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Volume 21 No. 27
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Team USA fundraising arm targets individuals

The USOC has emphasized fundraising to support Team USA’s other major revenue streams.
Team USA’s fundraising arm is turning its attention to the 99 percent.

Since opening its doors four years ago this month, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation has spent most of its time building a staff and pursuing major donors. Including 2013, when gifts were still given directly to the USOC, the Olympic team booked donations worth $77.9 million during the four-year period ending in 2016, and projects nearly $121 million for the current quadrennial, almost entirely from those giving at least $300,000.

But with a national staff in place and scores of big donors lined up, officials have set a new long-term goal: Getting $100 each from 1 million individuals, establishing the “bottom of the pyramid” of giving and cultivating the next generation of big money givers. Team USA Fund commercials are airing on the Olympic Channel, and a website now prompts donations as small as $50.

“It’s the power of collective giving,” said Jon Denney, the former Stanford assistant athletic director hired as founding president of the foundation in 2013. “If you have a lot of people giving at those levels, it’ll make an impact. But also, those are the folks 10 years from now we’ll draw upon to be our trustees and our principle gift donors in the future.”

Los Angeles winning the 2028 Games was an integral development. The mass giving campaign goal wouldn’t be possible without L.A. to generate the necessary awareness levels, Denney said. “It’s tremendously important,” he said. “The potential is unbelievable for us.”

Today, the USOPF counts 123 donors who have committed at least $300,000 in a four-year period, up from about 52 when the foundation formally launched in January 2014. Those donors make up a group of trustees and a large board of directors, all of whom volunteer to help find more donors among their networks.

Until this decade, the U.S. Olympic Committee did not prioritize private fundraising, though it’s always been able to under its nonprofit status. In the quadrennial ending in 2008, the USOC raised fewer than $10 million in major gifts.

But CEO Scott Blackmun began emphasizing fundraising shortly after he was named CEO in January 2010, believing the organization’s two other major revenue lines of sponsorship and television rights were “mature.”

“When I came in, I saw philanthropy as the real growth opportunity for us,” Blackmun said.

Three years later, he hired Denney. In 2012, powerhouse media investor Gordon Crawford retired from Capital Research & Management, freeing him up to become chair of the foundation. “It’s exceeded our expectations,” Blackmun said.

At times, the foundation has butted up against other Olympic movement fundraising efforts. Last summer, U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chairman Dexter Paine hosted a fundraiser on Nantucket for the national governing body, and then found out the USOC had a similar event with Bode Miller planned just a week later on the island.

But overall, Paine said, the USOPF has worked well with the sports bodies, and early fears that it would undermine their efforts haven’t come true.

“There is an inherent conflict,” Paine said. “But if you’re open and communicative, you can minimize the impact. And I think it’s actually worked out, better certainly than we feared at the ski and snowboard team.”

The USOPF strives to provide services to the governing body fundraising divisions, Denney said, and it has a full-time staffer dedicated solely to helping NGBs with campaigns and legal matters.

In some ways, the foundation is unique in the world of philanthropy. Its natural constituency of possible donors is far smaller than a university, major religious denomination or medical researchers fighting common diseases. It also still battles a mistaken belief that Team USA is funded by the government.

The winning themes with donors tend to be patriotism, a love of sports and belief in the Olympic ideals of peace building and personal empowerment. “Do I expect Team USA or [the foundation] to be at the top of everyone’s philanthropic priorities? Probably not, but we want to be on the list. We want to be considered,” Denney said.

While Blackmun’s praise for the foundation is unequivocal, its tangible impact on the USOC’s finances is still minimal. According to its most current audited financial reports, the foundation spun off $8.6 million from 2014-16 to the USOC, its sole beneficiary. (2013 figures were still consolidated into central USOC finances as the foundation got off the ground.)

That’s only 14 percent of its total contribution revenue during those years, far short of independent benchmarker Charity Navigator’s 75 percent recommendation. Officials say the number reflects startup expenses, as well as the practice of booking the sum total of four-year pledges as upfront revenue while only listing actual cash allocations to the USOC as the money flows in real time. That suggests the percentage will rise as the foundation matures and early commitments bear fruit.

The ultimate payout amounted to less than 1 percent of the USOC’s total revenue in the Rio quadrennial, but it is all incremental. Denney is noncommittal when asked how much of the budget the foundation ultimately might be able to support on a year-to-year basis.

“I’m not sure I can predict that, or the timing,” he said. “But it’s growing, and it’s continuing to grow. And I think we’re just scratching the surface. There’s huge growth potential.”