Funding Academic Competition Programs

by Tom Michael

Version 1.2.2

Last updated Friday, July 21, 2000 02:19:50 PM

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed below are my own, and not those of any organization or group with which I may happen to be affiliated.


Successful student organizations and academic competition teams require two essential components: a cadre of enthusiastic participants, and an adequate financial base. This document will focus on the money. Although it is based on ideas and observations made during my two decades of association with academic competition and academia in general, I recognize that the vast diversity of institutions makes a "one size fits all" approach to funding a futile endeavor. Hopefully, the reader will be able to pick and choose from among the ideas presented to come up with a funding strategy that is the best fit for any particular situation. While this document is written primarily as help for newer programs, more established programs may still find useful ideas as well. The information presented is also far from the last word on the subject, and suggestions, comments, addenda, and dissenting viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

The Catch-22 of funding is that teams successful on the playing field can often parlay that success, by a variety of routes, into improved funding; but that for many programs improved funding is the necessary ingredient to take a team to the next level of success. Like many other endeavors, the keys to securing adequate funding involve planning, creativity, and hard work on a number of fronts. While reaching an adequate level of funding for the program you desire may take a few years, I am convinced that such a level can be readily achieved through persistent work. Although one can occasionally hear stories of how programs have stumbled on to sources of adequate funding by shear luck, a close examination of well-funded programs will indicate that those programs got that way and stay that way through an investment of time and effort.

Preparing a budget

The obvious, and often overlooked, first step in securing adequate funding is to prepare a budget. Preparing a budget forces a program to look hard at the answers to two necessary questions: where do we want to go, and what will it take to get there? Once those two questions are answered, the budget becomes a part of the blueprint for achieving a program’s goals. Moreover a formal, well-organized, and well-written budget will be an important tool that will need to be presented at various stages of the funding process in order to achieve the desired level of funding.

Deciding on activities

The first question, "where do we want to go?," requires the program to set goals. While this does not have to be a formal process, with goal-setting team meetings and a prepared mission statement, a clear vision of the desired outcome is required. Goals should be as explicit as possible, and can include both process (e. g. "all campus social organizations will be invited to play in the intramural" or "we will attend three invitational tournaments") and outcome (e. g. "we will finish in the top four at tournament X") objectives. Setting goals, and being able to clearly state the reasons behind them, not only increases the chances of funding the attempt but also the chances of achieving the goals. For a fortunate few, realistic and specific goals can be summed up in a single short sentence: "Our goal is to win the [insert format] national championship" pretty much says it all; but most programs will require a few years of setting lesser goals before this goal can be made as a practicable statement.

Most programs will need to answer the question, "what will it take to get there?," by looking at the desired goal, and breaking it down into a series of intermediate goals or steps. Here is an example:

Goal: Have our team invited to an NCT so that we may compete with the best teams in the country.

Steps/Intermediate Goals:

Host an intramural tournament as an activity the entire school can participate in.

Invite every dorm to send a team so that the IM will have the widest possible participation.

Recruit new team members at the IM, at Student Activities Fair, and on our web page so that we reach out to new talent at every opportunity.

Have an open practice once a week at a regular time and location so that new members can find us easily, and so that we regularly work hard to improve ourselves.

Seek funding from the Student Activities Fund so that we may represent the University in competition at tournaments.

Send at least one team to two different invitationals so that we may gain experience in a variety of different formats and settings, and so that we may represent the University in these competitions.

Host a high school tournament so that we may expose potential new students to our team and our University, and so we can raise additional funds for our activities.

Invite every high school within 150 miles to attend our tournament so that we may attract the largest number of teams.

Send our best team to compete at [insert format] qualifying tournament, so that we may qualify for an invitation to the national championship tournament.

Send our best team to the national championship tournament so that we may represent our university at the highest level of competition.

