“Our alumni just don’t come back for Homecoming at our institution like they do at other places.”
“We’ve never had a strong turn-out for our donor recognition event.”
“Our Board members just don’t give like they should. It hasn’t been part of our culture for our Board members to play a significant role in soliciting each other.”
If you ever hear someone on your team say something like the above (or, perhaps, you catch yourself expressing similar frustrations), I want you to remember this picture:
This is a University of Tennessee football gameday photo taken at Neyland Stadium last year. Neyland stadium holds over 102,000 people, making it one of the largest sporting arenas of any kind in the U.S. That is a massive amount of people.
I share this picture because there is a story behind this “checkerboard” design. As you can see on the playing field, the orange and white checkerboard is a signature visual element in the end zones. The checkerboard is part of the University of Tennessee Football brand. The idea, then, to have fans wear either orange or white shirts to create the visual of a stadium-wide checkerboard makes sense with the brand.
By looking at this picture, you might think that a massive amount of planning and coordination lead by the the University of Tennessee and/or the Athletics Department would be needed to pull this off. I mean, how in the world could you get all of these 102,000 people to come to the game dressed in a certain color shirt without massive coordination efforts. Or, maybe it just took a lot of resources that most institutions don’t have. Maybe the Athletics Department just bought 102,000 orange and white shirts and distributed the shirts in the stadium so that they were waiting for the fans at their seats. That’s how big institutions like the University of Tennessee can pull off these cool things – they have huge teams of people and lots more money than most other institutions or organizations.
Well, here is the back story. There was no institutional planning or coordination. No buying 102,000 shirts for all the fans. No teams of students and athletic personnel distributing shirts in any way. This picture happened – the orange and white checkerboard in the stands happened – because 2 fans had a vision, built and published a website and sold the idea to 102,000 people. And they did it all 11 days prior to this game.
During those 11 days, they went to every restaurant and business in Knoxville they could find and asked if each would help promote the checkerneyland.com web address on their street signs. They sent messages to the local media, along with digitally-created pictures of what the “checkered Neyland stadium” would look like, and asked for support to get the word out. They called into sports radio stations and “advertised” their website so that fans could log on, enter their seat number and learn whether to wear an orange or a white shirt. Any orange or white shirt would do – just make sure you were wearing the right color for your section in the stadium.
And the people followed the lead of these 2 guys. Fans visited the website in droves, learned what color shirt to wear, and came to the game prepared. As you can see from the picture and from the news coverage after the game, it was a huge success.
Here is the point: These 2, everyday guys had no significant resources. They had no institutional support for this idea. But, they had a passion for an idea. They wanted to make something happen. And they were determined that it would be a success. They sold their idea by presenting a compelling vision for what it could be. And they were tireless and creative in inviting people to be a part of it. Their passion was contagious and their idea was sticky.
So, the next time you hear team members complaining about how “no one” shows up or participates or responds, remember the checkerboard Neyland picture. The issue may not be that “they” don’t show up. It may be that “we” don’t passionately give reasons why “they” should.
As advancement professionals a big part of our work is to paint a vision of an exciting and better future, be passionate about that vision, and be relentless in inviting other people to own the fulfillment of that vision with us. No, it’s no where near enough to say, “we put the invite in the magazine and no one came.” If you want to create memorable engagements with your donors and friends, your passion matters.