its constituents, but may also increase repeat givers—and the best business is repeat business. It takes more time and effort to attract new donors than to keep, and build upon, the existing base.

 Now more than ever, relationships are the key to an engaged and generous constituency. It is often said that people give from the heart, not from the head. The recent pandemic is a reminder that cultivation and stewardship with our community are the keys to enduring support.


1. Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change (25th anniversary edition.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

2. Haynes, E., Schohl, L., & Stiffman, E. (1 April 2020). What we heard at AFP’s virtual conference. Chronicle of Philanthropy.

3. McGinniss, K. (2000). Cultivation and stewardship—Key to obtaining enduring support for your program. Coach Street.

4. Stiffman, E. (17 March 2020). What we have learned from crises and can use in coronavirus age. Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Dr. McGinniss has over 35 years of experience in education and athletics inclusive of teaching, coaching, athletics administration, development, and alumni relations. He has served as a collegiate athletics director, a development director, an alumni director, and is currently an assistant professor and the Graduate Coordinator and Director of Sport Management at Southern Connecticut State University.


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