Jennifer Lynne Williams was in a dream job.
As athletic director at Alabama State University, she had achieved her goal of being an A.D. before she was 40 (she was 38 when officially named to the post in 2018). But being the achiever she is, Williams had an eye out for what was next. It took a special position to pull her away from leadership at one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Becoming the chief development officer of the USA Basketball Foundation fit what she was looking for.
“I loved working in college athletics, loved my student-athletes, but it was something I’ve been contemplating, probably the end of 2019: What was next?” said Williams, who was an A.D. at Alabama State for the past three years, plus another year as interim A.D. “I’m very goal-oriented and USA Basketball, just to have an opportunity to work with the best — I know we use our hashtag to meet the #GoldStandard — but USA Basketball to me in my eyes is the gold standard.”
Williams, who began her role July 1, was not just referring to the on-court triumphs, such as this summer’s three gold medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games (and gold in 25 of the 30 Olympic tournaments the U.S. has participated in for five-on-five), she also meant the organization behind the unmatched success.
The USA Basketball Foundation was created in 2019 to generate funding and support for programs USA Basketball conducts year-round — including youth, coaching and leadership camps and seminars — not just the headline-grabbing events at the Olympic Games every four years.
“When you think about USA Basketball, I think people automatically think about our Olympic team,” Williams said. “They don’t think about a lot of the youth programming, the women empowerment that we do, the educating that we do from our SafeSport program, the certifications. My goal is to be able to support a lot of that programming by raising money and awareness, and then also we have three pillars within the USA Basketball Foundation that we want to focus on. And that’s championing of women, empowering our youth and promoting social responsibility.”
It was that set of philosophies that made it easier to leave Alabama State, where teams won 43 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships during her tenure, and she was in an important position as a Black woman working as an NCAA Division I athletic director.
“It pulled on my heartstrings because it aligned with my values, and that was one of the reasons I took the job,” Williams said. “Anytime you’re trying to raise money — and obviously you want to raise money — you have to look at what the vision and the mission is. To have the three pillars be at the forefront of what we’re standing on and what our initiatives will center on in terms of raising money and supporting, these three really stood out for me.”
How did Williams come to choose a career as a fundraiser? You have to go back to her days as a basketball player at the University of North Carolina and the scholarship she received. And curiosity, of course.
Her scholarship was endowed — as many are — by a family. As a journalism major, she started asking questions about the process.
“I had done fundraising drives in high school, but I really didn’t know the intricacies that the world of fundraising and philanthropy consisted of,” said Williams, a Detroit native who graduated from Detroit Country Day School. “That kind of started me thinking about this path. Even though I was a journalism major
(and African American studies major ), I wanted to stay connected to sports — but I’ve never wanted to coach. I was kind of like, ‘How do I still stay connected and impact our student athletes and our department?’ And it was to me through fundraising. After I did my stint with TV (Fox Sports Net South), I had a postgraduate scholarship through the WBCA. I’d won, the Robin Roberts Sports Communication Award.”
She used the scholarship to attend North Carolina Central University, an HBCU that was in the process of transitioning from Division II to Division I. She earned a master’s of science degree in athletic administration at N.C. Central.
“I was able to get a lot of hands-on experience while I worked with the assistant A.D. for development, as well as the marketing director,” Williams said. “That pretty much fueled my passion, going to a lot of those meetings that I probably shouldn’t have been going to as a (graduate assistant). Being able to sit in on those conversations and really helping out, because a lot of your Historically Black Colleges and Universities, they are limited in resources, so they don’t have the bodies or the monies that a Carolina or Duke would have.
“So, I was able to really get a lot of hands-on experience and then from there, I just developed a niche for being able to raise money in limited-resource institutions, and that kind of stayed with me like being able to generate revenue with limited staff or limited monies, and that kind of really propelled my career.”
It led to jobs in development with Women Leaders in College Sports, DePaul University and North Carolina A&TUniversity before becoming a deputy A.D. at Alabama State in 2016.
With the relative newness of the USA Basketball Foundation and following the major impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on fundraising, Williams is taking a more cerebral approach to her early forays with donors.
“What I have been committed to since July 1 is reconnecting with our current donors, because they haven’t been really touched (by the Foundation), and then educate,” Williams said. “Not a lot of people are aware of the Foundation or what we do. So, I’ve been really focused on telling our narrative, what we stand for, getting us more visibility on social media through the USA Basketball platforms. That’s the process. Then also talking to ourOlympians and former participants in USA Basketball, connecting them with each other. Going out and prospecting people who want to impact the game and may not know how to or that the Foundation exists.”
All of that is for the end goal: Grow the game of basketball.
“That was what I was telling the young ladies (at the USA Basketball Women in the Game conference recently): I knew I never wanted to coach, I just couldn’t see that in my future,” Williams said. “But you can still impact the sports you love. One of the speakers talked about how basketball saved her life. Basketball, it brings so many people together, so many different demographics together and the impact that it can have on our youth. Everyone’s not going to go pro (in basketball), but there are other avenues to still affect sport and affect change.”
Steve Drumwright is a journalist based in Murrieta, California. He is a freelance contributor to USAB.com on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.