Raising Funds

Could A Jump To Division I-A Boost Donor Giving?

Posted: June 27, 2013

HARRISONBURG — It might seem odd, given a record year, but Brian Frerking is looking for a mentality change in donors to James Madison University’s athletic department.

For years, giving has been tied to perks. Donor X writes a check and gets, for example, good seats and parking privileges for a football game at Bridgeforth Stadium.

But JMU, with Bridgeforth’s club seats and suites sold out, has no stuff left to give.

“A lot of times, it comes down to inventory,” said Frerking, JMU’s associate athletic director for development and the unofficial head of the Duke Club, Madison’s athletic booster organization. “Our inventory in our [football] club [seats] and suites is now sold out. We don’t have that tangible benefit. … I think it kind of plateaued a little bit for right now.”

It’s still a respectable plateau — a record-setting one, in fact.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year that ends June 30, the Duke Club — which raises money for athletic scholarships and the general operating budget— has collected a best-ever $1.96 million to date. (The goal is $2.1 million.) The Duke Club raised $563,061 in May alone, the most ever for one month. The previous high was the $455,532 it raised last May.

Frerking said that since 2007, when the Duke Club annual fund raised $963,616 in total donations, giving has increased an average of 11.72 percent each year — until now.
For this fiscal year, Frerking said he expects the increase to be about 3 percent from 2011-12’s total of $1.9 million, hence, JMU’s desire for a mentality change.

One way to put that mentality change on the fast track might be a move to Division I-A football.

Both Frerking and athletic director Jeff Bourne agreed taking the football team from I-AA to I-A could provide a boost. How much is unclear, but it’s a move being sought by much of JMU’s fan base, which has seen a number of Madison’s peer institutions leave the Dukes behind and upgrade their conferences.

“We’ve heard that,” Bourne said when asked about donors’ interest in going I-A. “We’ve heard it verbally from a certain amount of our fans and donors that they would give if we did that, and so it’s been voiced. … It’s kind of hard to gauge exactly what that means and what dollars would flow from it.”

JMU is currently studying the feasibility of such a move, with a report by a consulting firm due in the fall.

Frerking said donors have mentioned the potential move to him, especially with JMU’s fellow I-AA powers Old Dominion and Appalachian State going I-A. Non-football schools Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason, peer institutions of JMU, also have bettered their situations, abandoning the much-diluted Colonial Athletic Association for the Atlantic 10.

“I don’t think it’s had a direct effect, yet, but there’s no doubt that our donor base, especially in athletics, has been very focused on that,” Frerking said of a I-A move. “Many of our peers — ODU, VCU, George Mason, App State this year — are going up. You know, [the donors] keep an eye on that. They’re very aware of the college landscape, and so yeah, that has definitely been in a lot of conversations.”

Frerking’s reply?

“The thing that I constantly tell them is: In the future, whatever decision the university makes with President [Jonathan] Alger and the board of visitors and whoever else is in that decision … is, at the end of the day, JMU is in a really, really good position,” he said. “The foundation is there.”

Madison’s donors have shown it. The fundraising surge from 2007 to now is evidence, and Frerking attributed it, in part, to the rise of JMU’s football program, which won the I-AA national title in 2004 and made the I-AA semifinals in 2008.

Frerking said it was too early to quantify what impact the men’s basketball team’s CAA title and NCAA Tournament appearance has had on fundraising. He also cited an increased commitment from JMU to fundraising — it hired more Duke Club staff — as a reason for the rise in giving.

Bourne also said football interest was a factor, driving a 10,000-seat expansion to bring Bridgeforth Stadium’s capacity to 25,000. There also is more space to grow. Bourne said it would be possible to expand Bridgeforth to about 40,000, if the demand is there. He said there are “tentative drawings” but nothing “formal,” and that the facilities focus right now is on a basketball arena to replace the antiquated Convocation Center.

 “The basketball arena is the priority,” he said.

As for the mentality change? Frerking said it’s going well, but emphasized that it wouldn’t be an overnight shift.

“We’re locked into transactional giving. That’s what people are used to,” he said. “…It takes time to get out and talk to the donors and the alumni about this and really what your money is going towards: ‘This is why it’s important. This is why we need you to step up and do more so that these student-athletes can have scholarship money, so they can have the best resources to compete at the highest level.’ It just takes a little time.”

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