USA Today Sports/James Snook

Kansas State and Oregon State fundraising success in athletics points to world of possibility for Washington State

WASHINGTON STATE’S hiring of new president Kirk Schulz naturally invites comparisons with his previous school, Kansas State. There are obvious similarities between the two – both are land grant schools, their main-campus enrollment numbers are similar, and both are in smaller communities. In another way – philanthropic support for athletics – the two schools are decidedly different, however.

And this should be very encouraging to Cougar fans and WSU fundraisers because it suggests there’s massive room to grow.

Consider these facts:

  • Kansas State has 500 donors to athletics who each contribute $10,000 or more per year. WSU has 52.
  • Kansas State has 40 donors to athletics who each contribute $50,000 or more per year. WSU has zero.

Moreover, as addressed in this column the other day by WSU booster Glenn Osterhout, the economic might of the state of Washington dwarfs fellow Pac-12 states Oregon, Colorado, Utah and Arizona, and if Kansas were thrown into the comparative mix you’d find its economy three times smaller than the state of Washington’s and it’s median household income 17 percentage points less.

Mississippi State is another Power 5 school with a profile similar to WSU’s.

The Bulldogs’ fan support manifests itself in outstanding game attendance – which, by the way, began well before they started winning -- but also in a booster club that totals more than 10,000 people.

By contrast, WSU’s club – the Cougar Athletic Foundation (CAF) – broke the 7,000-mark last year. That’s an all-time high, by the way, but not as large as it needs to be.

Like Kansas, Mississippi is an economically struggling state.

Yet the fans of the land grant schools in those states are stepping up in a major way.

What that tells me is that Washington State is just at the surface of what is possible when it comes to fundraising for athletics.

Right now, the CAF is in the midst of a marketing push to do two things:

  1. Increase membership to 7,500; and
  2. Increase the size of the donations of those renewing.

That last point is especially notable when you consider the following:

The average donation to the CAF is $900, while the average donation to Oregon State’s version of the CAF is $2,400 and Oregon’s is $2,500.

To emphasize the point: OSU’s average donation is $1,500 greater than WSU’s and Oregon’s is $1,600 greater. These are staggering differences. And this from a state whose economy is half the size of Washington’s and whose median household income is lower than Kansas’.

Now, before anyone can say Phil Knight skews that number skyward for Oregon and the Reser family does the same for Oregon State, remember that their contributions are primarily directed at capital projects -- facilities -- and don’t factor into annual fund membership.

WSU’s quest to increase CAF membership and donation levels is critical because the CAF funds athletic scholarships -- and right now the chasm between donations and scholarship costs is about $4 million per year. WSU is believed to be the only school in the Pac-12 whose donors don’t fully cover scholarships, and the result is that Bill Moos must breach the $4 million gap each year through his operating budget.

One of the biggest ways the CAF can grow is by stemming attrition from year to year, Uri Farkas, WSU assistant athletic director for annual giving, recently told Cougfan.com.

“As we gain 1,000 new members in a year, we often lose 600, 700 or more,” he said.

Part of the answer to the lapsing is making sure people are fully aware. The current marketing push to get people on board or back on board began two weeks ago with this inspiring video and will continue through the end of the fiscal year, on June 30, with emails and social media outreach.

Farkas also said there’s a cultural hurdle that needs to be cleared at WSU.

Based on his previous career stops in the Pac-12 and his conversations with Power 5 fundraisers elsewhere in the country, he believes there’s more of a tendency among Cougar fans to withdraw or withhold financially based on what’s happening on the field of play week to week.

He says the example of Mississippi State really drives home that point, in that Bulldogs fans were thoroughly committed through the lean years before their string of bowl appearances began.

“The move to change the giving culture here really started with Bill Moos the day he became athletic director and we’ve been working hard to get it where it needs to be for a Power 5 school,” Farkas said. “We have a blue-print, similar to ones that have succeeded at other Power 5 schools, that we’re working from but we have a ways to go.

“We want the immense Cougar pride we see manifested in so many ways to extend to the CAF,” he added. “Membership in the CAF should be a point of pride people talk about -- that ‘Yes, I am funding the scholarships that are putting people like Luke Falk, Gabe Marks, Shalom Luani and Josh Hawkinson in crimson uniforms’. I really cannot overstate how important it is that Coug fans get in the game and donate to the Cougar Athletic Fund.”

Membership in the CAF starts as low as $50 per year, which offers a great way for people early on in their careers to get started. For those farther along, look across the border to see the average gift sizes at OSU and Oregon and you’ll know it’s critical to dig deep on behalf of WSU.

To borrow a line from the CAF’s new video, the question isn’t if you love your team. The question is, ARE YOU IN? Click here to answer yes.

RELATED STORY: Fiscal realities of Pac-12 put spotlight on Cougar fans


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