"Tonight we are kicking off our first-ever volunteer fund drive," Byrne said. "And I want to put the emphasis on the ‘volunteer.' We're going to have over 60 volunteers this first year, which is a really good number for us, who are making the commitment to solicit a minimum of ten new donors for the Bulldog Club."
Those volunteers are distributed around Mississippi and in Alabama, as are the meetings. Wednesday, Club staff will meet with the Golden Triangle/Tupelo volunteers here in Starkville. On January 16 there will be meetings in both Meridian and Birmingham; and January 18 is for southwest Mississippi and Gulf Coast groups. These aren't just get-togethers to slap backs and share snacks, either; this is serious Bulldog business, Byrne explains.
"We're going to provide the volunteers lists of current donors, people who have donated in the past, and just as important as those lists we're going to ask them to provide the contacts and relationships they have that we might not.
"We're going to the areas where we have people signed-up, we're going to walk them through what we expect for them, we're going to give them data and information for a good start of people to call and solicit. Bailey Howell is our honorary chairman, he thinks this is important and we couldn't have a better ambassador out there."
Naturally MSU folk will pay attention to a legend such as Howell. Yet to Byrne and the B.C. officials the secret to this effort is not a big name or lists of names. He explains that this is a name-to-name matter, of people passionate about Bulldog sports getting in touch with others who feel the same but don't necessarily back up their emotions with financial commitments.
"We solicited them through the internet, though our Bulldog Club updates. We want them front-and-center out there and we've talked about what our vision is. Some people don't want anything to do with it and that's fine. But there are people who want to be involved with this and think they can make a difference. These are business people, they're retirees, they're stay-at-home moms," Byrne explained.
And not necessarily alumni, either. "I can tell you from experience some of our best workers who never attended a class here. Whether their child is an athlete here or a student here, or if their only attachment is they are a fan, there will be people who really step up and do a great job for athletics here."
That job officially begins January 22, though Byrne says nothing is stopping some of the volunteers from getting an early start on the phones. Spicing up the effort is a division into Maroon and White teams, assigned different specific days to focus their calls on and with prizes given to winning teams. And if one group doesn't get to some names on the list, those become fair game for other groups who want to score more points. All will be recognized January 27 during the South Carolina basketball game…which is also a key recruiting visit weekend.
While Byrne, a 14-year veteran of athletic administration and fund-raising, is counting on volunteer energy to fuel this drive, he said for the first time in his experience there will be an added practical motivation for those doing the dialing. "We're going to ‘incentivize' them," he said. "Let's say you call and get somebody to renew their membership, you will get 5% of their give added to your lifetime (Bulldog Club) points. They get all 100% credit for their points, of course. And if you call and get somebody who has never donated to give, you get 10% of that gift. It's like a sales commission."
Naturally there could be questions about using volunteers to sell Mississippi State instead of official staff. Byrne sees this as a win/win for all who choose to get involved, both athletic program and the fans. "That is what we have to maximize, we have to find these people who are willing to work for us. Because we have a very small staff, basically six full-time people, and with about 5,000 accounts (B.C. members) currently we physically can't talk to each one. But we if we have 65-70 fund drive workers they can get to 10,000 accounts over the course of a year!
"So whether it's a donor who gives a million or a donor who $100 is stretching, the volunteers can receive benefits for using their time and energies to help us out so long-term we can be more competitive in the league with our fund-raising."
Becoming competitive in the SEC is a serious goal and serious challenge for Mississippi State. Byrne shared some study-data that should alert fans of the situations. Most know that MSU has the smallest total athletic budget in a big-bucks league; few know that State is 11th out of 12 in fund-raising. And fewer still appreciate the disparities in fund-raising. Byrne said State raised $8 million last year while the un-named SEC leader reached $34 million, or more than MSU's entire sports budget. The median fund-raising in this conference came in between $16-17 million.
"You start compounding that year-after-year and the gap between Mississippi State and the rest of the league will be dramatic, if we don't be more proactive with how we approach our fund-raising both annually and capital-wise."
Simply to speak so candidly, and comparatively, of the situation is a proactive step for State. Byrne believes in making things clear because understanding the degree of need is a move in reaching out to fans who have not actively supported the program yet or stopped donating along the way. And while he has no illusions about the task, Byrne says there is the potential already here to double total giving and reach the middle of the SEC pack.
"You know that can be a much bigger revenue stream for us than what it has been historically. Not saying we'll be #1 in the league, but I do believe we can be better than we have been and we need to take the necessary steps to maximize our revenue potential."
The Volunteer Fund Drive runs through mid-March, when full-time staff will take stock of total results and move into other duties after the March 15 football priority date. "We'll have a fund-drive party on Super Bulldog Weekend, I believe," Byrne said, "to thank them for what they've done. Beyond this drive Byrne has other plans in the works, some only awaiting final approval, for a variety of outreaches through spring and summer. These include marketing and promotions efforts both on and off campus, some premier new events he was not quite ready to publicize, and accompanying coaches and administration on meetings to raise specific funds for facility projects.
And there will be the usual round of Bulldog Club/Alumni Association meetings and parties around the state and region, though the new Club Director has some distinct ideas on how to make it more than just a party or golf tournament for a few score people. He hopes to make it more of a ‘caravan' process taking top Dog coaches and administrators to towns, middle schools, businesses, and donor prospects in the same city. "So instead of something where you get 50-to-150 folk, you can potentially get to 1,000 or 1,500 and wave the flag for Bulldog athletics." Byrne said there will be very good cooperation and coordination in that now. "Jimmy Abraham has been very open to working together and we're excited about that partnership. He's my next-door neighbor so we've got to get along! It's something that both parties are committed to making everything work together."
For the moment, though, it will be non-official folk reaching out to those who are giving and who should be giving to Bulldog sports. This isn't just one six-week drive, Byrne said. "No, as long as I'm here we will do this. We have to have a strong volunteer network, and it's a multi-year process."
This is also part of a much bigger process of, put simply, doing a better job communicating the MSU message to Bulldog folk. Byrne, who has worked in or been connected by family ties to athletic programs on both ends of the country, stresses the need to get the word out…as well as listen to what the market has to say back to MSU. Including the still-developing means of websites. "I think they are a dynamic that is still so new to some people who've been in it for so many years, that college athletics as a whole hasn't adjusted as well as hopefully we will five years from now.
"But you see the newspapers going to the web and starting to blog now. You see the message boards out there, the talk radio…it's not as big hear but some markets in our league have four or five talk-radio outlets. It gives an opportunity for anybody who can type or call to voice opinions on certain situations. And it's important for us to recognize what is out there as far as those opinions; not to where it influences you on every decision, you can't do that, but you can ‘take the temperature.'
"I think it's something that can help you communicate to thousands of people very efficiently, very inexpensively, very timely. How we do that is still being developed but it's something you can't disregard. It's not going away. It gives a number of people their connection to the school, and it would be irresponsible on our part if we don't try to encourage everybody going through Dawgs' Bite or something equivalent to be Bulldog Club members. At the end of the day that's where you are making a difference."