In California, there's a new gold rush on: finding money to save high school sports. In the process, athletic directors have turned up some interesting and creative fundraising ideas.
By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management and can be reached at: kb@MomentumMedia.com. Editorial staff members Abigail Funk, Kyle Garratt, and Mike Phelps also contributed to this article.
Just over a year ago, students and staff in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District were handed some devastating news. Funds for all extracurricular activities would be eliminated in 2009-10.
They were not alone. Throughout California, school boards struggling with a massive loss of statewide funding for education were greatly reducing monies for athletic programs--or cutting them entirely--in what seemed like the blink of an eye. And the cuts are going even deeper this year.
As in many other school districts in the state, the staff at Mt. Diablo did not take the news sitting down. Administrators immediately met to brainstorm ways to raise the $1.2 million needed to save athletics. Since then, $900,000 has been brought in, with the additional $300,000 to be covered through upcoming events.
If there has been one small consolation to the ongoing budget crisis in California, it's that many athletic departments have responded with new and creative ideas in fundraising. From dinner auctions to selling a house, no stone has been left unturned and no volunteer has gone untapped. In this article, we profile some of the more successful endeavors now in place.
Faced with two options--the end of sports at its six high schools or massive fundraising--administrators and parents at Mt. Diablo knew they would need to be very organized if they chose the latter. They also knew they needed buy-in from the whole community.
Their first decision, which proved to be a good one, was to unify efforts across the district. Instead of each of the six high schools--Clayton Valley, College Park, Concord, Mt. Diablo, Northgate, and Ygnacio Valley--raising money on their own, they all pulled together.
Just as important was getting a structure in place. The United Mt. Diablo Athletic Foundation (UMDAF) was established as a tax-deductible 501(c)3 organization and a 12-member board of directors was formed, composed of administrators, parents, and boosters from the six schools. A Web site was created to publicize upcoming events, post press releases, profile alumni athletes, accept online donations, recognize donors, and sell T-shirts.
And an initial fundraiser was organized: the Mt. Diablo 5K Fun Run and Walk. Sunday, Oct. 18, was selected as the date of the event, and a goal of 1,000 participants was established. The UMDAF planned to raise money through entry fees, participants collecting money from sponsors, concessions, and grants.
To make the day fun and community oriented, the group also lined up side events. These included a barbecue, an appearance by former Oakland Raiders tight end Jeremy Brigham, and performances by high school musicians and dancers.
The entry fee for the race was $20, and coaches were asked to have their athletes sign up as teams. Physical education classes gave extra credit to every student participant, and iPods were offered to the student at each school who raised the most sponsorship money.
In the weeks before the event, UMDAF received 1,221 online registrations, and another 800 people signed up on the morning of the race. That totaled over $40,000 before runners took their first steps.
The run enjoyed widespread participation from community members, teachers, coaches, and student-athletes from all six schools----many of them dressed in their team uniforms. Parents pushed strollers, dogs ran alongside their owners, and Concord student-athletes pushed a wheelchair contingent of residents from a nearby nursing home. Athletic trainers from the schools donated their time to cover the event, a local soccer club paid for the cost of portable toilets, and each school provided enough volunteers to keep the event running smoothly.
Pat Middendorf, Athletic Director at Clayton Valley, says the combining of efforts was crucial. "If just one school had done this, the event wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful," says Middendorf, who also serves as President of the UMDAF. "A couple of these schools could have raised enough money to continue their programs, but others wouldn't have been able to preserve athletics on their own. The fact that all six came together turned this into a major fundraiser, and everybody took it very seriously."
By the end of the day, UMDAF had raised a total of $115,000. Middendorf credits community buy-in. "It was important to get as many people involved as possible," she says. "If you can get your coaches, students, and parents on board from the very beginning, word will spread like wildfire. We had our top athletes signing students up in the middle of our quad, and we had a remarkable number of volunteers with experience and a willingness to work hard."
Since the run, organizers have hosted a celebrity golf tournament and begun planning a three-day carnival for Memorial Day weekend. Middendorf is confident they'll reach their target, but once they do, they'll need to start fundraising for the 2010-11 school year. "The minute the race was over," she says, "we started asking ourselves, 'How are we going to make this even bigger next year?'"
At Paradise High School, the price tag to save athletics was $100,000. Boosters tossed some fundraising ideas back and forth, and ultimately settled on the most ambitious suggestion of all. Why not buy a house, renovate it with volunteer labor, and raffle it off?
"We're aiming high," says Seth Roberts, who is in his second year as Athletic Director at Paradise. "It might seem like we're shooting for the stars, but if we're going to keep sports afloat for the next two or three years, that's what we need to do. We need some major money to save athletics, and we can't expect to raise it with a car wash and a bake sale."
Organizers began by creating a tax exempt organization called The House of Sports and setting up a Web site to keep the community informed and accept online donations. Then, working with a realtor, they found a modest three-bedroom ranch house whose owner happened to be a retired schoolteacher.
