Written By: Alex del a Peña
One of the most overlooked areas on the administrative side of our sport is fundraising. Many coaches do not look at fundraising as part of their duties and responsibilities when in reality it should be one of their top priorities. It is vital to the future success and survival of all programs and levels from club through the collegiate ranks. I have made a few stops in my career. More than I honestly had planned, but the silver lining is that it allowed me to see how different institutions and athletic departments operate.
We are in the middle of a pandemic with a lot of uncertainty surrounding us. It feels like a different college swim and dive program is getting cut on a weekly basis. It is important that we do all we can to control the controllables. If programs are able to perform well with their fundraising endeavors through alumni relations, programming and community involvement they stand a much better opportunity to control their own destiny. I think the goal for any program is to try to operate “off the grid” by endowing operating budgets and positions so it is not coming out of the institution's annual budget and payroll. However, in crazy times like this there will be outliers like William & Mary. This is scheduled to occur despite having a 3 million dollar endowment for the program, a non scholarship men’s program and minimal scholarship women’s program. The William & Mary Swimming program has minimal financial impact on the athletic department and a very strong alumni base, but they still see themselves on the chopping block. This story should not discourage programs from their fundraising efforts. Rather it should motivate them to continue to press forward doing all that they can to help their programs achieve greater financial sustainability.
Fundraising Through Programming and Facilities
One way to approach fundraising is through offering swim camps, swim clinics and swim lessons. Many larger institutions in the power 5 conferences across the country are able to produce substantial revenue from swim camps and clinics. However, smaller schools and programs may have to think of different tracks with programming. While at UNC Wilmington as an assistant coach, we operated a learn to swim program that had over 1,200 kids go through the program each summer. The program at UNC Wilmington was nearly cut in 2011. In the end, the program was fortunately able to be saved in large part due to the strong alumni base along with longtime Head Coach, Dave Allen, as well as the community tie through the learn to swim program. Over the years, tens of thousands of kids learned to swim through this program and the community was grateful to have it. The city of Wilmington and the area surrounding it knew that without it, the safety of children in this beachside North Carolina town would be in danger. Many of the college swimmers also worked on the beach ocean & rescue teams. The funds raised from the swim school help contribute to the operating budget and scholarships.
We were looking to offer in-person camps and clinics this spring/summer at Oberlin, but that was put to a halt due to the pandemic. I mentioned earlier that bigger power 5 conference schools were the ones that benefited most from these. Mainly it is because their name is more recognizable and swimmers/parents out there do not usually think of Division 2 and Division 3 schools when it comes to this type of programming. On a small school scale, Kenyon College has done a tremendous job with their Total Performance camps and clinics over the years through former Head Coach, Jim Steen and current Kenyon Head Coach, Jess Book. They have worked with thousands of swimmers over the years that have seen great success in the water at the club, high school and collegiate levels.
Another area we have found to be productive in raising funds for our program and athletic department is through running meets and renting pool time out to local clubs and high schools. Each year we run a college midseason invite in November as well as several high school and club invites through the year. We also rent pool time out to three area high schools to help bring in additional revenue to the athletic department. As the aquatic director, I organize and facilitate all facility rentals and meets. Unfortunately, there are only three competitive indoor pools in our county and it does not meet the demand of our sport...especially during the high school season. We have seen solid success on this track of our fundraising and will continue to do this moving forward as it benefits our department, our program and the community.
It may take a little trial and error to find your niche programming and what will work best for you and your program. Wilmington found it in their learn to swim program because they found that is what that area needed and valued most. Kenyon was able to utilize their success in the pool winning multiple team NCAA Division III National Championships (at one point 30 straight on the men’s side). At this time, facility rentals and running meets are working well for us here at Oberlin. My plan is to offer both learn to swim and competitive camps/clinics and see how everything moves forward. We may decide to offer one or both depending on enrollment and interest. Oberlin is a town of about 8,000 people 30 miles west of downtown Cleveland. We are on the cusp of suburbia and rural. There are plenty of cities and towns in the area where we could draw for both swim camps/clinics as well as lessons. There is no crystal ball to determine what will be successful, but understanding the reputation of your school and program as well as the needs in your surrounding area is a great way to start. As coaches we wear multiple hats and this is where you will be asked to think from a business, marketing and promotions perspective.
