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Virginia Athletics Foundation: Can VAF raise $22.5 million?

The Virginia Athletics Foundation set an aggressive fundraising goal for 2015. Executive director Dirk Katstra explained the reasoning and pulled back the curtain on how athletic fundraising works.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Understanding VAF’s new campaign goal

The Virginia Athletics Foundation made headlines last month when it announced its "All In For Excellence" fundraising initiative. The announcement came in response to new NCAA legislation from that allows schools to fund the full cost of attendance for scholarship athletes. The big reveal in the announcement was that the VAF would seek to raise $22.5 million in 2015, up from its previously-announced $16.17 annual campaign goal.

For the non-math majors like me out there…that’s a "big jump."

VAF Executive Director Dirk Katstra was kind enough to discuss the new campaign with Streaking The Lawn. In addition, he provided a number of important and interesting details about how Virginia’s athletics fundraising works. With the March 31 priority point bonus deadline looming for 2015 donors, let’s take a look at the picture Katstra provided.

A key point Virginia fans might not realize is that the VAF raises significant funds outside of its annual campaign. Whereas fans might only see the annual campaign goal, the organization always raises money for things like its endowment, building projects, and operational costs for certain sports. With the new NCAA legislation passed, 2015 presented an opportunity to make the bigger fundraising goal public.

"Because of the changing environment in college athletics," Katstra said, "we thought that it would make more sense to articulate our total program to the donor base."

While at first glance the jump from $16 to $22 million might cause some initial shock, Katstra noted that a lot of the fundraising included in that number will be for costs the VAF raises funds for each year. For example, in 2014, the organization raised $2 million for its endowment, and another $1 million for operational costs. Each of those items came from funding that was above and beyond the annual campaign result of $15 million. A back of the napkin calculation suggests that the VAF raised, in total, $18 million or so in 2014.

All that said, $22.5 million remains ambitious. The NCAA full cost of attendance legislation adds an entire new fundraising category and scholarship costs continue to rise. A fully-funded scholarship for an out-of-state student athlete like Malcolm Brogdon costs $51 thousand per year. A scholarship for an in-state student athlete like Justin Anderson costs over $23 thousand per year. Moreover, the fundraising that goes on outside the annual campaign tends to be more difficult to count on.

"Most often times those are brand new gift commitments," Katstra said. "For example, if we endow a full scholarship at a half a million dollars in 2014, we have to go out and find another new half-a-million-dollar commitment to count it for 2015."

New donors, returning donors

The biggest lever VAF can pull these days is to go out and find new donors. In order to achieve that goal, the organization launched the "Hoos With Us" campaign in 2014 and rolled out a second edition this year. Like many other fundraising organizations, the VAF experiences regular donor turnover. Katstra estimated that the organization retains about 80% of its donors from one year to the next, but that an increase in donor retention is always a goal. Katstra noted that the people behind the donations are just as important as the donations themselves, because if people can get into the mindset of "giving every year," then their donations can add up significantly over time.

The Average Virginia Donor

Katstra also gave some insight into the profile of the average Virginia donor. The average gift made to the annual campaign "is in the neighborhood of $1,500," Katstra said. Approximately 850 donors are at the $6,200 per year donor level or above. And Katstra would estimate that between 65% and 75% of VAF donors are alumni of the university.

How much does winning matter?

Given the current state of the football and men’s basketball programs, we had to ask Katstra about the impact that specific team success has on donations. While Tony Bennett and he hoops team played to a screaming packed house this past season, the football team saw a major loss of support in ticket sales. Katstra acknowledged that winning certainly makes fundraising easier, but that it’s not only thing on the minds of donors.

"By and large we have had a really good core group of donors at all levels that care about the program," Katstra said. "It’s not just about is your football team or basketball good. It’s about a combination of things that gets to the pride of Virginia athletics."

Katstra noted that while overall support for the football program has fallen off, support among donors who get the "better seats" has remained strong. He attributed at least some of the low attendance to the better home watching experience that current technology provides.

"There’s been such significant growth in television contracts that we all know about," Katstra said. "In a lot of ways I wonder if some of the money that schools used to generate in ticket sales and at the gate has just been moved to a different category. And now it’s just in the television contract category."

The Bottom Line

As we wrote back in February, it appears that the state of the VAF is strong. It’s hard to imagine that Katstra would have allowed the "All In For Excellence" campaign to publicly go forward without some level of belief that the $22.5 million goal could be reached. Still, it will be interesting to see where the campaign sits after this week’s March 31 priority point bonus deadline. If you’re a Virginia fan or donor who’s considering making your 2015 donation, now would certainly be a good time to do it.