Finances & Fundraising: Story of a Surplus

April 27, 2017

This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 issue of Athletic Management

When this athletic director took over at Queens College, she was charged with turning the program into a revenue generator. By rethinking resources and risks, athletics has now brought in over $1 million on her watch.

By China Jude

 

China Jude is Assistant Vice President for Athletics at Queens College, The City University of New York. She has served as Chair of the NCAA Division II Nominating Committee, Chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee and incoming Vice President of NACDA’s Minority Opportunities Athletic Association (MOAA). In 2015, Jude was named National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWAA) Division II Administrator of the Year. She can be reached at: China.Jude@qc.cuny.edu.

 

 

Webster’s Dictionary defines an oxymoron as a “combination of contradictory or incongruous words.” NCAA Division II athletics and financial surplus is typically an oxymoron.

In the “Make It Yours” division, athletics is usually funded largely through institutional dollars and revenue generation is a small piece of the financial pie. The partial-scholarship model allows student-athletes to be rewarded for their skills through athletics-based aid without much pressure on coaches to fill the stands or seek outside funding sources.

Here at Queens College, we don’t follow that model. Only 20 percent of our dollars come from the school, and we have reported surpluses for the past five years, adding up to more than one million dollars.

Becoming a revenue-generating athletic department did not require changing our mission or our focus on the student-athlete experience. But it did mean rethinking our resources and being entrepreneurial. It also entailed taking some risks.

 

DIGGING OUT

Queens College is one of 16 schools that sponsor sports in the City University of New York (CUNY) system, although it is the only NCAA Division II program among CUNY and all public colleges and universities throughout New York state. It has a legacy of women’s basketball success, hosting the 1973 National AIAW Women’s Basketball Championship and being the first collegiate women’s squad to play at Madison Square Garden (in 1975). More recently, the squad has won three consecutive East Coast Conference Championships.

The athletic department also has a culture of community engagement and academic success. Our student-athletes volunteer regularly to help many causes in New York City, and there is a lot of pride in wearing a Queens uniform.

When I became Athletic Director here in the summer of 2011, I was excited to be part of this community. But I was also charged with a daunting task. I inherited a $1.3 million deficit and was told to eliminate it.

The directive was not impossible, but it was a bit overwhelming not knowing the culture. Where and how would I start? How do I get my new staff to support my philosophies and proposed strategies? Was I even qualified to take on this challenge? Well, as my late mom said, “You have 24 hours to feel sorry for yourself—now suck it up and go to work.” I followed her advice.

To start, my biggest task was understanding two main areas: the intricacies of the athletic department’s finances and the campus culture. I needed to know exactly how we might dig out of our financial hole. But I also knew I couldn’t make any big moves without thorough knowledge of the school’s environment.

Not every institution embraces athletics in the same way. Therefore, I took time to talk to people and do some research on the culture of Queens, both inside the athletics department and outside of it. I found that the largest sources of pride among all constituents were a strong tradition in academic success, graduation rates, and successful alumni (Jerry Seinfeld, Carole King, and former WNBA President Donna Orender, to name a few). Fondly known as the “Jewel of the CUNY system,” in the athletics arena, Queens College is the only D-II game in town.

Another part of my research was to understand and embrace the organization’s protocols. The bureaucracy of colleges and universities tends to be cumbersome and here at Queens that is especially true. CUNY has a very unique way of operating. I made sure to thoroughly learn and commit to following the school’s policies and protocols. A change to a system cannot be made without knowing the rules first.

From there, I pored over the financial records from previous years to discover how money came in and went out. Generally, our income was broken into three areas. Student fees covered 10 percent, institutional (tax) dollars covered another 10 percent, and the athletic department was responsible for the rest. Department-base revenues came from six areas: fundraising, summer camps, facility rentals, and fees to use our fitness center, tennis courts, and swimming pool.

The problem with this scenario is no surprise. It’s very difficult to bring in 80 percent of an NCAA Division II athletic program’s revenue through camps, user fees, and rentals. The athletic department had been posting annual deficits for at least four years prior to my arrival, and CUNY wanted them erased. We needed to figure out a new way to do business.