Fundraising Through Alumni
I am fortunate here at Oberlin College that we have a very strong and passionate alumni base. They are always willing to go above and beyond to help our program. I contribute this to their great experience as undergrads here at Oberlin as student-athletes in our program and how that catapulted them to success after graduation. Many of them swam for longtime Head Coach, Dick Michaels, who was a phenomenal mentor and leader for our program for 36 years (1970-2006). I do all I can through regular newsletters and social media posts to keep them involved and engaged with what is going on in our program. We are also now conducting alumni “happy hours” on Zoom. We work to connect current-student athletes with alumni in similar career paths to help maintain connections over the years. It is important to make them feel like they are still an integral part of the team. They should not feel that you only turn to them when you need donations.
Throughout the year we may reach out to alumni individually to help with fundraising endeavors - equipment, training trip, etc. On the flip side to that, we also have proactive alumni that reach out to us with ideas that they may have. As an example, last fall Dr. David Tempest and his wife biked from their home in Seattle to Oberlin for Homecoming Weekend to help raise funds for our program. We are brainstorming right now on what we plan to do at the beginning of October for what would be homecoming weekend to help get the alumni engaged and involved from a distance. We also have an annual day of giving in the spring called “All in For Oberlin” where alumni, family and friends of the college can donate to the college generally or to specific programs. Many colleges and universities across the country have fundraising days/events like this with specific targets and goals to achieve. On my end I do all I can to help benefit both the athletic department and our swim & dive program asking our alumni to help contribute to both and hit our target goals - which hopefully unlocks additional funds from alumni that initiate these challenges.
Use Your Support System
One last important thing to keep in mind in all of this is that coaches do not go “rogue” and do things on their own without keeping their administrators in the loop with all fundraising ideas and endeavors. Athletic Directors are fundraisers now more than ever and the last thing any coach wants to do is overstep their boundaries. They are looking at the overall health of the athletic department while our scope is mainly focused on our individual programs. It is important to take a step back and look at your athletic department as one team striving for mutual success. As coaches our mentality is to try to do things on our own without asking for help...much like it was when we were athletes ourselves. Keep in mind that your AD may be able to help raise additional funds for you beyond your alumni base.
Programs that are lacking a strong alumni base will have to have a stronger focus on other programming first while building those alumni relationships and connections over time. Coaches need to put their “CEO” caps on and realize that simply planning practices and going to meets (eventually) is only part of the job. Fundraising and alumni engagement will be a driving factor behind a program’s long term success.
Alex de la Peña is entering his third season as Oberlin’s head swimming & diving coach and aquatics director after being named as the program’s leader on September 24, 2018. The men’s team finished in 8th out of 10 teams at the 2020 NCAC Championships, scoring 37 more points than at the 2019 meet. The Yeomen also took 8th out of 13 teams at the first annual Oberlin Midseason Invite in November 2019. The women’s team earned a seventh-place finish out of 9 teams at the 2020 NCAC Championships, improving their score by 80 points from the 2019 meet. The Yeowomen also captured 5th out of 14 teams at the first annual Oberlin Midseason Invite in November 2019. In his first two years at the helm, Oberlin swimmers have set 15 top-10 times in program history under de la Peña's tutelage while helping Michael Lin break a pair of school records in the 100 & 200 Breaststroke. Prior to Oberlin, de la Peña served as head women's swimming coach and director of aquatics at Pfeiffer University (NC) where he guided the Falcons to a fourth-place team finish at the conference championship meet in 2018. Eight individuals also earned all-conference honors. Before going to Pfeiffer, he held Division I assistant coaching positions at UNC Wilmington and Brown University from 2013-2016. de la Peña's first collegiate head coaching position was at Monmouth College (IL) from 2011-13. During his tenure, the Fighting Scot swimmers produced 23 All-Midwest Conference selections, one Midwest Conference champion, 19 school records and 88 top-ten times in program history. He began his collegiate coaching career as a graduate assistant coach at St. Lawrence University 2007-2009 and went on to be the assistant coach at Oberlin from 2009-11. He helped guide swimmers to 11 school records and 81 top-ten times. Additionally, three athletes achieved NCAA "B" cut times including one national qualifier. A native of Northeast Ohio, de la Peña swam collegiately at Baldwin Wallace University and was a two-year team captain while being a part of several team records and top-ten times in program history. After graduating from BW with a bachelor's degree in sport management and business administration, he earned a master's degree in education administration at St. Lawrence University (NY) while working as a graduate assistant coach.