- Tom Coffman, Deputy Director of Athletics/Philanthropy, Duke University (Moderator)
- J. Batt, Deputy Director of Athletics, Development and Revenue Generation, University of Alabama
- Joe Foley, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Advancement, Penn State University
- Dr. Mónica Lebrón, Deputy Athletics Director/Chief Operating Officer/Chief Diversity Officer, Tulane University
- Chad Weiberg, Deputy Athletics Director, Oklahoma State University
With the large-scale financial impacts of COVID-19 on Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) athletic departments, the areas of fundraising, development, philanthropy, advancement and external relations, which prior to the pandemic, had served critical functions, have become even more paramount. It is in that light that LEAD1 Association (“LEAD1”), which represents the 130 athletic directors of the FBS, decided to convene one of its early virtual forums this year on that topic. Raising funds has always been about building interpersonal relationships, but COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into that traditional notion. As a result, the challenge for athletic departments has become how to maintain and build from preexisting donor relationships to move ahead during COVID-19 and beyond.
The panel, moderated by Tom Coffman, the Deputy Director of Athletics/Philanthropy at Duke University, featured LEAD1 athletic departments’ very own including J. Batt, Deputy Director of Athletics, Development, and Revenue Generation at the University of Alabama, Joe Foley, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Advancement at Penn State University, Dr. Mónica Lebrón, Deputy Athletics Director/Chief Operating Officer/Chief Diversity Officer at Tulane University, and Chad Weiberg, Deputy Athletics Director at Oklahoma State University.
The forum covered three major philanthropy themes including (1) strategies for navigating COVID-19 in the present; (2) the ubiquity of digital marketing; and (3) lessons learned from COVID-19 to implement in the future.
With regard to navigating COVID-19 today, Batt emphasized the “all hands on deck” approach taken by the University of Alabama, where “every” external relations staff member has had to wear a fundraising hat in some way. According to Batt, while “cold calling has suffered” it is important to engage with preexisting donors, even, depending on COVID-19 safety protocols, by inviting them to meet in an outside and safe environment, such as near the stadium to determine what their appetite may be for contributing.
Lebrón backed Batt’s points by describing the example of Tulane University’s philanthropy department, which is down to four staff members, and, therefore, requires “everyone to play their part.” “Do not be afraid to give a donor your cell phone,” said Lebrón. “One donor might be different from another,” so it is important to “get to know them on a more personal level to know what they are most passionate about.”
Foley discussed the importance of data sharing among staff within a department, even while not seeing other colleagues in person, while concurring with Batt that it has been harder to get “new prospects” during COVID-19. It is, therefore, important to provide potential donors with “compelling reasons to support the cause,” and to possibly lean on existing networks of donors to make referrals.
Weiberg offered the strategy of “delaying decisions [for as long as possible]” given the uncertainty of the pandemic, and provided more color with respect to Foley’s point on offering donors compelling reasons to contribute. While a simple message, Weiberg said, “we are here to provide student-athletes with an opportunity to play.” “It is important to focus on that message and a key of why we are here.”
Digital marketing, like Zoom, while somewhat cliché at this point in the pandemic, has also helped LEAD1 athletic departments maintain existing relationships with donors. According to Batt, everyone being virtual has actually created an increased willingness to consume more lengthy content, which may allow athletic departments to deliver more nuanced messaging. Foley underscored the importance of engaging with donors in new ways such as by creating virtual tailgating activities with donors, while Lebrón’s department has even surveyed donors to gage their appetite for contributing. Weiberg stated that due to coaches’ increased availability, they have also been helpful in supporting philanthropy efforts including directly interacting with donors on Zoom.
Regarding lessons learned for a post COVID-19 philanthropy enviornment, contributions from donors have not necessarily dwindled during the pandemic, so money is still there to be raised. Because of the lost revenues in other areas within athletic departments, however, there will be continued reliance on philanthropic staff to keep departments afloat. At the end of the day, fans love sports and are eager to come back – but, in the philanthropic space, the most important message remains that donor contributions profoundly impact the number and quality of opportunities that LEAD1 athletic departments can provide to their student-athletes, and that is the essential message athletic departments can provide.