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Triangle Talks with Eric Zillmer | The Triangle
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Triangle Talks with Eric Zillmer

Photograph courtesy of Eric Zillmer

Eric A. Zillmer is the Director of Athletics, the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology and a licensed clinical psychologist. Zillmer served as the director of psychology programs at Drexel University from 1988 to 1998 and in 2001, he founded Drexel’s sport management major. Now in his 21st year as Drexel’s NCAA Division I athletics director, Zillmer oversees all components of the Athletic Department and was instrumental in building the recreation center. He currently teaches in the Pennoni Honors College. 

This interview was conducted by Maggie Fedorocsko.

The Triangle: Why is fundraising so important to athletics?

Eric Zillmer: You can create a paradigm shift overnight. We are very fiscally responsible and we have grown our infrastructure organically over the last years, but when a donor or a group of donors make an exceptional financial commitment to your program, it has an immediate impact, provides incredible value and “floats all boats.”

TT: What are some of the most important fundraising endeavors that have propelled Drexel Athletics?

EZ: Our NCAA Division I women’s field hockey team used to have to play its athletic contests at the University of Pennsylvania and our dream was to build a field hockey only facility. I felt we had the coaching and team talent in place to win, but we needed our own field. When Bob Buckley asked me how he could help I asked him to step in. Buckley not only financed the project, but he also brought his own bulldozers in to create Buckley Field. Over one summer we build a state-of-the-art field hockey facility and we are now playing with “Dragon fire!” The best teams in the country started coming to Buckley Field to compete against us. This is not an isolated example; it has been replicated over and over like in crew, wrestling, golf and most recently, squash, where gifts by Tom Kline and Shanin Specter have created an award-winning seven-court squash facility at the Daskalakis Athletic Center, and our men’s and women’s squash programs are now nationally ranked. Philanthropy allows you to — metaphorically — go from 0 to 60 mph in zero seconds.

Alumni Vince and Judy Vidas are two other generous donors to Drexel Athletics. Vince was Drexel’s best football player and provided significant funds to our campaign to renovate the athletic fields at 43rd and Powelton streets, which are now named after him. It is very humbling when you meet people like Vince, and there are dozens of them whom I have had the same experience with over the years. Think about how Drexel Athletics has changed over the years, basically on the shoulders of many exceptional people, including alumni like Bob Buckley, Chuck Pennoni, John Daskalakis, Jim Bean, Stan Silverman, George Krall, John Chapel and Steve and Sandy Sheller, as well as many, many others. Drexel students may not know them personally, but their names are on many buildings and athletic spaces around campus and this speaks to their passion and commitment they have made to their alma mater. We even had a passionate Drexel wrestling alumnus who gifted his house to athletics. These alumni and friends literally stepped up to fulfill their obligation of what it means to be a graduate of Drexel. These are extraordinary people and getting to know them has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being the athletic director at Drexel.

TT: This spring, the university held its third annual Day of Giving. Of the 4,229 total donations to the university, 43 percent were made to athletics, raising over $100K in 24 hours. How was the department able to achieve this?

EZ: It is all about creating a culture of philanthropy. Over the years, we established an environment at Drexel Athletics in which our stakeholders feel directly connected to our programs. But it helps to be successful too. For example, this season, wrestling cracked the top 25 in the nation and our rowing programs won the Dad Vail Regatta for the sixth consecutive time so it’s not surprising to see that those programs led the entire university in gifts on the Day of Giving.

TT: What does this campaign mean for athletics?

EZ: A campaign of this scale makes you collectively focus on what is important to the well being of our department as well as the university. It makes you reevaluate your priorities. Plus, it creates energy as well as urgency across the campus that is otherwise difficult to accomplish. I was honored to be asked to serve on the university’s steering committee for the campaign. Drexel Athletics could be the spirit and soul of our university’s commitment to innovation, engagement, inclusivity and excellence. I very much welcome this opportunity to rally around our department and our university, and believe that this campaign is an essential activity for a leading educational institution like Drexel.

TT: Do you use your background in psychology in fundraising?

EZ: Of course. I quickly learned that fundraising is primarily relationship-based. I genuinely like people and I am authentically interested in their personal story, as well as their dreams and aspirations. But you also have to be able to listen well. Fundraising is a process. The more an individual gives, the more they feel like they are getting back personally. I have learned early on that for a donor to give, they not only have to believe in your mission, but also in you (or a coach) personally. And you have to have success or at least the potential for success. All of these concepts are, in my opinion, fundamentally grounded in psychology.

TT: Did you have anyone that showed you the “ropes” of fundraising and do you have mentors today?

EZ: When I was a psychology professor I had to figure it out myself. My first important donor was Carl Pacifico ’44, a highly intelligent and entrepreneurial chemical engineer who was passionate about how the brain works. We became close friends and he supported me personally and my projects by naming a professorship in his name; hence, I am now the Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology. One beautiful aspect about giving, is that Carl’s support will continue in perpetuity to whomever holds his professorship. I am fortunate to now benefit from an entire team of mentors. Most importantly, I now have the support and guidance of the university’s institutional advancement department. Their leader is Senior Vice President David Unruh and I look up to him for his organizational leadership, his experience and his tactical acumen. I am also fortunate to work with three talented athletic fundraisers including Kerry DiBlasio, Mary Moran and Robert Fisher. Their energy and organizational skills are inspiring to me and they make me work even harder every day. I also admire our president, John A. Fry’s ability to articulate a vision thoughtfully, passionately and intelligently. I think he is industry leading in that regard and I try to model myself after him.

TT: What are the most important ingredients in fundraising?

EZ: Organization and passion. I always like to say philanthropy has art and science in it, two concepts that I am personally very familiar with. On the science side you have to work collaboratively in teams, it helps to have established procedures, robust data, to document all your contacts with donors, and to engage in research. One also has to have a close working relationship with the university’s development office, which we do. Without question you have to be very organized to be a good fundraiser. The art of fundraising is also something that I immerse myself in, and which comes a little bit more naturally to me. There are a lot of unknowns in fundraising and that is okay with me. I believe it takes a high emotional IQ, since one is dealing with successful people and complex systems. It can be a somewhat non-linear process, especially the art of closing a gift.

TT: Why would you encourage people to get involved in the fundraising process?

EZ: I think it is important for all Drexel students, professional staff and faculty to get involved in fundraising. Not only to support your alma mater and/or where you work, but to learn the basic skills of a fundraiser. Also, I fully believe that the individual who will cure cancer or solve poverty will be a former student-athlete. They have learned essential skills in the athletic arena, for example, drive, teamwork, risk management, and yes failure, to position themselves to make the impossible, possible. From my perspective if you give to Drexel Athletics, you are investing in the future leaders of this world. I promise you that you will feel more engaged with Drexel through the process of giving back. It can be quite magical!