Athlete-Alumni Fundraising: Go Big By Going Small

Donations are the second-largest external (non-institution / government) revenue source for DI athletic departments. For DII and DIII programs, with little coming from media rights, conference and bowl distributions, donations and endowments are the largest sources of external revenue.

Although the percentage of revenue from donations may vary by school and division, it’s a vital source of funding, especially to support non-revenue and Olympic sports programs.

Donations are also the most at-risk revenue source currently. In a study conducted by Lead1 Association and Teamworks, 75% of Athletic Directors believed donations are the most at-risk stream for the 2020-21 fiscal year, with ticket sales and revenue from in-person events coming in a close second at 74%. What’s more, many Athletic Departments rely on a handful of large donors, putting all their eggs in a few baskets and increasing risk.

Those athletic programs with more robust and engaged alumni networks are better positioned to survive a budget crisis like the one we’re currently witnessing. In our work with universities across the country, we’ve seen how sport-specific athlete affinity groups improve fundraising efforts by creating meaningful relationships with former athlete alumni. By creating strong bonds within smaller groups, fundraising efforts can have a bigger impact.


The development arm of many Athletic Departments often looks to combine efforts and resources with the broader campus alumni outreach. While that may help reduce expenses, rarely does it produce the desired increases in donations.

Instead, forward-thinking athletic departments have figured out how to tap into the “tribe” naturally created by their teams, and build sport-specific affinity groups that can be easily replicated across multiple programs. Just as MBA graduates are more likely to feel an affinity for the business school, athletes have a strong emotional connection to the athletic department and, even more so, to their sport. Development organizations that leverage these bonds are benefiting from engaged and motivated alumni.

The University of Iowa’s Hawkeye Legacy program is the perfect example. Launched in 2018, the program brought together current and former football players to strengthen their bond to the program and engage with each other about life after football. In two years, Hawkeye Legacy has grown to over 1,000 engaged football alumni and raised approximately $1M in donations.

“It’s important that outreach to our former athletes come from within the building – that’s where the relationship is the strongest”, said Ben Hansen, Assistant Director of Football operations at Iowa. “We’ve leveraged the emotional connection to the football program to improve outcomes for our student-athletes and more effectively fundraise. The department saw our success and is now doing something similar for other teams. Our partnership with NextPlay is helping us efficiently scale our efforts and expand our impact.”


There’s a Chinese proverb that says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

This attitude inspired Hansen to design The Hawkeye Legacy program to be a part of the student-athletes experience from day one and extending long after graduation.

“It’s off-putting when a student-athlete graduates and, five years later, the first person that reaches out to them is asking for money,” said Hansen. “That’s why the engagement must come before the ask.”

As a recruit, the program demonstrates the team’s commitment to the individual, not just the football player, long after they graduate. As a player, Hawkeye Legacy provides career support, connects them with athlete-alumni for mentorship and job opportunities, and educates them on the importance of giving back. As an alum, the program shows that the door is always open and keeps them engaged with their “tribe” in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

NextPlay’s mobile-first solution enables programs like Hawkeye Legacy to create branded online micro-communities where student-athletes and alumni organically connect, engage, and build meaningful relationships.

Hansen noted, “It’s a commitment for a lifetime. We try to help them out as much as possible. And you never know how they may be able to help your program in the future.”


It can feel like a monumental effort to keep track of, much less engage, student-athletes once they graduate. Simply keeping contact information up-to-date can be a full-time job. It’s no wonder so many programs dip into the same small pool of big donors every year – it’s simply more efficient.

But the power of sport-specific affinity groups combined with NextPlay’s technology solution is proving how that old approach leaves significant money on the table. Fundraising efforts supported by NextPlay, such as the one through Hawkeye Legacy, cast a wider net by tracking and engaging with more alumni to uncover new opportunities.

In addition to raising $1M from former players in two years, Hansen recalls how “There was one individual we hadn’t spoken to in 15 years. He never played a down or took a snap, but his greatest college memory was working out with his teammates.” This individual re-engaged through the Hawkeye Legacy program and “come to find out, he’s been very successful with a net worth over $750 millon. He loves the program and has become a reliable supporter.”


Selling a new initiative within your department in the current climate may feel like a futile effort. However, an athlete affinity group has the potential to positively impact your revenues while supporting student-athlete wellbeing.

“Boosters are really excited about (mental health initiatives), and wish that when they were going to school at SJSU they had programs like our new Beyond Sparta program,” said Jeff Pritsker, Associate Athletics Director for Finance at San Jose State University.

In addition to having a compelling and specific program to tout, sport-specific affinity groups bring more high-quality leads to your development team. Because these alumni are engaged and emotionally connected with a program that directly impacted their lives, they’re more willing to give their time and money.

In our webinar, “Emerge Stronger: How Forward-Thinking Athletic Departments Are Evolving”, we answer a question specifically around how to get budget for your athlete affinity group initiative. If you’d like to discuss how NextPlay can help you improve your fundraising efforts, please contact us.


To empower your alumni, increase fundraising and reduce your administrative burden, you need a trusted and proven solution provider. Leading athletic programs at Duke, Iowa, San Jose State and other innovative schools have partnered with NextPlay to power their branded student-athlete and athlete-alumni communities.

To learn more about how NextPlay can help your program, schedule time to talk with us.