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Today we’re excited to share this month’s interview with University of Miami Athletics Senior Associate Athletic Director for Development, Jesse Marks. Marks has over ten years of progressive experience and eight years of senior level management experience in the athletic fundraising space. He has successfully led and managed capital campaigns eclipsing over $110 million raised and an increase in annual fund donors of 84%. In our conversation below we explored the world of fundraising for collegiate athletics, the importance of reducing friction in the giving process and the “swagger” that is unique to University of Miami. Enjoy this interview with Miami’s Jesse Marks.

Nonprofit Leader Spotlight: University of Miami Athletics’ Jesse Marks

HS: How did you get into athletic development? I saw that you studied sports management. Did you always know that you wanted to go into the fundraising side of things?

JM: I actually thought I was going to be an attorney. I took a sports management class my sophomore year and was like “Wow! This is dynamic. It’s business.” I really like handling the concepts of running a sports enterprise. I got an internship at University of Miami Athletics. My first mentor was Ross Bjork (now Athletic Director at Ole Miss). My first volunteer position as a student was when Ross was in our department running our fundraising unit. I learned a lot in my early days from him. I’m a people person. I take a genuine interest in our people. I’m not this “stats driven” sports fanatic that follows every aspect of a team: percentages, stats, etc. I follow, really, our people, our donors, the people who support the program. That’s my passion. I found the perfect role and moved up the ranks. I worked at Wake Forest for a time and learned the external, outbound, face to face fundraising that’s needed especially in major giving. Then I came back to Miami and restructured, rebranded, and reinvented the fundraising process at University of Miami athletics over the past six years.

HS: Tell us about your role at Miami Athletics.

JM: I’m in charge of all fundraising operations, annual giving (Pursuant helps us out with this quite a bit), major gifts, endowment, campaign planning, branding, and marketing. Our annual fund leads our philanthropic giving at $10 million and growing annually. I also oversee special projects such as events and golf tournaments and all of the technology tied to fundraising.

HS: The Miami culture is really unique. It’s been referred to as “swagger.” Can you describe the culture?

JM: In a nutshell: Miami, on the surface, is a small private research university in a major metropolitan international city. Everything about our school says we shouldn’t have been so successful in our athletics programs. We don’t have a 45,000 enrollment. During the 1980s and 1990s this school won five national football titles and four national baseball championships. Our football team played in ten national title games, won five and should’ve won six over 22 years. We operate without the funding or infrastructure that other state schools and football powerhouses have. We’ve created a culture and a fanbase based on our on-field success. A lot of our fans are not even alumni. They wear the “U” proudly and support our programs. It’s a different culture than at other traditional schools. Fans were just part of the good times growing up. The Miami Dolphins weren’t successful, The Miami Heat, Miami Marlins and Florida Panthers did not exist yet. During that era we dominated the college sports landscape and there were relatively no other sports teams in South Florida. That created a “chest pounding” aura in our fans. They love to win. We had a 58 week home winning streak at Miami. It’s a NCAA record.

HS: What does a typical day as the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Development look like for you?

JM: My days are totally varying. That’s the best part of the job. A traditional day with me hopefully means I’m out of the office fundraising. My goal is that I spend half of my week out of the office. I’m usually successful at doing that. I make it a real point in my schedule. We’re a very lean and efficient operation. We’re nimble; we can adapt to almost anything. We have a stellar operations crew: Emily Boone and John Gombinski. We can run a $10 million annual fund operation with two people. A main pillar of our fundraising operation is contact with our donors on their turf or some place special. I call it “unique cultivation experiences.” This is not just going to their office. We go to their vacation home in the Keys, play a round of golf, go fishing with them. We spend meaningful time with our supporters that build lasting and strong relationships. This type of investment leads to a real relationship being crafted that leads to philanthropic support for the program. My conversations with donors are different depending on their background. For example, my morning meeting yesterday was with a non-alumnus who just wants to see us win. He’s not passionate about the rest of the university or our academic success. That’s part of the swagger, that fandom that was created from our success. He went to a different school but he’s a Hurricane fan. His reason for giving is very different than a ’72 alum whose son went to UM and cares about all aspects of the university. It’s not the same message and our approach needs to reflect that. Our donor base is a melting pot that reflects our city. We have many different religions, ethnicities, and cultures and sometimes the approach has to be different because of this. We have to be chameleons. It’s probably like working in New York. Miami is a marketplace that has four million people, 75% of those are not originally from the United States.

HS: Can you share about the work Pursuant has done with Miami?

JM: We went to Pursuant in 2012 for creative help. As we dove into the process with Pursuant we e told them we will be hands on. They fully embraced that and reassured us good things happen with that approach. It was a partnership. It wasn’t them coming in and rewriting our whole book. They figured out our branding and marketing and what we needed and then they proposed a general package of what we could use and I said “This needs to be expanded to all of our annual renewals. This whole approach needs to be used on a mass scale.” I said, “Can we do it this way? Can we eliminate giving friction for our donors to make their renewal online? I don’t know if it can be done.” A day later Pursuant revolutionized our online giving. We had an effective, professional, and customized individual giving platform for renewals for each of our supporters on an annual basis. I don’t understand why other universities don’t do it this way. We’re able to have a seamless process to make a gift online. It’s easier than buying a song on iTunes. That equals increased support to our student athletes. Whatever the investment we pay Pursuant every year, that’s an investment in our partnership. That is just as valuable as having another staff person hired—if not more valuable. Pursuant understands where we’re coming from. They have made a point to understand our culture and what we’re doing. They are members of our team…just members that monitor our technology and processes from Dallas, Texas.

