Fundraising ideas for struggling athletic programs
Cutbacks mean teams must develop their own revenue streams similar to club sports
An athletic program’s biggest annual hurdle is raising enough money to pay for travel and apparel, among other costs. It’s even more difficult in a sluggish economy, forcing many generous donors and school boards to pinch pennies at the expense of athletic departments.And there’s no indication that the 21st century fiscal challenges facing high school athletic departments will fade anytime soon. This places a greater burden on individual programs to navigate the perilous roads of fundraising on their own.
One unexpected place they can look for guidance is club sports organizations, which are accustomed to creating their own means for financial survival. Some high schools have instituted pay-to-play to make up the shortfall, but for those that haven’t it’s time to begin a more aggressive approach to increasing revenue.
There are several options. While the recession continues to challenge organizations to raise enough revenue for the season, some are getting creative. That means setting aside more traditional methods like hawking magazine subscriptions or hosting bake sales in lieu of a bigger score.
Michigan Storm AAU is among the club programs trying something different, and it’s already starting to yield big results that help lower costs for families and keep struggling organizations afloat.
“It’s amazing how people are willing to help, and you’re reducing the price for something that benefits children,” says Jeff Taylor, co-founder of the organization. “One of the lessons that we learned is you have to provide incentive for parents. They have to know that they will benefit from what you do, and we learned that last year, providing incentives to reduce the cost of participation and some equipment like backpacks.”
Fighting the recession
It’s been rough for many high school and club teams, but the situation is even more sensitive for a program like Michigan Storm AAU. Based near Detroit, one of the cities hardest hit by the recession, it’s easy to understand why those in the community are more reluctant to become involved in programs that could further their financial woes, especially when that organization operates on a budget of between $8,000 and $10,000.
Taylor says the girls AAU program has been around for about three years, founded by himself and friend Jerome Love. They almost immediately turned it into a competitive organization, winning the 15U Division II state championship its first season. The girls today travel to a number of tournaments in states like Tennessee, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, but that takes a significant amount of time and money, Taylor says.
Several girls with the program moved on to earn scholarships, and one of those former players was the one who helped the Michigan Storm create a fundraiser that to this day helps financially supplement the program.
“For us, thinking outside the box happened by mistake,” Taylor says. “We hadn’t thought of a particular fundraising method, but parents brought one to us.
“You need to use your resources and involve the parents as much as they allow. Give them responsibilities in addition to fundraising and participating in certain aspects of the program. We let them know it’s something that will ultimately benefit them.”
A helping hand
Paul Dozier, a musician who is part of a popular quartet in Michigan, offered to help the Storm by organizing a concert. His daughter played with the program, and he knew it was looking for ways to earn some additional revenue.
The idea came together easily, but Taylor was more involved in the organizational side of the community-wide event. It was much more complex, especially since he initially was considering more traditional techniques to raise money.
Dozier’s quartet played the concert at a significantly reduced rate. The first year the Michigan Storm hosted the show, it also featured a comedian–another perk arranged by a family member of one of the team members.
The team last year organized the show a second time, and even though Dozier’s daughter was no longer on the team, he again offered to help. His daughter now attends the University of Detroit Mercy on a basketball scholarship.
The lesson for high school sports programs is to begin leaning more on parents and alumni. They’re oftentimes willing to lend support through resources and connections, especially when it means it could lessen monetary pressures.
“We were going to have a traditional fundraiser, and they’re great … but when you limit all your efforts to one event, the momentum gets rolling and it adds pressure on the parents and organizers to know that they have a deadline,” Taylor says.
Timing is important, as Taylor quickly learned. The first year of the event, the program had a lot of turnover and the concert was held before tryouts. That meant the roster wasn’t set and the organization didn’t have buy-in from as many parents who didn’t yet know whether their child would be part of the program.
Taylor said attendance this year was much higher than the year before, partially because of the lessons learned from the inaugural event. Organizers also issued press releases, catching the attention of a local television station that interviewed Taylor about the event during a live broadcast.
In addition to the musical performance, the event featured a silent auction. The Michigan Storm was able to receive some popular memorabilia donated by residents, including items autographed by former Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders, Notre Dame alumni and former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis and boxer Tommy Hearns.
Taylor says proceeds from the concert were used for general purposes. That includes tournament and equipment costs that help drive down fees for parents. Given the rising costs associated with playing a club season, Taylor says fees could have risen as much as $150 per player this year, but instead the program was able to keep fees the at the same level as the previous year.
If that had not been the case, Taylor says the program “certainly would have lost girls.”
Organizing a fundraiser
On the other hand, revenue created by the silent auction was targeted toward specific purposes, Taylor says, helping the girls pick out new uniforms or other merchandise that gets them excited about the program and upcoming season. He sees that as an important aspect in motivating the team to make a strong effort to rally support for the organization.
“Targeted fundraisers will get the children involved, but in general you have to provide incentive for the parents too,” Taylor explains. “Everything goes to benefit the child, and incentives and timing is crucial. You should do it when you have your roster set and everyone is on board.