The above list represents an extremely ambitious set of goals - too ambitious for a team just starting out, but quite realistic for a program with a few years of experience. Depending on the specific situation, some teams will want to achieve more and others less. Other items can certainly added depending on specific situations; for instance a goal related to procuring equipment, such as "Purchase a Gra-Lab timer so that we can practice for timed tournaments and so that we can take advantage of the discount for bringing a clock that invitationals offer." It is also possible to make a list of goals much more specific and detailed than the example presented above. Exactly how detailed to get is a matter of taste, but I don’t recommend getting less specific than the example. No matter what the specific objective, a program will benefit from a particularized list of goals. Note that the above goals make up a detailed plan of a program’s entire activities for a year. Also note that each goal listed has two parts - a stated objective, followed by a rationale for the objective. Looking at this list it is easy to determine both what the program is going to do, and why they’re going to do it. Being able to articulate the plan, the vision, and the rationale behind a program is essential for getting funding from most sources.

Estimating revenues

Once a set of goals has been established it’s time to start crunching the numbers. I’ll start with estimating revenues because, unfortunately, that’s usually the easiest to do. Revenues can come from two basic areas: funds generated by the program, and funds provided to the program from outside sources. The differences in approaches to acquiring these funds will be dealt with in more detail later on, so for now we’ll just look at estimating revenues from the sample objectives listed above.

Two of the goals in the example deal specifically with acquiring funds: asking the Student Activities Fund for money, and hosting a high school tournament. A third potential source of income can also be found in the intramural tournament. While the question of whether or not to charge an entrance fee is complicated, and will be discussed at greater length in the section on Intramural Tournaments, for the sake of the example we’ll assume that a small fee can be charged. With that in mind let’s look at potential revenue.

Tournament fee revenue, whether from a high school tournament or the intramural, is easy to calculate. Make an estimate of the number of teams that will be attending, and multiply that number by the entrance fee. Assuming a $10.00 entrance fee for the intramural and a $20.00/team base fee for the high school tournament, the numbers could look like this:

Intramural: 12 teams @ $10.00 = $120.00

High School: 16 teams at $20.00 = $320.00

Total tournament revenue: $440.00

Estimating what a Student Activities Board will give you is difficult, particularly if a program doesn’t have a track record of getting the funding. Even if a program does have a track record of getting funds, the amount given can vary widely from year to year. For planning purposes, it is usually safe to assume funding will remain the same as from the previous year, but any number of variables can change the situation. This will be discussed in more detail in the section on Student Activities Fees. For this example we’ll posit a Student Activities Board that will generously give $1,200 to the program, bringing the total anticipated revenue for a hypothetical program to $1,640.00.

Estimating costs

The costs of running a program from year-to-year can be broken down into the following areas:

Lockout system
Purchase for intramural
Purchase for high school tournament
Purchase for practices
Hosted tournament costs
Room rental or deposit
Trophies and awards
Attended tournament costs
Entrance fee
Reference books
Equipment maintenance

Some costs, like equipment, may be one-time expenditures at the beginning of a program. Question sets will need to be purchased every year for all hosted tournaments, including the IM, except for the rare program that undertakes to write all questions internally. Other items, like reference books or practice questions, may be luxury items a program will have to do without in lean years.

A program can decide that some costs, such as food and lodging at tournaments, will be borne by individuals rather than the program. This is usually the case for programs unable to secure adequate funding. Whether or not individuals will be expected to contribute, and how much, will depend on the difference between estimated revenues and estimated costs.

Sample budget

While most of the discussion has so far focused on the budget as a tool for planning, a carefully prepared budget is also an essential tool for procuring funding. Here is a budget based on the example above:

Planning budget


Tournament revenues
Intramural: 12 teams @ $10.00 = $120.00
High School: 16 teams at $20.00 = $320.00

Total tournament revenue: $440.00

Student Activities Funds - $1,200.00

Total Revenue: $1,660.00


Intramural tournament
Publicity (flyers) $5.00
Questions $300.00
Award Certificates $5.00
High School Tournament
Mailings $30.00
Questions $225.00
Trophies $50.00
Attending Invitational #1
Entrance fee (with discounts) $75.00
Buying questions $20.00
Attending Invitational # 2
Entrance fee (with discounts) $85.00
Buying questions $30.00
Lodging (2 rooms for one night) $144.00
Attending NCT Qualifying tournament
Entrance fee (with discounts) $100.00
Lodging (2 rooms for one night) $166.00
Attending NCT
Entrance fee (with discounts) $100.00
Lodging (2 rooms for one night) $184.00

Total costs: $1,519.00

Surplus: $141.00

In the example above the program has $141.00 left over. It can be used for other travel expenses such as gas, purchasing question sets, or as a cushion against unexpected expenses. Note: except for the fee for the NCT, which one format does not charge, the above budget is format neutral.

