By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In his hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia, Kevin Miller started working at the family business, Neely’s Grocery, when he was about 12. His responsibilities included scrubbing shelves and floors, cutting chicken and operating the cooker.
The experience instilled in him a strong work ethic and an appreciation for the importance of customer service. It also helped Miller clarify his career goals.
“I learned then that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” he recalled, laughing.
After graduating from Wheeling Central Catholic High, where he starred on the golf team, Miller found his calling in college athletics. As a student at West Virginia University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in 2005 and a master’s in 2006, he began his career in fundraising. He then worked at the University of Central Florida and Georgia State University before returning to his alma mater in 2012 to become a major gifts officer for the Mountaineer Athletic Club.
In 2017, Miller left WVU and headed south. He became a senior administrator in The Georgia Bulldog Club, which raises funds to support the University of Georgia’s athletic department. Miller thrived at Georgia, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, and their three young children—daughters Emily, Ella James and Elaina Grace—were happy in Athens. Then a position opened at the University of Virginia.
After leading the Virginia Athletics Foundation for nearly three decades, Dirk Katstra moved to a new position with University Advancement last year, and the search for his successor began. It ended in September with Miller’s hiring as VAF executive director and a UVA deputy athletic director.
“There weren’t many places that I would have even entertained the idea of leaving Georgia for, but Virginia is a special place,” Miller said in his office at Bryant Hall. “We loved Georgia. We didn’t want to leave, but the opportunity here was too good, frankly, to turn down. This is a place that has a ton of passion, and our alumni base has a ton of wherewithal.”
Miller’s wife and daughters are staying in Athens until the end of the 2023-24 school year, when the family will live in Crozet. Miller officially started at VAF on Oct. 9, and he’s been in perpetual motion since then.
“I’d say it’s been a listening and learning tour,” Miller said. “I haven’t had a whole lot of white space in my calendar since I got here. It’s just been going from one meeting to the next, trying to get the lay of the land on what’s going on. I’ve got 20 years of fundraising experience to draw from, but every place is different. I want to listen and learn and figure out what’s different about Virginia compared to other places I’ve been and figure out ways in which I can draw upon my experiences to implement some things here to help scale the business.”
The VAF, the UVA athletic department’s fundraising arm, annually covers the cost of 316.6 scholarships (the maximum allowed by the NCAA) for student-athletes. It also raises money for endowed scholarships and meets sport-specific operational needs. Over the past five years, the VAF has averaged $61 million in total gifts annually. Miller believes his organization can help the athletic department rise to new heights.
“I look at it like we can be elite in everything that we do here,” Miller said. “We’ve been really good to date—finishing fourth in the Directors’ Cup [in 2022-23] was incredible—but looking at some of our operating budgets and some of the things our programs are doing, they’re doing a lot with not as much as some of our peers. So what could they do if we fully fund these programs at a level that some of our peers are funding them at? So to me, it’s exciting, because I feel like there’s so much more room for growth, and I’ve always enjoyed building things.”
He’s met with most of the Cavaliers’ head coaches. His message? “I was like, ‘Look, I didn’t come in with an agenda today. I just wanted to get to know you. I want you to feel like we have a rapport, so that when things don’t go the right way or you’re needing help with something, you can call me,’ ” Miller said.
When Miller began working in athletic fundraising, Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) was not a phrase with which anyone was familiar. That’s no longer the case, of course. There’s more competition for support from donors, and that’s made Miller’s job more challenging. But he’s not lamenting his plight.
“It’s an ever-changing landscape, first and foremost,” he said. “Change is inevitable, growth is optional. Regardless of whether or not I like NIL, if we don’t like NIL, we’re going to like irrelevance a whole lot less. So what do we want to do about it? To me, our job is to build relationships with people who have an interest in philanthropically supporting our athletics program. And if our athletics program has a need in the form of facilities, operations, scholarships or NIL, it doesn’t matter to me. We need to address their needs, and each of our individual sport-program needs one way or the other.
“So to me, if we’re supporting NIL and it allows us to retain and attract talent, then the teams are going to be better, and if the teams are better, people are going to be more interested in wanting to support those programs. It all ties together to me, so I don’t view it as a threat. I want to lean into it and help support as best as we can. We need to adapt with the times and embrace it.”
Miller overlapped at Georgia for a few months with Carla Williams, whom UVA hired as athletics director in October 2017. (He also worked briefly in Athens with Jim Booz, who joined Williams’ staff at UVA as a deputy AD in December 2017.)
