In a recent email to its directors and members, the Virginia Tech Hokie Club reported a record number of donors for the 2020 giving year, totaling 17,814 contributors. Three and a half years into the Drive for 25 initiative, the goal of 25,000 members is getting closer.
The communication came from Brad Wurthman, Virginia Tech’s Senior Associate Athletics Director of External Operations. Wurthman has been the face of the Hokie Club and its acting director since the reassignment of former Hokie Club director Bill Lansden in October of 2019. (Lansden departed for the University of Arkansas in March of 2020, where he is now a Senior Director of Development in their College of Engineering.)
Wurthman reported the following numbers for the Hokie Club’s 2020 Fiscal Year. Normally, the year ends on March 31st, but with this year’s special circumstances, the donation deadline was extended to April 30th, so these are the numbers as of April 30th, 2020:
- 17,814 Total Hokie Club Members – 10% increase over FY 2019 (16,197), all time high
- 10,832 Hokie Scholarship Fund Members – 17% increase over FY 2019 (9,271), all time high
- $32.8 million total Hokie Club donations – 15% increase over FY 2019 ($28.7m), third highest all time
- $15.1 million Hokie Scholarship Fund donations – 7% increase over FY 2019 ($14.1m), third highest all time
Clarifications and definitions: the Hokie Scholarship Fund (HSF) donors and contributions are a subset of the overall Hokie Club donors and contributions. Of the 17.8k total members, 10.8k of them are HSF donors. Of the $32.8 million raised, $15.1 million was HSF donations. HSF donations are earmarked specifically for paying the annual scholarship bill for Virginia Tech’s student-athletes.
In a Zoom interview with Tech Sideline, Wurthman reported that the scholarship bill for FY2020 was $17 million. The $15.1 million raised wasn’t enough to fully pay the scholarship bill, but Virginia Tech has an athletics endowment of approximately $65 million which generates about $2.5 million annually in income to help pay the scholarship bill. Between annual donations and endowment income, VT is able to cover the scholarship bill without dipping into operating funds, but just barely.
Hokie Club Growth
When Virginia Tech announced the Drive for 25 Campaign in December of 2016 with the goal of increasing Hokie Club membership to 25,000 members, the Hokie Club had finished the previous year (FY2016) with just 9,874 members. That was down from an all-time high of just over 12,000 members in 2002 and 2003.
In the four fiscal years since the announcement of the Drive for 25, here are the results in Hokie Club membership:
The big jump in FY2017 was triggered in part by awareness due to the Drive for 25 campaign, but it was mostly due to the introduction of per-seat minimum donations for football and men’s basketball.
The next big jump in FY2019 was helped in part by folding paid Student Hokie Club donors into the overall Hokie Club count. Wurthman reported that in FY2019 and FY2020, Student Hokie Club donors numbered about 1,400.
The three-pronged boost of awareness, per-seat minimums, and student inclusion into the Hokie Club numbers have created tremendous progress towards the goal of 25,000 members. Nearly 8,000 members have been added in the last four years, and if the Hokie Club can continue to grow at that rate, the goal of 25,000 members will be reached in FY2024, eight years after the Drive for 25 began.
What will the Hokie Club do next to reach their final goal?
The Push Now for Members
The early Drive for 25 growth effort was engineered to greatly increase the dollar figures coming into the Hokie Club, especially for scholarships. In FY2016, prior to the announcement of the Drive for 25, just $20 million was donated to the Hokie Club, including just $11.5 million for scholarships. Those figures are now $32.8 million and $15.1 million, thanks primarily to the per-seat minimums that were introduced in FY2017.
The most recent strategies used by the Hokie Club under Wurthman’s direction appear to be designed towards increasing the number of overall donors and building for the future.
When the Drive for 25 was first announced, a donation of $25 per month ($300 per year) was encouraged. In the ensuing years, the minimum donation level was $100 per year, the “Hokie” level of membership.
For FY2020 (the year just concluded), the Hokie Club introduced a Gobbler Level of $25 per year, so fans can now donate as little as $25 and be counted as a Hokie Club member and an HSF donor (if they so choose). More importantly, that small donation puts the fan into the Hokie Club database, and from that point on, they can build a relationship that could lead to bigger donations and greater engagement in the future.
“[Michael] Bloomberg, his first gift to Johns Hopkins was $5,” Wurthman notes. “And 50 years later, he gave them $1.8 billion. In our historical model, we wouldn’t have counted him, unless he had given us 95 additional dollars. We never would have even thought to connect with someone in that way.”