The budget actually submitted in order to procure funding will have a few differences. Rather than assuming the funding from Student Activities Fees, the submitted budget will present a deficit and ask for funding to cover it. The surplus won’t be shown - Student Activities Fees won’t give money for a surplus - and the estimates of income from the high school tournament and the IM will be more pessimistic. The submitted budget should also have the detailed list of goals attached to it - sources will be willing to fund a plan in direct proportion to how well a program can articulate the plan.

Funding sources

While the above example covers only a few potential sources of funding, there are many more possible. Each has its own nuances and potential pitfalls, and will be discussed individually.

Intramural tournament

The Intramural Tournament serves many purposes. It’s an excellent tool for introducing a program to the student body and for recruiting new students. It can be a source of revenue by itself through the entrance fees it generates. And, as a program put on for the benefit of the entire student body, it may be eligible for funds from the student programming office or board that are otherwise not available to clubs and organizations.

The first question as far as funding is concerned is to determine whether or not you can or should charge a fee. Some programs prefer not to charge a fee at all, believing that it will encourage a larger attendance. IM’s that are totally free for participants usually suffer from a high number of teams not showing up, though. This can throw a tournament schedule off, and leave an unfortunate (and, perhaps, unfounded) impression of disorganization for potential recruits. Charging a small fee still allows for large participation, while the investment of the fee by participants usually guarantees their showing up. Some student programming boards will agree to fund an intramural only on the condition that it is completely free and open to all students. In such cases, the boards can often be persuaded to allow a deposit to be charged, to be refunded to the team after a set number of matches (depending on tournament format) in order to minimize no-shows.

Unless a program is one of the fortunate few that can attract thirty or more teams to an IM (the University of Michigan reportedly has had as many as 50 teams come out), don’t expect the IM to make a profit. The IM is usually a necessary financial loss for a program that has its value as a recruiting tool, as publicity for the program, and as a service to the students. As mentioned, because an IM benefits the entire student body it may be eligible for program funds separate from what clubs and organizations usually get. There are several programs today that receive money for the cost of the IM from campus programming authorities, but have to raise funds for their other activities from other sources.

The costs involved with an IM are simple, assuming a program already has the equipment. Questions, publicity, and prizes are the annual costs. Questions specifically designed for IM tournaments can be purchased from NAQT, College Bowl Company, or both. While it is theoretically possible to run an IM with questions taken off the Packet Archive, questions from that source are usually too obscure for most IM’s. To participate in College Bowl it is necessary to purchase IM questions from that source. The minimal question cost for a new program purchasing IM questions is actually pretty close for both formats; details can be compared at and

Student activities fees

Nearly every college and university assesses a Student Activities Fee, with money generated by the fees distributed to student organizations. Although the specific details vary from campus to campus, there’s usually a process involved in which requests for funding are submitted to a campus programming board consisting of students or a mixture of students and administrators. Typically there is more money requested than the board has to distribute, and an academic competition program has to compete with every other student organization to get funding.

Applying for funding involves submitting a budget, and the more detailed the budget the better. Presentation counts heavily in this process, in which funding decisions often seem arbitrary and capricious. A set of goals and accompanying rationales, as explained above, can be an impressive addition to a budget submission. The greatest funding often goes to the most organized groups who demonstrate the greatest need for the money. Some boards try to put limits on what can be submitted in the funding request, but a general rule is that the more superficially impressive the application, the better the chance to get funding. The quality and the impressiveness of the presentation may determine whether funding goes to the academic competition program or, say, the ultimate frisbee club.

There is a simple principle that works when submitting a budget to a programming board: ask for more than you need to accomplish your goals, but don’t ask for an unrealistic amount. Programming boards very rarely give an organization all the money asked for. They expect some fat in the budget, and will be looking to cut it. With the large number and diversity of organizations seeking such funding, there’s also a tendency among boards to cut budgets in order to spread the money as widely as possible. The better the case made for each budget item, the more likely it is to be kept and funded. But if an unrealistically large amount of money is asked for, no matter how great the rationale, the board won’t be inclined to take the funding request seriously or even fund it at all.