With the downturn in the economy, she had been unable to sell the property for its assessed value, and was willing to strike a deal with The House of Sports. They agreed to pay the assessed value of $175,000 and placed an additional $15,000 in escrow for expenses incurred before the house could be transferred to the raffle winner.
Next, The House of Sports drafted a set of legal conditions for the raffle, registered the benefit with the state, and announced plans to sell 5,000 raffle tickets at $100 apiece. After buying the house and purchasing supplies for remodeling, the group would be left with about $275,000 for athletics, enough to sustain the program for almost three years.
With the help of an interior decorator, the owner of a local construction company, and the father of a football player, The House of Sports launched renovations at the beginning of last summer. Coaches poured the concrete walkways, student-athletes landscaped the exterior, and parents tiled the floors and painted the walls. By the time classes resumed, the house also had new furniture, appliances, bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinets, granite countertops, arched doorways, and hardwood floors. And there was a new fireplace, deck, and heating and air conditioning system.
"After all that work, the house looked like a shiny new penny," says Roberts. "When we started, it was a 30 year-old house with old everything. When we finished, it was state-of-the-art beautiful. Most of the materials were donated, so the money put into renovations was small compared to the increased value of the house."
Once the remodeling was finished, The House of Sports moved onto the second stage of the project: finding 5,000 people to enter the raffle. In the fall, they sold close to 1,000 tickets, mostly to stakeholders in Paradise athletics, including high school families, coaches, faculty, and boosters. They sold another 71 tickets at an initial open house over Thanksgiving weekend, which drew more than 500 people. The event included a set of smaller raffles, with tickets selling for $2.50, and prizes consisting of home furnishings and a ticket for the main raffle.
Over the next two months, organizers made steady progress at open houses sponsored by local businesses, and raised a total of $140,000 by early February. With a growing sense that they needed to pitch their raffle to a wider audience, co-coordinator Joan Swingle then created a marketing plan.
"This is a business, and we're learning to treat it like a business," she says. "That means getting more organized, coming up with a business plan, becoming more transparent, and demonstrating that we're a viable entity. Most important, to raise the next $360,000, we need to reach a broader group of constituents."
Paradise's three largest employers have agreed to publicize the raffle to their employees and pay the cost of hosting an open house. The local Eagles, Elks, and Moose Clubs have launched a competition to see which group can sell the most raffle tickets. And Swingle has begun reaching out to regional and national media, especially television stations, emphasizing the chance to win a house while helping to preserve high school athletics.
Nov. 6 has been chosen as the date of the raffle drawing, which sets a pace of 400 tickets sold each month, and Roberts feels confident about reaching the goal. "We're going to get it done, no doubt about it," he says. "There's been too much time and effort put into this to settle for anything less than $500,000. Once the word gets out around the country that it only costs $100 for a ticket to win a house in Northern California, sales are going to snowball."
At its heart, fundraising is about selling something that you have easy access to. In California, the commodity in abundance is entertainers, and high school athletic departments are finding success with celebrity basketball game fundraisers.
That was the case for the boys' basketball team at Claremont High School, which welcomed a squad of celebrities including Cody Linley of the hit television series "Hannah Montana," Michael Copon of "Beyond the Break," and Travis Van Winkle of "Friday the 13th" into its gym this winter. Booster club leaders liked that the idea was new, would be affordable for a family, and serve as entertainment the entire community could be interested in.
Claremont put on the event with the help of Hollywood Knights International, a celebrity fundraising, special events production, and talent booking company. While the company does charge an up-front fee, Julia Mullinix, a member of the Claremont Booster Club who served as chair for the event, liked that Hollywood Knights had a specific plan for how the event would be run and wasn't going to take a cut of ticket sales. "Even before we signed a contract, they provided us with a 50-page outline that diagrammed step-by-step what they were going to do," she says.
Mullinix, meanwhile, had her own outline for making the event a success. First, she set out to secure sponsorships from area businesses to underwrite the costs of the event. She found that companies were excited to get on board and eventually sold enough sponsorships to more than cover expenses.
"Sponsors were so glad to be involved with something that was new and fresh," Mullinix says. "They also liked that they could bring their families, or give tickets to their employees."
To promote the event, Claremont placed posters around the district's schools and other places in the community where youths and parents frequently visit. New posters with different celebrities on them were provided by Hollywood Knights and hung every few days to build buzz for who would be at the game. The school also hosted a youth free throw shooting competition in the gymnasium before the game, with the winner's name announced at halftime. The goal was to bring awareness of the celebrity event to as many young people as possible.
Tickets were $8 in advance and $10 at the door, and nearly 1,000 people were in attendance. Around 600 of the tickets were sold on the high school campus, and they were also distributed at the junior high school and a local grocery store.
"We plan to do this again next year and will probably try to develop an even greater connection at the junior high and elementary school levels," Mullinix says. "That's the age group that most identified with the celebrities who were playing in the game."
The Knights played--and defeated--a team of coaches, teachers, and administrators from the Claremont School District. Athletic Director Rick Dutton coached the Claremont team and while he was hoping to win, that was the least important aspect of the evening.
