Alfond Sports Stadium at the University of Maine in Orono. Credit: Ashley L. Conti

Fundraising is crucial to the success of the athletics department at the University of Maine, which last year had a budget of nearly $21 million.

After making some changes in recent years in the way it solicits support for its programs, UMaine athletics has boosted its donations.

Last year, donors made more than 2,700 gifts to the Alfond Fund, the school’s fundraising program, according to figures released recently by the university. That represented an increase of 16 percent over the previous fiscal year and is almost 1,000 more donors than UMaine athletics had five years ago.

More than $1.4 million in operating support was raised in Fiscal Year 2018, which ended on June 30, and that is the most non-capital giving to the program in 15 years.

Non-capital gifts help Black Bears teams, their scholarship funding and their restricted operating budgets. A capital campaign in one in which money is allocated directly for facilities improvements.

According to a report in USA Today, UMaine athletics in during 2016-2017 received $1,667,334 in contributions and $1,902,524 from rights fees.

“We were in a unique position to make significant changes to our fundraising structure and that has allowed us to reach more donors,” said Seth Woodcock, UMaine’s senior associate athletic director for development. “There was a lot of room for improvement. We have grown our donor base by reaching out to more folks and getting our message across through things like social media.

One of the largest increases in support was made to the athletic endowment fund, The Alfond Fund, which was established three years ago. More than 200 supporters donors contributed to the fund during 2017-2018, compared to only 33 five years ago.

“We have also done a lot of work educating our donors about what we need to move our program forward,” he added. “We have laid our vision to them of what we want to be.”

Woodcock explained that a strong economy also likely has played a role in UMaine’s recent fundraising success.

The athletics development staff also solicited valuable feedback from donors, who impressed upon UMaine the importance of having an organized and trustworthy fundraising structure so donors knew where their money was going.

Donors were reminded that they can specify a specific athletic program or need when they make a contribution.

“We have worked hard to earn their trust,” Woodcock said.

Woodcock explained that another important change that helped spark more donations was the unification of the fundraising effort.

Rather than have people representing several different UMaine teams soliciting donations, one fundraiser deals with a particular donor and helps them work out the details of how to allocate their gift.

Woodcock explained that the donor base was tiring with having to deal with a stream of fundraisers.

“We want to be very donor-centered. We don’t want to be hitting people up all the time,” he said.

The men’s hockey program has been hugely aided by the Savage Challenge, a five-year endowment drive started in 2014 by UMaine graduate Tom and Sally Savage. Their $1 million donation will be used to match up to $1 million in gifts from UMaine hockey alumni and former coaches.

“We had $50,000 in the hockey endowment fund six years ago. Now we have over $1.4 million,” Woodcock said. “The hockey alums have put $600,000 into the fund so far.”

The Grant Standbrook Maine Hockey Forever Fund is the hockey endowment. It is named after former UMaine hockey assistant and UMaine Hall of Famer Grant Standbrook.

In 2014, it was revealed that UMaine men’s hockey head coach Red Gendron had agreed to donate five percent of his salary to the Standbrook Fund.

When UMaine announced in March that Gendron had received a two-year contract extension through the 2020-2021 season, his reported salary was $213,282.09. That means he is donating $11,564.10 per year to the Standbrook fund.

“It’s the largest amount I’ve ever seen a coach donate,” Woodcock said.

The Harold Alfond Foundation continues to benefit the football program as well as the other 16 sports with a matching donation challenge. It established the Alfond Fund in 2016 when UMaine received a $1.5 million, three-year award from the Harold Alfond Foundation.

It will match grants of up to $250,000 per year for the football program and another $250,000 among the other programs.

Giving to UMaine athletics has grown even though Black Bear teams have achieved only modest success in recent years.

The men’s hockey team hasn’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since the 2012 and hasn’t reached the Hockey East semifinals since then. UMaine had a resurgence last season and could be in the NCAA tournament conversation this season.

The men’s basketball team, which has never been to the NCAA tournament, and has languished in the bottom third of America East in recent years. The baseball team last made the NCAAs in 2011 but reached the America East finals in 2013 and 2017.

The softball team reached to the NCAA tournament in 2016 and played in the AE championship game in 2017. The women’s basketball team is coming off its first conference title and NCAA berth since 2004 and should contend again this season.

The football team last reached the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2013 but barely missed out two years ago. The field hockey team has been nationally ranked in recent years but, along with the women’s soccer program, has never played in the NCAA tournament.

The women’s ice hockey had a breakthrough season, reaching the Hockey East semifinals and being nationally ranked after being the only team to miss the playoffs during 2016-2017.

Woodcock admits that successful teams help in the fundraising process but it may not be as big a factor as one might think.

“Penn State had record-breaking fundraising success during the Joe Paterno-Jerry Sandusky scandal,” said Woodcock, referring to the conviction of former assistant assistant coach Sandusky for sexual abuse and head coach Paterno’s knowledge of the behavior, which cost him his job.

“It’s now always about whether your teams are winning or losing. Donors are motivated by different reasons,” Woodcock said. “We don’t want to sit around and wait for them to jump on the bandwagon. We tell them they have the opportunity to give the student-athletes what they need and what they deserve (to be successful).”

UMaine’s recent fundraising efforts have enabled it to help out with a smaller projects, such as sending athletic teams abroad and putting a $15,000-$20,000 windscreen around the field hockey field. The department also has worked closely with Black Bear Sports Properties, a division of Learfield, on several sponsorship deals.

The second annual Alfond Fund Golf Classic raised $101,444 this year after making more than $90,000 a year ago, Woodcock said.

He said another important dynamic of boosting athletics fundraising is that it takes the pressure off the coaches to raise money for their programs and allows them to spend more time coaching and recruiting.

“All college coaches have to be fundraisers. But now we’re a team. They don’t have to feel like they’re out on an island. We don’t want them getting up at night worrying about fundraising. We just want them to be able to focus on doing what they have to do to make their teams successful,” Woodcock said.

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