Some boards will only fund programs that can be accessed by all students on the campus. If that’s the case they may only be willing to pay for an intramural. Some universities split the student activities fees so that the student union uses some of the money for campus-wide programs, while the rest is distributed to student organizations. In these situations it may be possible to tap into both sources, using union money to run the intramural and organization money to fund other activities.

When the board is student-run, student politics can play a major role in funding. Networking with student leaders to lobby your case can pay off. Having team members run for board positions or be appointed to board positions has obvious benefits. And examine all approved funding requests by other organizations carefully. Funding boards are expected to treat everyone by the same rules, but it’s common to find some organizations having activities funded that other organizations are denied. This may be the result of one presentation being better organized than another, or it may be a bias on the part of the board.

A universal feature of campus funding boards seems to be that their decisions can be appealed. If bias works against a program, or it is felt that for whatever reason the funding board didn’t give full consideration to a request, an appeal can often be worthwhile. Even if it results in no additional funding, or perhaps no funding at all, the appeal may pay off in future years. Knowing that you’re persistently determined to work within the system, a board may be willing to compromise with a program on money in the future just to get them to go away.

Administrative funding

While most academic competition programs are student-run organizations that derive much of their funding from student activities sources, some programs are run or sponsored by university administrative departments. These latter get most of their funding out of the university or departmental budget. The process of receiving the funds is similar to that required for going before a programming board - a budget and goals are required - but the decision will be made by an individual administrator instead of a student committee. But administrative funding may also be available for student organizations, and this is a funding source that many programs have let go untapped.

Discretionary funds

Many college administrators won’t admit it, but they all have discretionary money. It may be money saved from another project, a donation to be spent at their discretion, recovered institutional overhead costs, or unspent money from a previous budget year, but it’s there. Usually they’ve earmarked this money already for some special project. The trick is to become one of their special projects.

Personal networking is invaluable here. First identify potential administrators who may be sympathetic to your cause. Maybe they played for a team in their undergraduate days, or perhaps even appeared on "G. E. College Bowl" in the 1960's. Any administrator with which a member of your program has a warm and cordial personal relationship is a potential funding source. Any administrator with interests that can be shared with or linked to academic competition is a potential funding source.

When approaching an administrator for funding, all the work put into preparing the budget and enumerating goals will pay off. This is another situation where funding will depend on how clearly a program’s goals are articulated. Administrators are impressed by organization and enthusiasm, in that order. The more detailed your plan, the more they will want to help you. Even if they are unwilling to use their own discretionary funds, they may be willing to open the door for you to approach other sources.

Departmental funds

Departmental funding is usually a more stable source of money than discretionary funds. Discretionary funds can dry up without warning, but once a line item is inserted into a departmental budget it tends to stay there. Departmental funds can be acquired in two ways: the department sponsors the program, assuming most if not all costs; or the department works with the program on selected joint ventures, contributing towards specific expenses.

Generally speaking, a departmental sponsor is the gravy train of funding. Being sponsored by a particular administrative unit of a university invests the university in the program's success and, provided the program does nothing to embarrass the university, usually guarantees consistent year-to-year funding. These sorts of sponsorships are hard to get, and usually result from initiatives coming from the university rather than from the students. Once a program has become consistently identified with success, or if a member of the program has a specially close relationship with an administrator, a department might be interested in adopting an existing program.

Working with departments on joint projects is the more usual way of getting funding from this source. A School of Sciences, for instance, might be willing to fund a special intramural tournament with science-based questions. Honors programs or colleges may be willing to contribute funds to an IM targeted primarily, but not exclusively, towards their students. Residential colleges often have their own program funds, and can contribute to the cost of an IM just for their residents.