 

RETHINKING REVENUE

More than 2,000 years ago Titus Maccius Plautus said, “You must spend money to make money,” and that is what we did. It was risky. But it was strategic and well thought out. New York is a mecca for business, sports, government, and entertainment. It seemed only natural for Queens College, one of the most well-respected institutions in the city, to take advantage of the potential opportunities around it.

One investment was creating the position of Assistant Athletics Director for External Relations. This person was hired to oversee marketing, sponsorships, and branding. It was essential for the department’s brand to be strengthened, and we needed a dedicated full-time employee to do this.

The individual we hired was Kevin Williams, who had almost a decade of experience in marketing. He created a social media platform, added video content to our website, produced professional brochures, and started attending various Chamber of Commerce meetings and other networking events.

Fairly quickly, his initiatives resulted in an increased awareness of Queens athletics throughout the city. He’s built partnerships, signed corporate sponsors, and coordinated promotional activities, all of which have enhanced the game environment. This has led to increased attendance, bringing in more ticket sales and educating community members about our facilities and camps.

We’re also spending more money on staffing our facilities that generate revenue. The work is done by students, so the financial outlay is small. It’s a win-win in that it allows our revenue-generating areas to be open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., while student workers earn money and learn a skill.

Having the branding and employees in place is enabling us to extend our traditional revenue sources. For example, our summer camps now include a Spring Break Clinic, which targets elementary and middle school students. Parents seek activities for their children during the spring break week and the clinic offers quality, safe programming for them.

Another area of investment is facility upgrades. We worked very hard to get state allocations of more than $15 million to renovate our athletic facilities (including a $6-million gym floor). This has made our athletic venues more attractive, leading to increased rentals to high schools, AAU tournaments, and other sports leagues.

We are also promoting our facilities in new ways. We created a series of videos highlighting our tennis, fitness, and aquatics offerings. The staff was not familiar with producing videos, but once we talked them through the process, they were excited about the project. They enjoyed being able to highlight the facilities they are proud of and they learned so much about themselves in the process. I was proud of their creativity.

A fairly standard way to increase revenue is through alumni donations, and we also focus on this. Stewardship is of particular importance and we are doing this through new activities that bring alumni back to campus. Our initiatives have included alumni scrimmages, tailgating, and a new Athletics Hall of Fame. We are also doing more soliciting of donations and have started a thank-a-thon. Our men’s basketball coach has stepped up to oversee many of these activities, and he enjoyed serving as Master of Ceremonies at the inaugural Athletics Hall of Fame induction. While he focuses on the logistics, I have the time to cultivate donors and zero in on “the ask.” In addition, coaches are being asked to fundraise for their teams in ways that work for their specific sport.

A project that has worked extremely well is our commemorative gift program. Offering naming rights to big-time donors is nothing new, but we’ve found it also works wonders on a very small scale. The program allows parents, alumni, and supporters the opportunity to name objects throughout our department. This can include a bench, locker, trophy case, seat—anything that is not considered a major gift. The program provides an opportunity for the donors to take pride in a part of the facility by seeing their name and knowing their donation impacted students. They also have fun showing it off to their friends.

A lot of the cultivation process has entailed educating alumni about our successes and our needs. Knowing that their sources of pride revolve around academics, we highlight student-athlete graduation rates, team grade point averages, Academic All-Americans, and post-graduation success stories. This has worked well to strengthen our credibility and show how donations are working.

Explaining our needs has included getting alumni up to date on the current financial climate. Upon my arrival at Queens, alumni giving was typically less than $100. When I inquired about the reason for the small amount, I was informed that $100 was what those former students paid to attend school before the 1970s. Once donors received information that tuition is now $6,600 a year, alumni giving increased significantly.

One more area of education has been to dispel the myth that all NCAA members receive a lot of revenue from Division I men’s basketball championship media rights. Many of our supporters are not aware that little of this ends up in the pockets of Division II schools.

None of our initiatives are all that innovative, but they don’t need to be. We’ve found we can rely on proven strategies that work and that we can implement well in our area. The key has been having an ongoing and aggressive plan to market our services and teams.

 

COACHES ON BOARD

Figuring out a business plan was only half the battle, though. Maybe less than half. The other big piece has been to get coaches to buy into the changes.

