Play Nice: Why Advancement and Athletics Can and Should Play on the Same Team


At the end of the day, we all need to figure out what donors and prospective donors are passionate about. Anyway U slice it, a lot of time is invested in segmenting audiences and tracking affinity relationships. For many, one of the most universal, yet internally charged affinities, is Athletics. So we asked colleagues at institutions large and small, public and private how they get Advancement and Athletics to play on the same team. 

For Auburn University, with some of the most loyal, enthusiastic fans in college football, a healthy relationship with Athletics is paramount. However, when Jane DiFolco Parker, vice president for development, came to Auburn nearly three years ago, Development and Athletics didn’t work as collaboratively as they do now. “In the beginning, I reached out in an effort to demonstrate my desire that we operate in good faith as partners in generating support for Auburn,” says Parker. “I began meeting formally and informally with Athletics staff members, and now have multiple meetings each month. Today we have a much more open, transparent relationship. We respect that we all have complicated challenges to deal with.”

Who are your counterparts in Athletics?

Let’s face it, most of our stakeholders either don’t see or at the very least, don’t understand the various institutional silos that may confront them. Or even worse, they do notice when there is a lack of internal communication and that certainly doesn’t send the right message. After all, U are U – or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be. So where’s the disconnect?

“At many universities Athletics and Advancement don’t know each other. We’re so busy in our own worlds,” says Chris Marshall, vice president at Grenzebach Glier & Associates. Marshall spent 12 years as the head coach for the NCAA Division I swimming program at Lehigh University and later became the executive director of the Lehigh Alumni Association. Most recently, he was the associate vice president for alumni affairs at Cornell University.

“Oftentimes Advancement and Athletics haven’t taken the time to put people in the trenches to learn more about each other,” says Marshall. “When I was a coach, I spent more time recruiting talent and building a vision for the team than coaching. It’s not unlike Advancement. For both sides, it’s about relationship building whether you’re recruiting student athletes or engaging graduates.”

Why should you collaborate?

Sure, there are some alumni who just went to school to get a degree—they don’t necessarily care about Athletics, explains Marshall. But, there are enough alumni who do care to make partnering with Athletics worthwhile. Burke Beeler, assistant vice president donor relations at the University of Kansas Endowment, agrees that Athletics can be a gateway to broader engagement.

“When hundreds of alumni show up for a pep rally or a pregame networking event, those are opportunities to showcase academics,” says Beeler. “Many donors to KU Athletics have an academic interest as well. It’s important to have a balance.”

When the University of Kansas held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new engineering building, the athletics director was on hand because the building’s major donors are also Jayhawks supporters. “Our athletics director, athletics fundraising officer, and coaches understand that, yes, our donors are interested in Athletics, but they also have multiple areas on campus that are meaningful for them,” says Beeler.

“We all do our best when we listen well to our donors,” agrees Scott McQuilkin, vice president for institutional advancement at Whitworth University, who held positions as athletics director and head baseball coach before moving to Advancement. As a Division III school, Whitworth’s student athletes make up 25 percent of the student body. “With this much overlap in our donor pool, collaboration is not only good for the university, it’s good for our donors.”

How do you create and sustain a supportive, collaborative partnership?

To avoid internal competition at Whitworth for the same donors, Advancement meets with on-campus departments to create schedules for when and how each area, including Athletics, solicits funds. “It used to be that our athletic alumni only heard from us when we needed money,” says McQuilkin. “Now most of our coaches send bi-monthly e-newsletters with seasonal updates and progress reports. Alumni receive six to eight newsletters before they receive an ask from either Athletics or the annual fund.”

Dedicated face time with Athletics, an appointed staff liaison for each area, and a supportive, respectful culture are key to a healthy partnership. McQuilkin has monthly “protected time” meetings with the athletics director, to discuss their needs and who they’re speaking to. Beeler and his team communicate regularly with Athletics; the KU Endowment liaison to Athletics was once a staff member in that division and has first-hand knowledge of the culture and climate. “For schools that do this well, the outcome is magical,” explains Marshall.

When Auburn Tigers fans, eager for a preview of their favorite fall tradition, return to campus this spring, they will also be invited to take part in the public launch of Auburn’s comprehensive campaign. “Our campaign kick-off weekend is scheduled to coincide with A-Day, our spring scrimmage game,” says Parker. “The partnership with Athletics has been amazing. The entire enterprise benefits when we work together.”

Best Practices
Interested in trends and best practices in higher education experience design?
Let’s connect!