For Fundraisers: How to Build a Successful Partnership with Your Athletic Director

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It doesn’t matter if you are a Major Gift Officer working as a liaison to the athletic department or a Director of Athletic Development. Now more than ever, to effectively raise money for your college athletic department you must have a successful partnership with your Athletic Director. Many advancement professionals working with college athletic departments do not have a background as a coach or an administrator.

So how can you, as the athletic fundraiser, build a successful partnership with your Athletic Director?

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to help build this relationship, but here are four steps you can take to get started:

1. Schedule a weekly meeting with your Athletic Director.

If a weekly meeting isn’t possible, then make sure it is at least bi-weekly. These meetings will ensure that you, as the frontline fundraiser for the athletic department, have a strong understanding of the current needs of the department. While you’re meeting, you’ll also have the opportunity to coordinate upcoming travel and additional events that require the Athletic Director’s attendance.

It may also be helpful for you to attend athletic staff meetings and for your Athletic Director to attend development meetings going forward, to further strengthen the connection between your departments. This will allow you to learn even more about the athletic department and will allow your Athletic Director to learn more about fundraising and alumni relations at your institution.

2. Ask the right questions.

During your first weekly or bi-weekly meeting you will want to determine how comfortable your Athletic Director is with fundraising. Ask: “Would you be open to visiting with alumni off campus and asking for their support?”

If the answer is no…
You will need to find creative ways to have alumni interact with your Athletic Director on campus. This could be done by hosting a pre or post game event for loyal donors after a basketball or lacrosse game. You also could have your Athletic Director visit with alumni after a golf tournament or any other signature events that take place on your campus throughout the academic year.

If the answer is yes…
You should find a week when you and the Athletic Director can hit the road and visit with alumni. You also will want to ask if the Athletic Director has any prospects in mind that could be your anchor visits when planning the trip and also what the most important fundraising initiative should be while visiting with key alumni (i.e. annual support or capital projects). If these visits go well, you should plan to have your Athletic Director visit with alumni as often as his or her schedule allows. Be sure to ask about possible times for visits during your weekly or bi-weekly meetings going forward.

Also, ask your Athletic Director about the extent to which he or she wishes to be involved with your annual solicitation efforts. Some Athletic Directors may wish to see the mailer before it goes out, while others may have no desire to get involved.

3. Establish trust within the athletic department.

In order to successfully raise funds for athletics, you must have the support of the coaching staff. The key message for everyone to understand is that all boats rise with the tide. Regardless of the size of your institution, everyone benefits from working together. If a coach does not believe that you have their best interests in mind, it will be difficult to discourage teams from fundraising independently. Creating a united front that communicates consistent messaging to alumni, parents and friends is extremely important for you as a front line fundraiser. You do not want donors to think that the left hand does not know what the right is doing.

What to do if the trust has been broken or needs to be repaired…
If you are new to a staff where the trust of the athletic department does not exist or has been broken by your predecessor, then you will need to act quickly. The key for a frontline fundraiser is to sit down with each coach and listen to what they need prior to the start of the season. Now that you have this information, you will be able to discuss these needs with specific donors during prospect visits, but only after they have been approved by your Athletic Director. While it may not be possible to meet every coach’s need immediately, you still can show the athletic department staff that you are listening to the coaches and working on rebuilding that trust.

4. Develop a prospect portfolio for your Athletic Director.

Having a small portfolio that your Athletic Director can manage will allow him or her to steward key donors with major gift potential, or those that have already made a major gift to support the athletic department. If your Athletic Director is a former coach, it may also make sense to assign former players to their portfolio. Allowing your Athletic Director to visit these individuals regularly will keep your donors engaged and keep the door open for future major gift conversations. It also will provide your most loyal athletic donors the opportunity to interact with your Athletic Director on a regular, individual basis.

If you happen to be at a smaller institution, then this can be another great tool for your donor relations staff, because access to influential members of the athletic department is sometimes all a donor requires to stay engaged.

Establishing a positive relationship with your Athletic Director as a frontline fundraiser for athletics is worth the time and effort. Implementing regular meetings and including each other in important conversations between advancement and athletics will help your fundraising efforts in the future. Remember, “there is no ‘I’ in team”; this collaborative approach will allow your staff to reach the ultimate goal of securing more dollars and more donors for athletics.


Josh shares more in our recorded webcast Building Fundraising Partnerships with Athletic Directors. Learn how to:

  • Develop shared fundraising goals
  • Ensure consistent messaging with donors
  • Increase the total dollars raised between your offices