Athletics philanthropy programs at major colleges and universities frequently have large donor bases comprised of alumni and fans alike, all eager to be a part of the team—and to experience the perks that this association often brings. The pay-to-play nature of athletics philanthropy can create the impression that it’s all a transaction. But is that really all there is?

Consider the traditional perspective on athletics philanthropy as a reciprocal engagement where an individual either pays back services rendered (as with grateful alumni) or pays to acquire privileges (as with membership programs). We spoke with a collegiate soccer coach who explained his view of this type of transaction:

Most of the donations I have received have come from ex-players. [Athletic philanthropy] is not so much an investment. I think when a program or university has helped you out, you want then in turn to help that university or program. So I think it’s almost like a big brother or uncle helping out the little brother or the nephew. You know, a person finally got in a position to say, “Thanks, and I want to give back now.” That’s more or less how I see the donors.

Transactional gifts have their place. But if we think that is all there is to athletics philanthropy, we are missing something important.

Oftentimes, transactional giving—especially when the donor is giving year after year—is an indication of a deeper interest. The donor is raising his or her hand, saying “Here I am!” Are we listening?

It is important to recognize that deeper interests, or underlying passions, are almost always based on personal experiences. Consider this donor, who explains what makes his athletics philanthropy at a major university meaningful:

My father died when I was 10, and my coaches became my mentors. Coaches teach young men and women the value of loyalty, the value of being on a team. Competition teaches young people, male and female, how to step up and put it on the line. For me, collegiate athletics teaches you how to overcome and the value of being on a team and the value of being a good teammate, on and off the field. That’s very much like the real world.

It was a life-changing experience that drove this donor’s philanthropy, which is deeply meaningful to him and highly significant to the university.


Here are steps you can take to invite deeply meaningful athletics philanthropy:

  • Invite donors to share their own personal “athletics” story.

This may begin with you sharing a story of yours, or by asking a high-value question such as, “What makes your contributions to this program meaningful to you?” Sometimes donors may not yet realize themselves their reasons for giving, but those meaningful stories are in there, just waiting to be uncovered.

  • Share the impact that contributions make on the lives of student athletes.

By bringing it down to the individual level, you can create an emotional connection that deepens the relationship beyond the merely transactional. Identifying a donor’s personal story can also help you identify which inspiring examples would be most appropriate to share.

  • Never assume a shallow connection.

It might seem like a donor just wants the perks of membership, but if athletics are meaningful to the donor, they are meaningful for a reason. The only way to find out what those reasons are is to ask.


Click here to learn more about Advancement Resources’ professional education in athletics philanthropy