Federation of Irish Sports 2017 Conference

Delighted to be asked by CEO James Galvin to MC this Conference which turned out to both illuminating and instructive. After a frank and fortright introduction from Minister of State for Tourism and Sport, Patrick O’Donovan TD there were presentations from a number of sports bodies including cricket, judo, gymnastics, handball, and sailing as well as from James Wynne of Onside on sponsorship and Dennis O’Connor of 2into3 on philanthropy.

The star attraction was Sara Liebscher, Senior Director of Athletics Advancement on the University of Notre Dame in the US who gave a jaw dropping presentation on the role of philanthropy in building a massive sports programme in Notre Dame. The size and scale of their programme is, of course, impressive and the numbers hard to believe. However, perhaps the key take away was that their philanthropic programme has been relatively recent  (only about 15 years old) and that there is a well trodden path to be followed. As she went through her fascinating presentation it became clear that raising private funding is all about implementing a process and that if you follow that process you have a greater chance of success than if you don’t. Core to the process is building relationships and the fact that people give money to people they like and trust. The platform which Sara and her team built was based on a number of fundamentals. Key to this was building a gold standard organisation which reflected the core values of the college. One of these is excellence and this is what the development team strived for in every action and interaction with donors. They also became more data driven and learnt a lot more about who supported them, why they supported them and what was important to them. They realised that donors give to projects that interested them and not to projects that the college wanted. They built and leveraged an advisory council who helped them build a global network of committed connections with capacity and propensity. They then developed unique and special engagement opportunities – magic moments that bonded their donors to the organisation. Finally they positioned sport as a transformative experience that helped shape people for their lives after college. This compelling cocktail was built on people wanting to support winners and be associated with success. At no time was the begging bowl used. People were being asked to invest in something that was working and was successful and their investment was both logical and emotional. A central element was building an Endowment Fund – investing now to guarantee the future.

Sara’s presentation was, at one level, scary and daunting and at another level inspiring. Many of the organisations in the room at this conference have made enormous strides in many areas over the last recent years and this is one piece of the jigsaw that is still underdeveloped, if not entirely missing. Accordingly, it was instructive and encouraging to hear the story of Sailing Ireland and the CEO of their Foundation Jack Gleeson told of how they have invested in developing a structure to attract philanthropic gifts. Currently the Irish Sailing Association gets €850,000 from Sport Ireland and €150,000 from sponsorship which means they have to raise a further €2 million annually if they want to make an impact at the highest level. The parallels between the approach that Jack is taking and the approach that Sara has taken were striking and Jack will have much to pass on the sporting fraternity in Ireland as this programme develops. Also, Jack, with his KPMG accounting background experience and pedigree has been instrumental in researching the tax deductibility environment of philanthropic giving in different countries and it is obvious that Ireland is way off the pace. Many years ago a certain Taoiseach wrote himself into the history books by offering artists very favourable tax treatment on earnings, an initiative that sent a terrific signal to the artist community here and resonated around the world and helped Ireland’s cultural image and reputation. If only that could be done again and this time for Irish sport.

Well done to the Federation of Irish Sports – an excellent day’s work. 

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