After Williams left for Charlottesville, Miller interacted with her only occasionally. “I’d see her at conferences and sometimes at Georgia games, or whatever it might be throughout the six years, and just say hello in passing,’ Miller said, “but it was more of a coincidence than it was anything else.”
When the VAF position opened last year, the Korn Ferry search firm contacted Miller via LinkedIn. He hadn’t been looking for a new job—“I hadn’t updated my LinkedIn headshot since 2009, if that gives you some perspective,” Miller said—but the possibility of working at UVA piqued his interest.
“I’ve never been one chasing titles or chasing money,” he said. “I’ve just tried to make the place I’m working at better, and if that leads to bigger and better opportunities, then great, but that’s never been my underlying motivation by any means.”
Now that he and Williams are colleagues again, they’re “in constant communication,” Miller said. “Pretty much daily text messages, phone calls, face-to-face meetings. I see her at every basketball game and spend time with her there, because we’re both going 100 miles an hour in different directions all day, every day. So it’s like, ‘All right, are you gonna be at the basketball game tonight? Are you gonna be at the radio show tonight? All right, I’ll find you there.’
“We find time to talk about different things that are going on and what her priorities and needs are. She surveyed all of our head coaches and sought feedback from them on what their needs and their wish lists were, and she’s been sharing that with me so that we can be equipped with that when we go and talk to [potential donors]. We need to be in lockstep on those things to make sure that we’re addressing the needs and the priorities of each of our sport programs, and her overall plan and vision is being fulfilled.”
Miller came to Charlottesville from a school with a powerful football program supported by a large, passionate fan base, and that aided Georgia’s fundraising efforts dramatically.
“We were leveraging that momentum on the field to continue to raise money to build an infrastructure to enable the success that you’re seeing today,” Miller said. “There’s no reason we can’t do something similar to that here. Are we going achieve this same type of success [Georgia is] having? I don’t know. But we’ve got to continue to put the infrastructure in place to enable that.”
Attendance at Scott Stadium has lagged at UVA in recent years, as has enthusiasm for football among fans. But Miller isn’t discouraged. “Looking at things here over the past couple of months, there’s so much potential,” he said.
He pointed to his experiences at UCF, Georgia State and West Virginia.
During his time in Orlando, Fla., it “was not the UCF that you see today,” Miller said. “We worked out of a trailer. So the degree of difficulty there was challenging.”
He worked at Georgia State when the Atlanta school was launching a football program. “When I got there, we had 200 donors to athletics that had given in the past year,” Miller said. “That’s really hard, especially when it’s a commuter school and you’re trying to appeal to an alumni base that didn’t go to football games, they didn’t live on campus. They didn’t have an affinity. It was a transactional degree for a lot of those people. So we were trying to convince those people to take an interest in wanting to give towards a football program, and they weren’t really that engaged with the university as a whole in general, and now we were trying to build a donor base and a season-ticket base there.”
WVU posed different challenges. “I had an amazing experience in Morgantown as a student and working there as both a student-caller and full time within the Mountaineer Athletic Club,” Miller said. “WVU alumni and friends are very passionate and proud about the state’s flagship institution, but fundraising in a state that is ranked 48th in Gross Domestic Product presented a different degree of difficulty, which ultimately made me better at my craft, and for that I am very grateful.”
UVA alumni are devoted to the University and have “a ton of resources,” Miller said. “We’ve just got to create a vision and sell a vision. I don’t think that anyone would be OK with academics being mediocre. Are you OK with football being mediocre? I think it’s a rhetorical question, but we can’t just say, ‘I’ll support the program when they start winning.’ We need to invest in the infrastructure to enable that success.”
When he joined The George Bulldog Club in August 2017, it was “a $54 million operation in fundraising, and we grew it over six years to $102 million,” Miller said. “And our largest commitment in that last year was $2.5 million, so it wasn’t like we had anyone writing the check covering everything, but we were able to grow a lot of people’s involvement to grow the overall pie in a tremendous way.”
Miller is excited about continuing to meet VAF donors this year and elevating his organization’s fundraising efforts to unprecedented heights.
“There’s a strong foundation for support that’s been built up over the past 75 years of this organization,” he said. “What I don’t want to do is come in and just turn the apple cart upside down. I don’t think I need to do that. I want to continue to get into the weeds and listen and learn about what we’ve been doing … I want to kind of continue to peel back the layers of the onion to figure out, all right, what have we been doing, has it been working, how can we tweak this? I don’t want to just rip the Band-Aid off and just start all over.”
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