HS: What about the #buildingchampions campaign, recent campaign success that Pursuant has been able to help with?

JM: We’ve raised $1 million in online giving this year. That’s part of everything we’re talking about. We built it, ran with it, labeled it, and branded it the “building champions platform.” If you want to make a gift, it’s easier than buying a song on iTunes. You just go to your customized gift site. All your information is right there. You can watch a video there that Pursuant produced. We’ve used celebrities and coaches to get the message out. It’s an incredible platform that includes the donor’s name in the website URL. I can’t remember my bank password but everybody remembers their name. The personal website (PURL) is key. This campaign is based on data points, technology, and creative marketing. We have increased our membership base 85% in three years. Dollars raised have increased 8.6 million to 10 million annually. More than half of our donors are giving a philanthropic gift above their seating donations.

HS: How do you inspire donors to give?

JM: Building Champions is the theme. Every conversation, every marketing piece, comes back to building champions. We are building champions in the classroom, in competition and in life. Each video has a winning and championship focus as well.
More importantly though, we focus everything on the life changing impact our student-athletes receive from the financial resources provided by our donors. The more we portray this philanthropic message, the more our major gift pipeline reloads and our constituents increase their giving.

It is about showing IMPACT. Our message is that our donors are allowing us to continue BUILDING CHAMPIONS in the classroom, competition and in Life.

HS: What does this campaign success mean for the program?

JM: It’s huge. The cost of competing in collegiate athletics is exponentially increasing. There’s an arms race in facilities and to compete at the highest levels. The cost of education keeps going up. We have to keep up with our competitors on the field and in providing resources for our student athletes. Additional donations and increased giving has helped the department ease the burden of the arms race. Some people think winning on the field is just part of fielding a team. It’s a very expensive proposition. At the core of it we need to graduate our student athletes and compete for championships. Competing at a championship caliber is very costly. Five star athletes need five star medical care, rehabilitation, etc. Donors buy into the vision of providing for that. Any bit we bring in whether it’s $5 or $1 million goes directly to building champions in the classroom, competition, and life. Building Champions is our strategic plan.

HS: For those that may be reading this but aren’t familiar with fundraising for sports programs, can you talk a little about your unique set of opportunities and challenges?

JM: There are two competing cultures: “winning only” versus “what’s in the best interest of the entire university.” I am sure all institutions have this challenge. Our challenge, living in a major multicultural city, is that we have a large amount of foreigners that may or may not know collegiate athletics and what that stands for. There is intense competition for discretionary spending in South Florida. Philanthropy is discretionary dollars. They’re spending that in a major city like Miami where opportunity is endless. Our biggest asset (our location) is also our biggest competitor. It’s tough to catch people’s attention, with major events, beautiful weather, and a myriad of other sports teams. All that said, relationships with our constituents can overcome that competition. We have great opportunities in South Florida. We have a major international city, great weather, large amounts of wealth, and we’re in the spotlight. It’s great when things are going well and challenging when things are not going the way you had hoped. We’ have that dichotomy there of both sides.

HS: If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting out in college athletics development, what would you tell them?

JM: First, you have to know your people before you need your people. And that is a personal belief of mine and a professional belief of mine. And to know your people is to invest in genuine, meaningful relationships, not a relationship where you go and see them when you need a check. It’s not a relationship where you just call them when you need something else. It’s a genuine, meaningful relationship where you get to know their family and they get to know yours. You take a personal interest in their business, etc. That goes hand in hand. Second, take the time to develop those relationships. An average lifespan of a major gift officer is 15 months at a university. It takes 18 months on average to close a major gift. How are you going to be successful if you don’t give it the right amount of time? I’m driven by the relationships of our supporters. I’m passionate about our cause and I’m passionate about them. I’m their representative to their favorite hobby, passion, and philanthropy. I take that duty very seriously. Invest in yourself and have professional training. And invest in your relationship with your supporters. It takes personal time. It takes time to make people feel comfortable with you. The time aspect—my personal and professional lives are very intertwined. I’m always representing the university. That further enhances the relationship with donors.

HS: What is next for Miami? And what is next for you?

JM: We have great coaches and leaders for our young men and women. We’ve solidified the foundation of the program. Our student athletes are given the best resources and best chance to succeed academically and athletically and in life after they graduate. We’re poised for a great run here with the continuity of our staff and coaches. That’s a big part of fundraising success. We’ve built a great foundation. I’m very bullish on the future of Miami athletics. If we were a stock I’d invest heavy right now.
For me? I’m going to continue to raise a lot of money for Miami athletics. The future is bright for fundraisers as more and more organizations and nonprofits are looking for additional means of revenue. Some are capped at the number of seats or tables you can sell, but for major gift fundraising there’s no limit. Investing in your fundraisers determines that. The best days are ahead for philanthropy. Non-profits are doing amazing things all over the country.

Our thanks to Jesse for taking the time to share his story and the incredible story of Miami Athletics with us. Learn more by checking out Miami’s entire membership campaign portfolio.