While departmental funds can place a program on a sound financial footing for a long time, there are some dangers with funds from this source. University procedures, requirements, and unrealistic expectations and expenses can inflate the cost of a program beyond the point where it can be realistically funded. An example of this may have occurred in the Spring of 2000 at Brigham Young University, according to a post Bryce Avery made to the academic competition listserv. Looking at team travel, a coach's stipend, and figuring the cost of secretarial time to make the travel arrangements, the General Education and Honors Program decided academic competition was costing them $40,000 per year! Based on that cost estimate, they defunded the program. Hopefully with a more realistic budget, and perhaps some other funding sources, BYU will be able to continue.

Special program funds

It would be a mistake to look only at academic departments or student unions as sources of funds. Other university branches may have money to contribute as well.

Though many programs run high school tournaments, I’ve heard of few that get their admissions office involved. The university admissions office is just as interested in recruiting as the program is, and has a budget just for recruiting expenses. In exchange for being able to make a recruiting pitch to visiting high school teams, they may be willing to spring for lunch for everybody or contribute money to the tournament expenses. At the very least, they can nearly always donate t-shirts or items with the university logo on them to give out as prizes. Usually, if approached far enough in advance, they’ll be willing to contribute a whole lot more.

Many universities have received federal TRIO grants. TRIO programs include Upward Bound, a project to help move at-risk youth onto the college track. Nearly every state has teams from the various Upward Bound programs competing in a "Scholar’s Bowl" competition. In exchange for helping out with the competition, or for running a small event during the monthly "Upward Bound" days or during the Upward Bound summer component, they may be willing to pay a program for the services of providing lockout systems, questions, and/or moderators.

If a university has a medical school, it is quit common to find various departments having periodic quiz bowl-style competitions between faculty and interns or students. Often these occur during "grand rounds." This is another situation where a program may be able to provide a lockout system or technical expertise in exchange for a small donation.

Finally, there are a number of other specialty academic competitions that exist on the high school and collegiate level. These includes competitions in general science, oceanography, nursing, culinary arts, agriculture, business ethics, Native American history, bible studies, Islamic studies, and foreign languages such as German and Latin, to name just a few. All of these competitions may be willing to contract with a program to provide some equipment, personnel, or other services.

These are just a few additional potential sources of funding. Depending on the university situation, there are probably a lot more.

Commercial support

Commercial support can come as money or as goods. Firms of all types may be willing to donate prizes for a tournament. Getting commercial firms to donate money involves an awareness of opportunity, and usually requires some help from university faculty or administration.

Firms generally only give money if they can see a tangible benefit for themselves. Most don’t need a tax deduction, and if they do they’ll find one that will serve their interests better than an academic competition program will. Some reasons companies might be persuaded to donate funds include to maintain or earn the good will of faculty members or administrators they may do business with, to gain access they otherwise wouldn’t have to a group of students, or to advertise. When faculty members are identified as being supportive of the program, it may be worthwhile to ask them if they know any companies or executives who might be willing to donate to the program. If a company markets its goods towards high school or college students, it might be willing to donate cash in exchange for a chance to talk to students at a tournament or to get sales literature to them. And a corporation may be willing to donate a small amount of money in exchange for their logo appearing on a t-shirt or a program.

Many companies have grant programs which can support a variety of causes. It never hurts to ask a company if they have such a fund. Auburn University Montgomery’s team received $1,000 a year for four years from a grant from a local power company. High school and middle school programs in a rural Alabama county were able in 1999-2000 to take advantage of a grant program from Weyerhauser. Information on such programs often can be found on a company's web site, or from the university office of development.

Alumni support

In my opinion this is the most overlooked and untapped source of funding for most programs. Consider how much money the average college graduate in any given major expects to make five, ten, and fifteen years after college. Now consider that those people may have played in 1995, 1990, and 1985. The institutional memory of most programs being very short, few have any records of player names from the past. Even new programs may discover that a team once existed at their college, and they have some alumni who might be willing to give to a new program.

College Bowl existed on radio from 1953 to 1959, and on television from 1959 to 1970, returning briefly to radio in the mid 1970's and briefly to television in 1983 and 1987. The invitational circuit appeared in the early 1970's, and underwent an explosive growth in the late 1980's through mid 1990's. The College Bowl / ACU-I partnership has had tournaments since 1978. ACF has existed in some form or another since the late 1980's. Many schools had teams in these older events.