The one-time $25 donation is a low barrier to entry, and it’s a great tool for pulling in new members. Introduced in August of 2019, the $25 Gobbler Level already numbers about 2,000 contributors.
For example, for 2020 student football season ticket purchases, students are presented with the option at checkout to also join the Hokie Club for an additional $25. If the student chooses to do so, their $25 donation becomes an HSF donation, and they’re added to the list of Hokie Club and HSF donors. The perks include a T-shirt or a hat or a backpack, which by itself is nearly worth the $25 membership donation.
In previous years, Wurthman said they would email students who had already made season ticket purchases and ask them to join the Hokie Club, but this year, placing the option right there at ticket checkout is already paying dividends.
“Our 1,400 number [for FY2020] came from April of 2019 thru March of 2020. Our 1,900 number came from late March of 2020 through early May.”
Virginia Tech usually sells about 12,000 student football season tickets. So far for the 2020 season, only about 6,000 tickets have been purchased so far, so the potential for growth well beyond 1,900 students is there.
“Provided football season happens and we’re allowed to have students in the stands and all these things,” Wurthman says, “we think we could be in the neighborhood of 3,500 to 4,000 Student Hokie Club members for the current year.”
If every other metric stays the same for FY2021, an increase in student membership from 1,400 to 3,500 or 4,000 would put overall Hokie Club membership in the range of 20,000 members.
Wurthman also described event-based donations that are designed to get fans into the Hokie Club database. For the Belk Bowl in Charlotte this past season, the Hokie Club coordinated a tailgate event with the Alumni Association and Advancement, and the cost of the tailgate included a $5 contribution to the Hokie Scholarship Fund.
“These folks, if the $5 was all they contributed, did not count towards our membership number this year, but they did join our database,” Wurthman explained. “Of the approximately 1,000 attendees, over 250 had never made a contribution to the Hokie Club, but they’re in our database now, so the onus is on us to build those relationships with these folks.
“Where the upside lives is if you extrapolate that over events throughout the year. For example, if we host ten events per year and have half of those numbers on average, that’s 1,250 new contributors in the family that we can educate on the value of fundraising support and the impact of scholarships. We have to continue to find new avenues to identify donors. We believe one way to do that is through some of the events we host throughout the year.
“We’ll be doing more things like that in the coming year. It doesn’t even have to be an event. It could be a taster’s pack of things, it could be an at-home tailgate kit, who knows.”
The Hokie Club is successfully stuffing the pipeline at the lower levels, a strategy that hasn’t received much effort in the past as larger dollars were chased and other changes took priority.
Student donors and Gobbler Level donors don’t immediately provide the tens of millions of dollars Virginia Tech needs to catch up with many of their Power 5 brethren, but it’s a smart long-term play that will pay off in the future.
If Wurthman and the other Hokie Club staffers continue to have success with the strategies they’re using, you will see sometime in the next few years a press release announcing that the Drive for 25 was successful in reaching its goal of 25,000 members … something many scoffed at when it was introduced in December of 2016.
Wurthman is quick to credit the Hokie Club team and Virginia Tech fans in general for the progress.
“I would argue too that the work that everyone has done in previous years, telling the story of why scholarship support matters, you see that in our numbers this year. I really do believe that people have heard that message. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that Hokies are generous.”
Other Hokie Club Notes
Wurthman noted that if more people donate to the HSF in order to purchase season tickets for 2020, they will count for FY2020 and the numbers for FY2020 will go up from those reported here.
Wurthman appreciates the efforts of all the Hokie Club employees, but he praised six-year Virginia Tech employee Angelique Baldwin in particular for helping the Hokie Club track its efforts. “She is so good … she manages our membership model. She does a lot of work for our back-end data infrastructure. Super-talented.”
The Hokie Club has been teasing for months that a new web site is coming in May of 2020. “We’re in the middle of a round of edits right now. The hope is that it launches at the end of May,” Wurthman reported, but it sounds as if the Hokie Club’s web presence is to be tied into hokiesports.com. “You want people to go to one site, and then branch off to wherever they need to go. For us, we want you to be able to go to hokiesports.com, and then begin your digital journey that way.”
As for ongoing issues with the accuracy of some donors’ data in the Hokie Club system as everyone is transferred to a new database, Wurthman says, “We feel that the data is right and the donation history is accurate, and if you feel it isn’t, just call our office. We will solve it. To work through these individual cases, sometimes it just requires human touch points. There is some level of error that’s going to be in it. Our job is to find those errors and fix it. I feel confident that the data is right, but if the data is incorrect in an individual case, I feel confident that our team can figure out why. If there’s a problem, give us a chance to make it right.”
Note: the new web site was released over the weekend. Click here.