Private giving on the rise at Mississippi State

By Brad Locke/NEMS Daily Journal

STARKVILLE – When Scott Stricklin looks at Mississippi State’s athletic budget, he sees more possibilities than the numbers suggest.
MSU annually has one of the smallest budgets in the SEC, but that’s done nothing to discourage Stricklin, the second-year athletics director, or those who work for him. It doesn’t seem to have discouraged the fan base, either – in fact, it’s spurred those with deep pockets to close the gap a bit.
During the 2009-10 fiscal year, MSU brought in a department-record $17.6 million in private money, most of which comes through the Bulldog Club. Stricklin said the school is on pace to exceed that number this year.
Just three years ago, MSU received about $13 million in private gifts. Bulldog Club membership jumped by about 1,800 in 2010, giving it around 8,500 total members.
“We had not done a very good job of major gift or private support fundraising, which is getting somebody to give you a gift when there’s not a seat attached to it,” said Stricklin, an MSU alumnus who returned to the school as chief fundraiser in July 2008. “It’s true philanthropy. Two or three years ago we started trying to reorganize how we did that and pay more attention and focus more on that. It just takes time.”
That reorganization began under Stricklin’s predecessor as AD, Greg Byrne, and the time has now come where Stricklin feels MSU is in position to field consistently competitive teams across the board. There are signs of it happening – witness the football team reaching a New Year’s Day Bowl, and the baseball team’s improvement this season, for example.
The school is in the process of implementing a master plan for facilities that includes expansion of Davis Wade Stadium and a new football-only complex. Mize Pavilion, the new basketball practice facility, is getting finishing touches, and a $3.2 million facelift of the Maddox Track facility was completed just before the season began.
The “true philanthropy” Stricklin speaks of is perhaps best illustrated with the $12 million gift given by the Seal family to help build the football complex. Much of the current private money is being directed toward facilities work, and Stricklin’s goal is to someday bring in major gifts when there’s not a big project in the works.
A lot of the onus for that falls on the shoulders of Bo Hemphill.
Money and relationships
Hemphill had been raising money for the university for years when he was hired to replace Stricklin as associate AD for external affairs. Putting him in that chair helped the department and the Bulldog Club retain some continuity.
Raising money is about building relationships, and Hemphill knows it.
“One hundred percent, these are relationships that have been fostered for years and years, and major donors are not born overnight,” Hemphill said. “You have to work with them and cultivate them for years and obviously be good stewards of their gift.
“Because your best prospect for a major gift is someone who’s made a gift before, and made it larger than their last gift. A guy that’s going to give you $1,000 started out with a $50 or $100 gift. The guy that gives you $100,000 started out with maybe a $25,000 gift.”
Jim Rouse first started giving 25 or 30 years ago – he can’t quite remember, but the 1962 MSU graduate said his motivation for giving is two-fold.
“We absolutely feel like to motivate givers you’ve got to have a vision of where you’re trying to go with this thing,” Rouse said. “But equally important is that feeling that the place did an awful lot for me, and I feel some obligation to look back and try to help so the school will have the same influence on other young people coming in.”
Rouse, who retired from Exxon/Mobil in 2004 and currently serves as president of the MSU Foundation, said he sees a clear vision and good stewardship from Stricklin and the rest of the athletic department, and that is what will drive true philanthropy. It’s why Rouse is funding the cost of the weightroom that will go in the new football-only complex, which will be paid for entirely with private funds.
“That’s all part of that package,” said Rouse, “it’s let’s don’t give up because we’re smaller than the rest of them, let’s just make darn sure we do the best we can do and then do the most with it.”
Making do
Private giving can help balance the playing field a little for MSU, but so can the financial wisdom Rouse referred to. And Stricklin thinks too much can be made of the gap between MSU’s budget and budgets of other SEC schools, like Florida and Tennessee.
“I think some of those schools with big budgets – not all of them – I think some schools with big budgets maybe don’t make the best use of those extra resources,” Stricklin said. “They may have a staff that’s a little bloated. We have a pretty lean staff. Some people may not use their resources wisely.”
One of his favorite illustrations is MSU’s 10-7 win over Florida last football season, in Gainesville, along with victories over Georgia and Michigan.
“If you’re looking at financial statements, there’s no way we win any of those games,” he said. “Fortunately, there weren’t any dollar signs on the scoreboard the day we played those teams and were able to win regardless of the fact they had twice our revenue and our resources.”
It’s not that MSU is tight-fisted. A better term might be prudent, but Stricklin has said before that he would never let money get in the way of keeping a coach around. He backed up those words in December when football coach Dan Mullen got a hefty raise: four years, $10.6 million.
Stricklin said the resources are there to pay salaries, pay for scholarships and have top-notch facilities. The greater challenge is keeping up with the cost of living in the SEC.
It’s a daily battle for State, which is why private money is so crucial. MSU’s 2010-11 budget is just over $39 million, and if it equals last year’s $17.6 million total in private money, then nearly one-third of the total budget would come from donors.
Revenue-generating projects like stadium expansion – which will be funded through revenue bonds – can also beef up the budget long term. Stricklin always tries to keep thinking ahead when addressing such needs.
“You’ve got to attack the challenges, whether it’s how we market ourselves, how we present ourselves to recruits, how we create a game-day experience and the elements we use there,” Stricklin said. “We’ve got to be real proactive, and we’ve got to be creative. We can’t be afraid of doing things just because no one’s ever done it before.”
Part of being proactive is seeking new ways to raise money.
Every year at the SEC Basketball Tournament, Hemphill and his fundraising colleagues from around the league get together and freely exchange ideas on how to more effectively raise money for their programs.
For example, Hemphill has shown other schools brochures for MSU’s current fundraising/facilities campaign, called “Today, Tomorrow, Forever.”
“If we like what they’ve done or they like what we’ve done, obviously you can market that to our group,” Hemphill said. “We’re a pretty close-knit group. It’s not like we’re competing for recruits like our teams do. We’re calling on a totally different group of people.”
MSU has been calling more and more the last few years, and the positive answers keep on coming.
Contact Brad Locke at 678-1571
or brad.locke@journalinc.com.