Beyond Fish Plates and Tailgates: Steering HBCU Fundraising from Fanaticism to Support

As Director of Athletics at an HBCU who oversaw fundraising efforts for the department, I learned many important lessons about HBCU fundraising culture. Perhaps none is more important than this: HBCU have plenty of fans. What they need are more supporters.
In non-profit fundraising, we spend a great deal of time identifying, cultivating, and soliciting donations, often over unintimidating, nondescript lunch and coffee meetings, at tailgating parties, and fish fries.  Everyone enjoys friends regaling us with stories of championships won, and narrowly lost, great athletes and coaches, filled stands, brimming pride, and rich traditions passed from generation to generation.  One hopes, eventually, that the conversation will pivot from yesteryear to visions for the future.
As a career institutional advancement officer, no sweeter words can be uttered by a prospective donor than “How can I help y’all?”
An important element of discussion with prospects is the notion of what individuals and groups believe they can do to help (which often indicates both capacity and ability to give).  When discussions pivot toward this topic in HBCU circles, many are inclined to share the ways that they “support” our institutions proudly.  Some of the more common claims include:
1) I’ve never missed a game—including road games
2) I pay my booster club dues annually (~$100/year)
3) I pay my university alumni dues annually (~$50/year)
4) I organize fundraisers (crawfish boils, fish fries, and raffles)
While all of these are important determinants of who has capacity to become strong supporters of our institutions, they are not always indicators of substantial support. It’s important to note that passion such as this can easily be converted from fanaticism to strong institutional support, but this process requires collaboration and education, and that is the responsibility of institutional advancement officers.
Never missing a road game means that individuals are purchasing tickets from host institutions, buying their fuel and tailgating supplies from companies that may or may not support their institution, and spending dollars supporting businesses in other towns/cities.  For example, supporting the great cultural hallmark The Bayou Classic means that one weekend every year, Grambling and Southern fans pump over $30 million into the city of New Orleans, and yet bring fewer than 4% of those dollars back to their foundations and institutions.
Fans come to New Orleans and attend the parties (and pre- and after- and after-after-parties).  Supporters buy tickets to and attend the event, and buy tickets to home games because the institution receives that support directly.
Additionally, obtaining tickets from board members, corporate sponsors, or university officials do not support the university.  Each fan that attends an athletic event without paying for a ticket costs money—more security, parking attendants, ushers, and gameday staff are required for hospitality without revenues to offset.  Supporters pay for their tickets, pay to park, and pay to tailgate.  While carpooling is encouraged—sneaking on to campus before security arrives or producing duplicate passes doesn’t support anyone.
Paying dues is important, but it’s also important to examine what support those dues engender.  If the majority of the dues paid by your booster club are expended on bus trips to road games and to buying supplies for free tailgating at home games, that’s a social club.  Ensure that at least a portion of those dues is donated to the institution for support, or perhaps recommend that your club do this.  Even in your social clubs, encourage members to support businesses that back your institution.
Alumni dues are often expended on providing hospitality to visiting alumni and their families at various events, but if little remains for institutional support, the process enables fans to have a better experience, but does not support the institution.  Supporters should pay dues, attend alumni events, and recruit fellow alumni to join them and pay their dues, too.
Finally, organized fundraisers are an important part of the alumni chapter/booster club experience, giving members and their families time to meet, network, grow and share enthusiasm, and share meals, beverages, and stories.  Yet, they are often time consuming, net marginal revenues, and do not provide meaningful institutional support (exceptions exist, but they are not the rule).
Fans host day parties and tailgates and cookouts to celebrate their alma mater and rock their school colors.  Supporters ensure those parties have enough private support to generate net revenues (for scholarship donations) and party with a purpose.  They only wear school colors if they’re licensed products and they buy their party supplies from fellow alumni and supporters who in turn increase their support for the institution.
A supporter gives without expectation of return, out of a spirit of philanthropy, in order to grow revenues, grow the brand, and grow the institution.  A fan participates for self-gratifying purposes—to brag about wins, commiserate over losses, to beam with pride over your alma mater’s successes and benefit from its growing brand and your association with it.  Sports are nothing without fans—they are necessary for the experience to be as thrilling as it is.  However, they are not one in the same with supporters.
A fan purchases a season ticket (or bums tickets from friends, or, only attends homecoming or the annual big rivalry game) only to give it up when the team hits a losing streak.   A supporter buys those tickets each year regardless of outcome, buys extra to encourage members of the community to attend and/or encourages church, community members, and business colleagues to participate. Southern University is a perennial national top ten institution in attendance for FCS football, and yet, football gate, tailgating, and parking revenues barely cancel out coaches’ salaries, scholarships, and football gameday and operating expenses.  Additional support is needed to grow the department’s revenues and provide more support to student-athletes AND better represent the institution through athletic competition on the regional and national stage, potentially benefitting the institution writ large.
A fan asks “How can my affiliation with this organization benefit me?” A supporter asks “How can my affiliation(s) benefit the organization.”  They leverage support from their fellow alumni and business connections.  Supporters donate to the annual, general scholarship, or endowed scholarship fund so that students may benefit.
To close, one need be either a fan or a supporter.  In fact, my favorite folks are both, and several of the boosters and booster clubs with which I worked at Southern exemplify this symbiosis.  Support and fanaticism can and should go hand in hand.  However, one without the other is faith without act.
It is critical that HBCU administrators and fundraisers, and alumni and supporters of these institutions reflect on the important relationship between fanaticism and support, and work to bridge the two.  Our institutions do not lack enthusiastic alumni and fans.  What we lack are institutional representatives who educate potential supporters about the support that is needed and how fans can support their alma mater’s efforts.
That is how we can help, y’all.
Dr. William Broussard is the Special Assistant to the President for Institutional Advancement of the Southern University System.