A University of Illinois basketball spirit club has evolved into a philanthropic juggernaut.
Underneath the party headgear, faux punk hairdos and face paint exists a highly sophisticated fund-raising operation with a serious side.
Founded in 1998 at the suggestion of then University of Illinois men's basketball coach Lon Kruger, the Orange Krush Foundation and its namesake student cheering section gathers pledge money for every three-point shot the Illini make during a given season -- a record $520,000-plus this year alone from some 10,000 donors in 43 states, Canada, Australia and the Middle East. That money (minus member season-ticket and T-shirt expenses) is then distributed among causes on campus and throughout the Urbana-Champaign community -- from child-care and senior centers to disease-research societies -- with this year's selections to be made this month by the seven students and one athletic department representative who comprise the Orange Krush Foundation Board. (Pledge money tied to post-season three-pointers was to be donated to the charity of choice of current Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose mother died March 11, during the Illini's run to the Big Ten Conference tournament title.)
"To my knowledge, there is not another student organization in the country that has a three-point system like ours," says Mark Perkes, a junior marketing major and the Orange Krush Foundation's current president. "And what we're finding this year is that a lot of schools are interested in starting one. They are interested in following the Orange Krush's lead."
The group first found its fund-raising legs by fully endowing a men's basketball scholarship in memory of Matthew Heldman, a point guard on the 1998 Big Ten championship team who died in a car crash the following year. Next came the Rod Cardinal Sports Medicine Fund, established by the Krush in 2002 to honor the basketball team's longtime athletic trainer by lending financial support to trainers serving all varsity sports on campus ($100,000 of a target $300,000 has been donated to the endowment to date, Perkes says).
Half of all monies raised each year go to the Cardinal Fund; the other half to charity. Among the Orange Krush's donations last year was $2,500 to the Make-A-Wish Foundation -- enough to buy a personal computer for a 10-year-old boy from ChampaignCounty who was diagnosed two years ago with a brain tumor. "We'll do 570 wishes this year, and we're always looking for groups to outright underwrite a wish," says Julie Pendell, director of development for Make-A-Wish's Chicago-based Illinois chapter, which receives roughly $5 million from all sources annually. "Every wish that gets underwritten by a group like Orange Krush is hugely important to us."
Fifty kids who would otherwise be unable to participate in the Urbana Park District's youth basketball program saw a different wish come true last year -- their entrance fees waived by a $5,000 Krush donation. "Some of these are latchkey kids who have nobody to go home to. We don't know all their situations, but we know that this is an active, healthy thing for them to do that they might not get a chance to do if it weren't for this program," says Ellen Kirsanoff, the park district's development coordinator. But the generosity of the Orange Krush Foundation, the only philanthropic organization to step forward, didn't end with a check. "Besides the financial support that the Krush has given us, we've had several of its members volunteer as coaches," Kirsanoff adds. "Others have come on Saturday mornings to watch the games. It's been really neat for the participating kids to have an audience."
Jim Esworthy -- whose daughters Jennifer, a recent Illinois graduate and Orange Krush member, and Jackie, who had just been accepted to the university, were killed by a drunken driver in 1999 -- now helps local law enforcement officials equip their vehicles with video cameras so that traffic stops can be recorded and viewed in court. Last year, the Krush donated $3,500 to Esworthy's efforts, called Journey, which have resulted in the purchase of more than 20 cameras. "Those kids do a great service to the community," Esworthy says of Krush members. "We're very grateful for their participation and help."
And the list of benefactors goes on: 19 grant winners (some of them repeat recipients) collected a total of $46,800 last year. Over the past six years (not counting 2004-05), Krush donations exceeded $600,000. According to Jennifer Frank, an Illinois junior and Habitat for Humanity volunteer, the $8,500 that organization received from the Krush over the past two years is enough to finance nearly 20 percent of a new home's construction (after in-kind donations), to the ultimate benefit of a local low-income family. "It's extremely important," says Frank, who attended a few Illini games this year but is not a Krush member. "We definitely wouldn't be as successful without what we get from the Orange Krush."
Neither, arguably, would the Illini. The team's 78-3 home record over the past six seasons is unparalleled. "The Orange Krush is our sixth man," says Weber, as quoted on the foundation's web page (illinipride.com/mbasketball). "They give us energy and enthusiasm, and intimidate the opponent. To see them all in orange jumping up and down is one of the most intimidating things in college basketball."
It was that type of game-day atmosphere that Jon Gilbert had to see for himself. An associate athletic director at the University of Alabama, Gilbert traveled to Champaign to witness the Krush in action during the final home game of the season -- an 84-50 rout of Purdue. "Everything that I observed was student-run," Gilbert says. "I saw students registering themselves, students policing themselves in line, and then, obviously, students leading each other in cheers. The kids have ownership in it. Every school should model its student section after Illinois."
So how does the Illinois model work? Securing pledges during the off-season is the lone requirement of Orange Krush membership, which ballooned from 734 to 1,115 students amid widespread preseason anticipation of an Illini run to the Final Four. In exchange for their hometown door-to-door efforts, students are guaranteed admission to Assembly Hall for all Illini home games. But while Krush membership is strictly optional (roughly three times as many Illinois students choose to simply purchase their season tickets), fundraising among Krush members is not. In fact, students who turn in bogus pledge sheets are given the boot.
And membership has its privileges. So-called All-American Team members, those who secure pledges totaling $3 or more per three-point basket, are guaranteed seats among the coveted 500 reserved for the Krush on the floor at Assembly Hall. Every Krush member attending a game -- including Varsity Team members ($1.50 in total pledges per three-pointer) and Scout Team members ($1) -- is required to check in with Krush volunteers at the door. Most members must sit in a section at the top of Assembly Hall's seating bowl, but all receive equal credit for their attendance. Accumulated game-attendance points, along with points earned for showing up at other Krush-sponsored events (road game watch parties and the occasional women's basketball home game, for example), can earn individual members a ticket to the one or two Big Ten road games the Krush travels to each season.
In addition, students responsible for the top three pledge totals receive prizes ranging from an Illinois basketball jersey to an all-expenses-paid road trip with the team.
Driven by such incentives, the program this year realized near-overwhelming student participation. All-American memberships doubled, all but saturating the available floor seats at games and prompting talk of capping the number of All-Americans next season or bumping up minimum donation levels, though Perkes agonizes over the latter idea. "We don't want Orange Krush to be considered the I Fund of student cheering sections," he says, referring to the university's general fund-raising arm. "We don't want to have students raising $10,000 for their season ticket. We don't want to outprice anybody. We want the common college student to be able to raise some money and enjoy the Orange Krush."
Perkes is equally indiscriminate when fielding questions from other schools about the Krush's philanthropic work -- even when the inquiry comes from a bitter rival. The University of Kansas -- bounced by the Bill Self-coached Illini from the 2001 Sweet 16 before luring Self to Lawrence two years later -- is, according to Perkes, "pretty much hated throughout the state of Illinois." But when Kansas contacted Perkes earlier this season about the Krush's charitable efforts, he eagerly shared his experiences. "Charity really transcends anything that happens on the court," he says. "The Orange Krush would love to see other student groups across the country help out their communities in the same way we are."