Is it all about fundraising?

Earlier this year, Patti Phillips, CEO of Women Leaders In College Sports, did an email to the membership and friends of Women Leaders In College Sports about things she had learned from search firms and institutional leaders around advancing women in athletics. She wisely qualified her remarks by indicating that she personally did not necessarily agree with all of the six points that were illuminated as industry trends with regard to the necessary skills and experiences needed to become an athletic director. I stand with Patti in saying that I do not necessarily agree with all of the six points either. So, I am determined to address each of the these trends around skills gaps in a series of blogs—hang on as here is my response to item number one in the list: fundraising.

Fundraising is a clarion call for all institutions—large or small, public or private, urban or suburban, or Division I, II, or III. This is not just an athletics issue—it is a higher education issue. With declining state funding, declining enrollments, increases in students with higher financial need, rising costs, deferred maintenance, and the list goes on, institutions need to raise money and that means from alumni and friends of the institution, from corporations and foundations, through grants, annual funds, bequests, etc. Fundraising is one means for an institution to generate revenue.

What makes this interesting is that as an athletic director the three things you really need to understand is how to raise money, save money, and improve the institutional brand. Raising money has two big prongs—fundraising and increasing revenues (or decreasing expenses) from operations. You need to be clear in your resume and cover letter that you understand the distinction between these two concepts and also be clear as to what the institution is seeking when it says they would like the new director to raise money for athletics as not every athletics department has a person who directly solicits gifts from donors—often that is part of a centralized institutional advancement office. Understanding the role of an institutional advancement office is a very important piece of the fundraising puzzle. Athletics does not stand alone in needing to raise money and must work closely with the advancement office to ensure that the athletics fundraising program is part of the overall strategic institutional plan for raising money. The reality is that fundraising is an important skill to bring to the table as an athletic director but it is only valuable to a college or university if you actually understand how advancement serves the entire institution, what the fundraising goals are for the institution, and how the athletics department works with advancement at that institution. If for example, an athletics department at a specific institution has a contract with a third party to engage boosters, corporate donors, paid advertising space, etc., then as the director your fundraising responsibilities would be focused on alumni and other potential donors as well as grants.

It is important to realize that when we use the term “fundraising” it encompasses a significant industry of philanthropic giving and an institution may use that term in a position description but it can mean many different things. One clear point however is that if you develop experience in grant writing and in donor cultivation those are two skill sets that will serve you well as you move through your career. There are several steps to consider when building a useful portfolio in fundraising—the first is that you should be making friends with the staff of the advancement office at your current institution, asking them to talk about the work they do, the key components to an advancement operation, how athletics fits into the institutional advancement plan, what are the goals for the advancement office, how do they raise money for the variety of institutional needs, etc. This will give you some basic understanding of how this all works at your institution. Always be willing to volunteer to assist with anything the advancement office needs, as engaging alumni and other types of potential donors by assisting at an event is the first step in a path that eventually leads to asking that alumnus for a philanthropic gift!

Secondly, most advancement offices have a grant writing office or person—again, someone you need to get to know. There are grant writing workshops—sometimes these workshops are offered as programs on your campus. If a grant writing course is not readily available on your campus or if you want to learn more specifically about areas of advancement, the fundraising profession in higher education has their own professional association, CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education/ which also offers seminars, institutes, webinars, etc., regionally as well as nationally and can provide a significant professional development experience for someone seeking to learn broadly about advancement work. The Lily Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis ( also offers professional development programs, courses, certificates, and training. It is difficult for a hiring authority to indicate you don’t have the required skill in fundraising if you have done course work or achieved a certificate in an aspect of fundraising.

For more hands on experience, you may want to check in with your undergraduate alumni association and see if they are in need of volunteers to assist with raising money from your graduating class. This is a great entry level volunteer position that can provide an opportunity to actually ask people for money—as it is designed to allow you to reach out to classmates, with whom you have something in common, and ask them to support your alma mater. You will not only learn about how a fundraising outreach plan for a particular graduating class is conceived and made operational but you will also gain experience as a volunteer asking for money. The same holds true for a local or regional non-profit that you may be involved with. There are many different ways to raise money—from events, to annual funds, to mail/email solicitations, to campaigns, etc., and exposure to a variety of fundraising programs, even as a volunteer, will provide you with experience as to how various fundraising programs are designed, developed and implemented, the importance of volunteers in the process, how to make a connection with someone and steward that person in a way that will support you eventually asking for a donation. The wonderful thing about this is you can get on-the-job training while raising money for your alma mater or another cause that is important to you!

With higher education professionals that we work with at Spelman Johnson, if your goal is to be a president, vice-president, dean or athletic director we strongly encourage people to develop experiences in fundraising because that will be part of your portfolio as you move up in leadership positions. The beautiful thing about fundraising is that the tenets of advancement work are the same across all types of fundraising and all industries that need to fundraise. So, a fundraising campaign for your local animal shelter has the same basic tenets as a fundraising campaign for a regional hospital. Experience in any type of fundraising is applicable to fundraising for an athletics department—you do not need to have experience specifically raising money in athletics and frankly there are non-profits and other areas of the institution that it can be more difficult to raise money for than athletics so all fundraising experience counts! The broader your knowledge and exposure to different types of fundraising the stronger you will be in terms of what will be needed in the specific athletic director position you are considering applying for.



Ellen Heffernan

President - Spelman Johnson

Ellen Heffernan graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in economics and government. She joined Spelman Johnson in 1996, after a ten-year career in higher education that included positions at Smith College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is also a national speaker and writer on topics related to recruiting and professional development in higher education and serves as faculty for several national higher education association professional development programs. Ellen also currently serves on the executive board of the National Association of Executive Recruiters.