Powered by

Athletics In The Higher Education Philanthropic Ecosystem

By Jason Penry, Ph.D. - Penry Advisors

Higher education is at an inflection point as confidence is at a historic low and concerns about cost persist. Boards and leaders continually seek to better understand and evaluate costs from all departments on campus, to make attendance more affordable.

One department often evaluated by campuses and university systems is athletics. Fortunately, many continue to proactively build the case for value for college athletics. This allows leaders in higher education to see athletics as an investment and not a cost.

Research has shown that athletics can serve as a catalyst to increase enrollment, increase national exposure, and build stronger ties to alumni and the university community by providing numerous engagement opportunities. This article adds two items to the “value” case that profiles how athletics produces a return on investment (ROI) to campuses.

Athletics has an important role within the philanthropic ecosystem of higher education. For example, Clemson University recently made an announcement that it raised $217 million for the previous fiscal year. Remarkably, $135 million (over 62%) of the overall giving number was raised for Clemson Athletics.

While it is uncommon for athletics to account for over half the giving for any university for a particular year, the announcement by Clemson spotlights two value-added considerations regarding the significance athletics plays in the higher education philanthropic ecosystem:

  • First, athletics is typically among the major production areas for comprehensive university capital campaigns.
  • Secondly, athletics provides multiple opportunities for engagement to help academics pursue and secure transformative gifts.


Athletics as a Major Production Center for Comprehensive Capital Campaigns 

Many comprehensive university capital campaigns typically only have a handful of areas (e.g., engineering, business, agriculture, athletics) that serve as significant production centers for giving. Without question, not all areas can produce substantial funds needed to secure ambitious campaign goals.

Fortunately, most college athletics programs are a major source of production in many university capital campaigns. For example, in an analysis of the largest (over $4 billion) completed comprehensive campaigns for public institutions, six of the typical higher production areas were evaluated as a share of overall campaign giving. To add context, all seven campaigns were completed by members of the Association of American Universities (AAU).

AreaUniv. 1Univ. 2Univ. 3Univ. 4Univ. 5Univ. 6Univ. 7
Vet. Medicine7.00%N/AN/A3.00%N/AN/A4.40%

As the data indicates, athletics production is noticeably comparable to business and engineering school fundraising. This strengthens the case for athletics’ importance within the higher education ecosystem.

It is fair to state that most universities will not engage in campaigns of this scope and size; however, based on my experience as a chief advancement officer at two lower resourced institutions – at the Group of 5 and Division 2 levels – the percentage of production in those areas is similar. Athletics is indeed a key contributor to campaign success.


Athletics Provides Ample Engagement Opportunities 

Something not often quantified is the major role that athletics has in securing transformative gifts to academics. In a qualitative study of how four academic college (e.g., engineering, business, agriculture) naming gifts of $20 million or more came to be realized, three major themes emerged:

  • First, introduce donors to big ideas. Fundraisers must “plant the seeds” for transformational gift ideas during donor visits. Typically, donors don’t approach universities with big ideas, the university must introduce its big ideas to donors to gauge interest and refine them.
  • Secondly, have patience. Some donors have little involvement until just before they make their college naming gifts. Do not get discouraged or give up hope.
  • Thirdly, athletics is an outstanding development tool; use it. University fundraisers should utilize athletics to benefit academics.


The third theme is not often properly valued within the philanthropic ecosystem at each institution. Here are excerpts from interviews regarding how academic fundraisers utilized athletics in benefit of academics:

  • The dean and academic fundraiser “presented (the couple) a feasibility study in the suite at halftime of a football game.”
  • The donors “gave to athletics in smaller amounts for decades” before deciding to make this college naming gift.
  • “Our (college development team) used the chancellor’s box and courtside seats” to begin to get the donors engaged.


This qualitative data reinforces the notion that athletics connects donors in support of the university’s academic mission. Athletics provides ample opportunities of engagement to academic deans and fundraisers.



Athletics has a significant role in propelling institutions forward through philanthropy. As the data spotlights, athletics is a major production center in comprehensive capital campaigns and provides engagement opportunities to secure lead gifts for academics. In an ancillary manner, these insights build a stronger case for athletics to be viewed by boards and campus leaders as an investment and not a cost.

In a resource-short environment, which is expected to intensify in the years and decades ahead, collaborations are key. University advancement and athletics working closely together is good business. Leaders in both areas should continue to strive for a strong, mutually beneficial partnership. The data reveals that the success of this relationship can manifest itself via transformational philanthropic support.


Jason Penry has 20 years of experience in consulting for universities from California to New York. Known for expertise in fundraising in college athletics, particularly how to maximize the university advancement/athletics fundraising partnership. Penry was the second-ever holder of the James Aston University Chair in Institutional Development, established in 1985, at Texas A&M University. Penry spent over a decade in university leadership as a chief advancement officer/vice president/vice chancellor at Arkansas State and Angelo State /Texas Tech System.