The Evolution of Fundraising: An Illini Success Story

Sean McDevitt
4 min readOct 10, 2022


By Sean McDevitt

The days of direct mail, handwritten letters and phone calls have long been over.

For years, “old school” single-channel tactics such as email solicitation, evening phone calls to alums, and mailings have been trending down. The transactional gift is still there, but the change in approach of talking to donors at all levels of giving has evolved.

Today, fundraising is about philanthropy. It’s about how a gift to Illinois athletics can transform student-athletes and coaches, the entire campus, and the community. These philanthropic donors are looking for transparency, inclusion, and an understanding of how their gifts make an immediate impact.

Over the years, the shift in thinking has made all the difference in maintaining an incredible streak at Illinois Athletics of raising more than $30 million in new business for five consecutive years, including three straight years surpassing $40 million. In Illinois Athletics, there’s an opportunity to make a philanthropic investment to help elevate the entire program to the same level as its peers in the Big Ten and provide the best student-athlete experience.

Today, donors the University aren’t as interested in being solicited by a centralized office anymore. They are savvier and more interested in where their money is going and how it is being used.

Howard Milton, Senior Associate Athletic Director, Development at the University of Illinois, sees peer institutions considering fundraising similarly.

“We are highly decentralized at Illinois. So, each college unit has the autonomy to work independently on their fundraising efforts in a way that suits their goals and needs.

“Donors are a lot more sophisticated,” said Milton. “Many of them have their own foundations. Many of them are much more knowledgeable in tax law. Plus, many of our donors, major gift donors, have served on boards and done a fair amount of fundraising themselves for non-for-profits.”

Along with the uptick in fundraising experience across the board, there was also a fundamental shift in relationship building.

“Relationships are a big reason we’ve had such success,” said Zach Goines, Associate Athletic Director, Development at the University of Illinois. “The success comes when donors believe and trust us. The donors give when they feel they’re money will be stewarded in a way to have the most success possible and the most opportunities for student-athletes.”

For a long time, fundraising for Illinois Athletics was transactional. Since Josh Whitman has became director of athletics, the focus is has shifted to personal relationships. The mindset has given donors a way to think bigger.

“The Smith relationship was there. The Demirjian relationship was there. The Atkins relationship was there. The Martin relationship was there,” Goines said. “We were able to take many of them to the next level or even higher because of our long-term relationships.”

The development team sustained incredibly high standards by maintaining those relationships, keeping the messaging consistent, ensuring they were constantly discussing priorities, and focusing donors on how they could make an impact. These relationships transitioned from a transactional platform to a much larger philanthropic economy.

A good example is the I FUND. Corey Ansfield, Assistant Athletic Director, I FUND Scholarships, changed the messaging to Illini fans and donors who may not buy season tickets and may not need to contribute for the purpose of tickets into one focused on helping student-athletes.

“People began to think and understand, as we communicated to them, that they can still give their $10,000 and help the program. We are growing the I FUND because they have an interest in helping our student-athletes,” said Goines.

Listening to what donors are looking for and presenting them with new and exciting opportunities is central to achieving ambitious goals, such as capital-building projects and creating long-term, brand-loyal relationships with donors.

“We have decades and decades of experience within development here, and I also think that’s the case on campus,” said Milton. “We value the process over the outcome. So, the relationship means more to us maybe than the outcome, and in turn, I think that probably makes us unique.”

Fundraising success happens when you engage with anyone and everyone.

“We need gifts of all sizes, and they all have incredible impact,” Milton said. “We don’t limit ourselves to alumni giving. I want to talk to fans because 30-some percent of our giving comes from non-alums. They can impact something meaningful to them with their gift. It may be a scholarship, mentoring, or a mental health program. It’s important that we don’t characterize ourselves as an exclusive club but as an inclusive group of people pulling in the same direction for something we all really cherish… Illinois athletics.”

Giving used to be something that a highly exclusive group of people did at a certain point in their career or during specific times of the year, such as tax season. It was not considered an everyday occurrence. That thinking has evolved. Today, there are dozens of opportunities for donors of all giving abilities to contribute to the success of Illinois Athletics. And Illinois needs all of them.

Originally published at on October 10, 2022.



Sean McDevitt

Most days I’m a professional copywriter, author, essayist, husband, father, and scrambled eggs maker. Find me at