“Another part of targeted fundraisers is you should let the children have a say in what they want to use the money for. Then the children get more excited about selling.”
The payoff is nice, but organizing such an event can take its toll. The first year is the hardest part because programs are going through the growing pains of making the arrangements for the first time. You have to reserve the venue, make sure the performers are on board and paid for, and you must orchestrate the masses of volunteers and parents who are going to be involved.
That’s what most programs can expect, but Taylor says it wasn’t that difficult for him. The quartet was familiar with the venue and because the performer had a daughter in the program, negotiating a date and rate was a breeze.
The silent auction is much simpler and the payoff has greater potential. Taylor says pictures of the items are posted on the Internet and because it reaches a wider audience, there is the promise of greater revenue.
High school programs can hold auctions in connection with team banquets or other events. But using a team website and orchestrating it over the Internet can lead to bigger returns.
“It’s a stress, but because of the success of the concert, we probably will do two more fundraisers this year,” Taylor says. “The beauty of something like the silent auction is that with those types of events, once the photo items are put online it doesn’t require oversight. You don’t have to sit there and actually sell.
“It’s not a grueling process and just like the parents, program leaders are responsible for selling tickets to the event.”
Choosing traditional options
The traditional fundraisers are still healthy options, though many coaches consider those more of a gamble versus larger events. Players can spend five hours working the tables at a bake sale and it’s impossible to determine whether they’ll walk away with $100 or $1,000. Creating a concert or even a local tournament allows organizations to focus their resources at one event for one day, minimizing the risk.
There are other ways club and high school programs can earn extra cash. Here are a few tips:
- Develop your budget: Before you determine what direction you should take with your program, try to estimate what it’s going to cost. A budget may be created between the coach and athletic director, but make sure it’s on point. Don’t assume that rolling over last year’s budget will meet this year’s needs.
- Get an event sponsor: Depending on school or club policy, you may be able to have a local business sponsor some of your community-wide events. Get creative and see what sort of partnerships are in the best interest of your program.
- Host a tournament: If your facilities can support it, creating your own event and luring a number of teams to compete can help you bring some revenue to your team. Some high schools host a Christmas tournament or other competition that invites schools in nearby communities.Just do it right–create a quality, organized tournament where all teams can benefit. “For fundraising, one thing a lot of people do is run their own tournaments, because between the admission charges and the concessions you can have a really nice weekend,” says Dan Krauser of the World Class Basketball Association in Illinois. “You can get the parents working concessions to keep them involved.”
- Utilize fundraising companies: There are several companies out there that will assist your program in developing an effective fundraiser for a fee. It’s important for you to analyze whether this is worth the cost, and if an outside resource is truly what fits into your plans.
Regardless of the direction you choose, coaches agree that one of the best things you can do for your program is to take advantage of the resources available to you. Your organization likely is loaded with parents who are willing to lend a hand in some capacity. Find out what they’re capable of and how big of a commitment they’ll make.
That’s what Taylor learned, and by utilizing parents who are strongly committed to the success of the Michigan Storm, he was able to carve a new tradition that’s welcomed with open arms. It’s possible your high school program can do the same.
“When we were brand new that first year, we certainly didn’t utilize fundraising at all or certainly not enough,” Taylor says. “We just wanted to go and we were just trying to navigate the landscape. We were learning mid-season, and we realized that it was something that we should have got involved in and made a priority.
“That first year until now–two-and-a-half years later–is like night and day because we understand now what the (program) costs are and how they can rise. We just want to make sure we keep them down.”
A unique perspective
Thinking outside the box seems to be the common theme, and that means you don’t always have to look to parents or those with stake in your program to try and gain traction on the fundraising circuit.
Several coaches look to businesses in their communities, some of which are willing to take part in discount programs that can raise significant revenue for your program with little overhead. Businesses will offer to help you by negotiating specific discounts with restaurants and other retailers, but it’s not that difficult to go out yourself and find companies willing to take part.
Once you reach agreements with those willing to offer deals, find a company that will print your discount cards at a reduced rate. Some programs negotiate the deals, design the cards themselves and find a printer, putting the whole project together with about $1 of overhead per card. Everything else is pure profit.
If you plan on running the same fundraiser consecutive years, organizing the discount cards a second time is as easy as picking up the phone. Many times all it takes is going back to the same businesses and confirming whether they would like to run the same discount for another year.
Of course, clubs not willing to commit to a larger event still have the typical options that require a larger time commitment from players who usually do the brunt of the legwork. Many programs still sell candy, restaurant cards and cookie dough. It helps the program though it often receives a smaller percentage of the sales than if you were to organize your own event.
Whatever path you choose, it’s important to try and involve everyone with stake in the program. Building that sort of bond with parents and players motivates everyone to try and do what’s best to keep your club up and running.
“It helps the psyche of the children to get a chance to contribute,” Taylor says. “With our concert, we likely raise more money than having the players sell candy. We have no head count on how many people showed up, but we covered the overhead and made a profit selling tickets (for $15). People bought tickets who didn’t even come, just to support the program, and we cleared more than $1,500 for that amount of work.”