Fundraising for Athletics: Leveraging Direct Mail to Support Your Donor Strategies

Fundraising for Athletics: Leveraging Direct Mail to Support Your Donor Strategies

Over my three years at JHL, I’ve been tasked with providing quarterly content for our blog for current and future JHL Advance customers. As a direct mail company, our focus has always been on how our product and services can be partnered successfully with solicitation or stewardship methods for advancement offices. In the field of education, this has usually been in support of academic initiatives.

Remembering my time in annual giving at UW-Stevens Point, our advancement office started playing a centralized role in annual campaigns for the athletics department. From high school all the way to Div. I college athletics, there is a fundraising component to support each individual team within that program. While most coaches know there is a fundraising component to their job, many would rather focus their time and effort into coaching, instead of organizing a mailing.

As I’m writing this blog, March Madness is right around the corner and will have likely come to its conclusion by the time you read it. The next school year will be upon us sooner than we think and planning on how to maintain or increase revenue to cover budgets will be on every athletic director and coach’s minds throughout the summer.

Differences Between Div. I and Div. III Athletics

Without getting too much into specific details on this topic, there is a vast difference in budgetary needs for each school which can depend on its size, the division in which it plays and number (and type) of teams it supports.

There are approximately 360 Div. I schools and their athletics are most prominently represented on TV through football and basketball. Those tend to be the big revenue generators as they have become a nationwide spectacle between bowl games, post-season tournaments and player development leading to professional leagues (NFL, NBA, WNBA).

Student-athletes at Div. I schools (as well as Div. II schools) have something that Div. III schools do not…athletic scholarships. The ability to recruit top-tier talent is driven by the ability to provide significant financial support to these individuals. (I’m not going to even talk about NIL.) Students who get recruited to play at a Div. I school often “eat, breathe and sleep” their sport. If they are receiving a performance-based scholarship, they are expected to be able to perform at the highest level.

Div. I schools also have sophisticated funding and fundraising operations to allow their student-athletes to place a greater emphasis on training, performing and representing their institutions. The training and playing facilities reflect that.

Those competing at a Div. III school (approximately 430 schools nationwide) are looking for an experience where academics and athletics play a more balanced role. If a scholarship is awarded, it is because of academic achievement as opposed to what they accomplish outside the classroom.

Lastly, Div. I schools see revenue from television contracts, major donors with naming opportunities, national sponsorships and season ticket sales within facilities sometimes holding tens of thousands of seats. A Div. III school relies on a smaller pool of major donors, fundraising events, local sponsors, ticket sales…and charitable contributions from donors and players, not to mention family and friends of current student-athletes.

Let’s take a glimpse at how three athletic departments from three Div. III schools handle their fundraising:

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Located in central Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is a public institution with more than 8,000 students enrolled. Since 1987, its thirteen team national titles have been won almost exclusively by winter sports. In the early 80’s, its men’s basketball team were represented on the court by future NBA All-Star Terry Porter and led by Wisconsin Hall of Fame coach, Dick Bennett.  In recent years, the men’s hockey team has seen a high level of success with 10 consecutive conference championships and two national titles.

The athletic department at UW-Stevens Point oversees 26 Div. III teams. This is an increase from just five years with six new teams added within that time. This was part of a strategic plan to expand offerings to provide more opportunities for current and incoming students with athletic programs that have seen regional and nationwide growth.

Additional teams bring budget implications for a department. While there were costs for uniforms, recruiting, and general start-up, most of the added sports didn’t include much additional overhead, especially when compared to sports like ice hockey and football.

Still, there are coaches’ salaries and travel costs that need to be accounted for. According to Tony Romano, Major Gifts Officer for Athletics, that was planned for in advance during a feasibility study. Between state dollars, student segregated fees, general revenue (corporate partnerships, golf outings, raffles and ticket sales), and private giving their budget is the healthiest it’s been in years, despite general-purpose revenue (funding through the state) only accounting for about one-third of what is needed.

UW-Stevens Point might be a bit of an outlier when it comes to donor tendencies. Coaches may send out emails with game recaps, off-season updates and giving links, but the target audience of alumni and community members still prefer traditional mail. Direct mail continues to be a strong response mechanism for donors. Even if a gift is given online, it is usually triggered by the mail piece they receive.

The athletic department knows that they can’t rest on the laurels when it comes to fundraising. Over the past few years, they have been working to better collect and maintain data on the campus affinities where student-athletes have shown a connection; not just sports, but clubs, organizations and even dorms.

All these data points will help the athletic department – and all advancement efforts on campus – to create stronger, personalized messaging packaged within an envelope and delivered to a mailbox.