The first step in accessing this funding source is to speak with someone at the university alumni office or association. They can usually set up an account for organizations. This allows programs to use the alumni association’s tax i.d. number so that any donations are tax deductible. The alumni association can promote the account through articles in the alumni magazine, or by helping you contact alumni directly. If a team from the school appeared on College Bowl, the College Bowl web page has a record of the televised appearances. School newspapers from the time should be available in the library, and almost certainly will have done a story with player names and majors. For more recent alumni, the article in the alumni magazine can encourage them to get in touch, and as they do they can give the names of other participants at the time. At class reunion activities, a match can be set up between the alumni players and the current squad. As programs meet alumni and persuasively state the case for funds, while having a tax deductible account for the funds to go, wallets will open up.

The importance of the tax deductible account is that it not only gives the alumni a benefit for donating, in many cases it will double the money received. Many corporations have "matching gift" programs, where if an employee makes a contribution to a tax deductible organization, the corporation matches the gift.

I know of a couple of programs today that have been able to establish a "sugar daddy" relationship with individual alumni. They have a person they can go to who will gladly fund a particular tournament trip the program otherwise could not afford. As long as a program doesn’t go to the well too often such relationships, once established, can be quite long-lasting and very beneficial.

Tournament revenue

Revenue from tournaments is perhaps the most traditional way for schools to get additional funding. Some well-established tournaments are veritable cash cows. The best example is probably Vanderbilt’s ABC High School tournament. Run twice a year, with an average total attendance of about 200 teams, the revenue in the past has been great enough for Vanderbilt to pay to fly players out to the West Coast for tournaments.

Before they attract a large number of teams and significant cash flow, most tournaments go through building years. Whether high school or college competition, tournaments tend to attract small numbers until they’ve built a reputation for quality. And even the largest tournaments can suffer a massive decline in teams attending following one disastrous tournament.

I will not go into the pros and cons of various types of tournaments here, except to say that newer programs will find the safest going by buying questions, rather than writing or editing the questions themselves. While purchasing questions cuts into the expected revenue, a poor first tournament can doom subsequent tournaments to low turnouts. It’s probably better to have good questions while a program is mastering tournament organization, and then moving towards writing or editing questions after the program has a few tournaments under its belt. Another possibility for questions that seems increasingly popular is to run "mirror" tournaments using questions that a reputable editor or writer from another program has created. This is usually less expensive then purchasing questions, and involves geographically separated tournaments using the same questions on the same day. Once a program has developed a reputation for running a good intercollegiate or high school tournament, the financial potential can really grow, and tournament revenues can approach several thousand dollars.

When running tournaments keep in mind the other funding sources mentioned above. If you have a tournament program, you can sell ads in it. The admissions office might want to contribute money towards a high school tournament. A corporate recruiter might pay for lunch in exchange for the chance of addressing college players. Don’t just rely on entrance fees as the source for tournament revenue, but look for other places as well.

Dues and fines

Some programs have club dues that participants are expected to pay. Indeed, some program boards require reasonable dues and then provide funding for activities beyond that level. While this is a local situation that will vary greatly from program to program, dues are a funding source that should seriously be considered.

I know of several programs that have a system of fines for various minor transgressions, ranging from swearing during practice to making particular strategic blunders during the course of a match. These revenues generally are small, but can amount to enough over time to pay for a tournament entrance fee, a small clock, or even refreshments for a practice.

Since questions are the lifeblood of both competition and practice, one way of assuring that enough questions will be available for practice is to give players a choice - write a packet of twenty toss-ups and twenty bonuses a month, or pay a small amount (say, ten or fifteen dollars). The money collected can be used to buy practice packets from tournaments or commercial sources.


Once a program has articulated clearly definable goals, and developed a budget to achieve those goals, securing funding may require multiple approaches, hard work, and above all, persistence. Do not expect to succeed at every attempt for funding, but try as many ways as possible. Often just making a failing attempt can provide information or open doors that may make funding possible from that source in subsequent years.

I hope that this document has presented some ideas that will be useful in an academic competition program’s achievement of financial health through reliable funding. Feedback is encouraged, and will be used to improve future versions of this document.

Thomas F. Michael



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