Our coaches now have annual fundraising goals and are asked to create videos to initiate crowdfunding. They are organizing their student-athletes to perform paid jobs such as facility set-up and staffing concession stands. These are new duties and we are getting them on board through careful communication in several areas:

Transparency: To accept their role in fundraising, coaches need to know why it’s important. I’ve worked hard to be very transparent about finances, which has been proven to be a good strategy.

I continually inform coaches, and the broader campus community, about our financial challenges and victories. We offer monthly and end-of-year fiscal reports to all staff members. If there is an unexpected change or reduction of city/state funding, staff is immediately notified to brace themselves for any impact.

I also carefully communicate our financial strategies. Coaches can see the full extent of our plans and how they match up to peer institutions. This demonstrates that we’ve done our homework and provides justification regarding the process. In addition, allegations of favoritism among programs are reduced.

The Right Spirit: Regardless of position, everyone in the department is encouraged to have an entrepreneurial spirit. We ask staff to strategize ways to tap into alumni cultivation and be prepared to assume an additional job responsibility that enhances the department’s revenue streams.

Some of our coaches double as administrators, which directly taps into the revenue mission. For example, our men’s soccer coach is also the fitness coordinator. Our facilities coordinators are the head softball and head baseball coaches. The swim coach serves as the aquatics director. This saves money and strengthens the coaches’ overall skill set as an administrator.

Expectations: In our job postings and evaluation criteria, we make it clear that administrative duties, including fundraising, are part of a head coach’s job at Queens. In judging new coaching candidates, we look for well-rounded experience as an administrator just as much as tactical know-how in their sport. Annual expectations include a specified amount of fundraising success.

Incentives: Coaches and other staff members are encouraged to identify new rental groups to utilize the facilities. When they do, they receive five percent of the revenue generated from the rental.

Morale Checks: When talking about fundraising, I emphasize that the purpose is to commit to a positive student-athlete experience. That goes a long way in getting everyone on board. However, adding revenue goals can increase stress in an already stressful work environment. Therefore, I am always checking staff morale.

I welcome coaches to share their concerns with me at anytime, and I try to make adjustments when needed. I also perform climate surveys, which allows them to provide input in a private, constructive way without repercussion. For example, when there were discussions about the lack of resources for coaches to provide practice gear for their student-athletes, a decision was made for the department to purchase two T-shirts for each student-athlete at the start of the school year. This boosted student-athlete spirit and lifted a financial strain from the coaches as they prioritized their spending.

We have also created ways to support staff members that don’t cost much. We offer professional development, grant extra vacation time during the holidays, perform small facility upgrades, allocate unanticipated alumni donations to their budget, and create holiday gatherings and staff bonding activities.

Staff members are finding their fundraising duties are strengthening their individual skill sets. They are learning financial survival and business savvy, which helps them become marketable for future jobs. Those who depart Queens College athletics have become athletic directors, associate commissioners, and Division I head coaches and assistants. These staff members included their Queens College fundraising and finance experience on their resumes to earn that next job.

In the middle of 2016-17, we are on target to extend our surplus streak to six years, which will eliminate the deficit I inherited back in 2011. Our student-athletes have claimed six East Coast Conference championships and 12 NCAA appearances while maintaining a 3.0-grade point average and averaging 30 team community service projects a year since my arrival. It’s a great feeling to be able to lead an athletic department through turbulent waters and come out on solid ground.

 

 

sidebar:

Values First

While finances are foremost in my mind much of the time, on Oct. 29, 2012, I learned the importance of moving them back in the hierarchy of decision making. On that day, Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc in our city, and facilities were needed to house displaced New Yorkers. Initially, I worried about revenue loss if our gym space was not being used for rentals.

My school president who had recently hired me told me this: “Never worry about money in a time of crisis.” The impact of those words changed my way of managing the department.

For six weeks, our revenue generating facilities were closed in order to house evacuees. That put a dent in our financial plan, but it was obviously the right thing to do. Student welfare and experience is the number-one priority. Before anything else, we must commit to showing our student-athletes that compassion and community come first.

From New World Of Coaching
Having a “common language” in your program means that everyone shares the same goals and values when it comes to the success of the team. When you establish clear expectations and get everyone to buy-in, you will put your athletes in position to be their best.
Stay at the Top of Your Game!
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