“The pendulum between mail and email continues to swing. I see at least fifteen e-mails in my inbox before I even sit at my desk. Most of them are junk,” said Romano. “Maybe that’s why a mail piece stands out.”

St. Norbert College

Just outside the “frozen Tundra” of Green Bay, St. Norbert College is a private liberal arts college in De Pere, Wisc. In fact, St. Norbert was host for the Green Bay Packers pre-season training camps for more than 60 years.

Current enrollment at the college stands at around 1,900 students and the athletic department supports 23 Div. III athletic teams. Dating back to the early 1980s, athletic teams have made national tournament appearances more than 90 times. The Men’s Hockey teams has brought home a national championship five times within a ten-year span (2008-2018).

About 80 percent of the athletic budget covers non-personnel expenses, such as in-region travel, practice gear, meals per diem and equipment. The remaining 20 percent is directed to support staff budgets, sports info and athletic training among other things.

As a private institution, fundraising always plays a prominent role in operational costs. That is no different for the athletics department. A little more than 25 percent of their budget is offset through charitable contributions. Any “extras,” such as trips to Florida or abroad, as well as NCAA post-season opportunities, are organized by individual coaches.

Speaking with Emily VanderLinden, director of annual giving, she mentioned how many coaches have started working with the advancement office to assist with their fundraising needs. There are still a few that have the background and resources to handle it on their own.

While there has been some use of direct mail, they’ve leaned heavily into utilizing crowdfunding which has worked well for them. Many teams rely on student-athletes to ask family and close friends to make contributions to their respective sports teams.

By providing a URL and QR code along with some pre-written content, coaches and players can send the crowdfunding site to potential donors which gathers important contact data directly from the source. This works much better than having student-athletes compile information beforehand for a solicitation which can sometimes be incomplete or unreliable. When using direct mail, this can end up being a drain on resources with information going to bad addresses or individuals with no clear reason or real capacity to give.

With the implementation of the crowdfunding site, they have raised close to $40,000 through nine athletic-focused campaigns in its first year of use. Not only are they receiving gifts, but the advancement office is receiving real data information (address and email) from the donor. This allows the office to provide an accurate list of donors in subsequent years.

Accurate mailing lists help get your message to your donors. Emails can easily get lost or forgotten in inboxes. Email accounts can easily be abandoned. Maintaining your mailing list can help you reach those individuals who have lapsed in their giving. Sending a targeted postcard with a link or QR code to a giving page can easily help re-engage a donor who hasn’t responded to electronic methods.

University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

UW-Whitewater is a public institution in southeastern Wisconsin with student enrollment just over 11,000 for the 2023-24 academic year. If it has any name-recognition outside of academics, it is likely due to a string of national championship appearances by its football team from 2005-2014, which included six trophies.

The athletics department manages 20 NCAA teams. In its history, their teams have won 20 national championships with the vast majority taking place since 2000. Additionally, the department oversees intramural sports, club sports (with some fielding competitive teams) and a wheelchair athletics program that has won numerous championships for both its men’s and women’s basketball teams.

According to Kiefer Sullivan, major gift officer for Warhawk Athletics, about 50 percent of operational costs comes from student tuition dollars. (Students get free admission to all events as a result.) Many teams have postseason aspirations every year, so a portion of those expenses are kept in consideration. Anything past that amount comes from team fundraising.

Because efforts are not centralized, teams have the option of handling their own fundraising. Many focus their efforts by running summer camps (and day camps during the school year). During big sporting events, some teams will manage parking lots, run concession stands or hold a 50/50 raffle.

When they need to target specific audiences like invitations to an alumni banquet or golf outing, they can lean on their advancement office to help identify their key constituents to focus their communication. The advancement office also provides the infrastructure of giving pages, QR codes and other collateral materials that coaches can utilize.

One area of growth for the department is a relaunch of its “W-Club,” which provided a benefit program for past student-athletes who wished to continue supporting their team(s). The program was placed on hold as a result of the pandemic, but could see a re-envisioning as they look at ways to further steward their donors while bringing an additional revenue stream to support their teams.

Whether it’s academic or athletic, a loyalty or benefit program regularly does well with direct mail. It provides a level of prestige that an email can lack. Oftentimes, the amount of information provided can be easily missed on a screen. Laid out correctly, having a tangible piece in a donor’s hands to read – and re-read – can be a great method to ensure your entire message is seen.

If you are interested in how JHL can help with your next direct mail campaign, athletics or academics, please contact for


Dan Krueger |  April 2024

Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.

Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.