The Million-Dollar Problem With College Athletics Donations

UConn Football

Photo: Flickr/beisbolct

Not long ago, I saw a news item on ESPN that really drives home the perils of alumni development in college sports.The top donor for the University of Connecticut’s football program is apparently displeased with the hiring of their new football coach and wants their $3M donation back.

The rich individual previously decided to “donate” a large sum of money to this program, and because of that, he feels he has the right to influence what decisions the program makes. Look at these quotes from the donor:

  • Burton called the situation “a slap in the face and embarrassment to my family,” and said he planned “to let the correct people know that you did not listen to your number one football donor.”
  • “We want our money and respect back.”
  • Although he was not seeking veto power in the hiring, he “earned my voice on this subject” as the program’s top donor.
  • “You are not qualified to be a Division I AD and I would have fired you a long time ago. You do not have the skills to manage and cultivate new donors.”

This person does not work for the university or the athletic program in any capacity, yet because he wrote the biggest check, he feels that he has the power to impact school decisions. In this case, he’s angry that his opinion was ignored, but I’m sure that other schools in similar situations would actually let the donor’s opinion impact their decision. The scary thing is that I don’t know which is worse.

My first experience working in sports was with a college athletics department, working under the Assistant Athletic Director for Marketing and Revenue Generation. I was very fortunate that this school had a progressive marketing department where I was able to manage a CRM system, oversee digital and email marketing efforts, and dive in to some very interesting analytical projects and decision making. To this day, I am very thankful for that experience.

However, once I had finished up my year-long fellowship, I decided that college athletics wasn’t for me, and that was for one primary reason – development (the arm of the athletic department that handles alumni donations). I had the feeling that to really succeed within a major Division I athletic program, you needed to be involved in getting those rich alumni to donate more and more money. Budgets were always tight, and getting that donor money directly into the hands of the athletics program was crucial. This aspect of the job did not appeal to me, so I focused my efforts on professional sports opportunities.

This situation doesn’t exist with professional sports teams, If a company is paying that type of money, it’s for something very specific (suites, sponsorships, media, etc.) and that purchase does not include the ability to influence team operational decisions. In this particular case, the donor ended up ultimately retracting his statements, but the threat for the school was very real.

This will always be a unique aspect of college athletics, and I know that a lot of people in alumni development enjoy the challenge. It is a complicated blend of marketing, customer service, public relations and fundraising. But when I see a story like this, it reminds me about why I decided college athletics wasn’t the right spot for me.

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