"It was an absolute blast, even for an old timer like me," Dutton says. "Hollywood Knights had a local radio station there, and they did a great job playing music and throwing T-shirts into the crowd. The celebrities were hamming it up and creating a lot of energy in the gym."
In addition to the game, the celebrities signed autographs for fans at halftime. In the future, Mullinix would like to have more merchandise on hand to sell and possibly add a cookout before the game as an added fundraiser.
But, overall, both Mullinix and Dutton agree that the first run couldn't have gone much better. "It worked because it was so much fun to put together, and everyone--community members and sponsors--was excited for something different," Mullinix says. "It wasn't your typical high-end event and it was affordable for families. I'm sure it'll sell out next year."
A dinner auction may not be a unique or new idea, but the Petaluma High School Athletic Booster Club has put its own spin on the concept and brings in $30,000 a year for its athletic department every spring. The secret to their success? Offer items that have a personal touch.
"Our biggest sellers are when families or groups offer to come to the winner's house and cook them a themed dinner," says Booster Club Board Member Debbie Raffaelli. "For example, a group of firemen will put on a barbecue or a family will do an abalone feed. And a mom who lived in Japan for a while has put on a Japanese dinner."
The dinners go for hundreds of dollars, and one eight-person meal even drew $1,200 two years ago. Another item that has garnered a large bid is a unique collection of wine.
"Two years ago, I started calling the parents of athletes to ask them to donate a bottle of their favorite wine," Raffaelli says. "I tag each bottle with their child's name and the sports they play and put them all in a big galvanized tub. The 40 or 50 bottles we get range from $10 up to $50 in value, and two years ago the tub went for $1,200."
Along with the live auction, there is a silent auction that includes gift certificates donated from area restaurants and event packages the booster club board members put together. One of the items up for auction this year was a date night that included dinner at a local restaurant, tickets to the movies, and a one-night stay at a hotel in town.
The club's board also sends a letter to each sports team asking that the families get together to create a themed basket to donate to the silent auction. Going for $150 to over $250 each, ideas have included a martini basket, a coffee basket, and ones with heritage-based themes containing food from a specific country or culture.
The dinner event centers around a crab feed. The hands-on eating--crab is traditionally eaten with your hands after breaking the shell with a wooden mallet on a newspaper-covered table--gives the event a fun, casual feel. The dinner also includes pasta, salad, and bread, and over 250 people typically show up, each paying $50 a head.
Raffaelli and the three other booster club board members do all of the organizing, including soliciting donations for the auctions, renting the venue, and spreading the word. The local paper runs an announcement about a month before the event, and school administrators put a notice in the school newsletter.
"We get most of the credit, but it takes the kindness of a lot of people to pull this event off without a hitch," Raffaelli says. "With smaller paychecks and fewer jobs last year, we were surprised we still made as much money as we did. But I think people are committed to this because without the club, our kids won't be able to continue playing sports."
Sidebar: A GOOD TIP
Normally, a waiter showing off his tattoo of a fish eating a person to a customer would be grounds for a stern reprimand. But last December, at the San Francisco Education Fund's Tipping for Teachers Celebrity Waiter Dinner, it resulted in a $10,000 tip.
At the event, Bay Area CEOs and philanthropists served as celebrity waiters and were encouraged to put their personalities on display to earn tips that went to local public schools. Guests were invited friends of the waiters who, in addition to showing tattoos, dressed up in costumes, danced, sang, sold family recipes, rollerbladed, and performed gymnastics in order to stuff their aprons with tips for the schools.
"Because of the personality of this event, people get carried away and the waiters do just about anything to earn their tips," says Kathie Velazquez, Senior Development Officer for the San Francisco Education Fund. "If somebody at their table says, 'I'll give you $10,000 right now if you get up there and sing, 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco,' there's no stopping them."
The second annual invite-only dinner raised just over $300,000. More than 360 diners paid $275 for single tickets, or between $5,000 and $10,000 for a table of 12, with the majority of money raised coming from the tips. There was also a silent auction. While the event does not support athletics specifically, it is highly successful and replicable by any group.
Velazquez says a big key to the event is the head waiter. "Find someone in the community who is well thought of and would be a draw as the head waiter," she says. "That is the person who signs the letters of invite to the celebrity waiters. Have that person really personalize them as much as possible."
Just as important is finding a crew of waiters who are outgoing, theatrical, and have friends with money to donate. "The most successful waiters invite people to their table who are going to tip, have fun, and play with the waiter," says Velazquez. "They're close friends and people with deep pockets."
On the night of the event, waiters decorate their tables in different themes ranging from circus to baseball to Hollywood. They also meet beforehand for some training on serving and being interactive with guests.
And, to stir the competitive juices, the waiter who earns the most tips gets a small silver tray as a trophy and has his or her name engraved on a large silver tray displayed at the San Francisco Education Fund offices. "There's a lot of competitiveness among the celebrity waiters," says Velazquez. "They all want to know how much they personally brought in."