Sports and Philanthropy: Team Player

Before my hire as the founding director of a professional sports team’s charity, I had no idea just how active the professional sports world was in the field of philanthropy.  Now, I can’t think of a team, regardless of sport or level, that doesn’t perform charitable work.  Logically the connection makes sense to most; they assume professional athletes have high salaries and dole out dollars from their own pockets to look good and serve as role models, but the realities of charity in professional sports are quite different from what we read or hear about.

Misconception #1 – No one needs to donate to a professional sports team; they make enough money from ticket sales or donations from players.

In many cases (not all, but in most) the charities associated with sports teams are separate entities entirely.  Sure, they share staff with the team but not funds.  On designated occasions, they may interweave, but not generally.  This leaves the team charities to be self-sustaining, and many do so through in game fundraisers and auctions involving memorabilia.  If they solicit donations, they aren’t attempting to swindle you.  Just like any other registered 501c3, these charities can issue tax receipts and provide proof of their nonprofit status.

Misconception #2 – They must not be doing a lot, I never hear about them in the news.

In today’s up-to-date, in-your-face news market, sports teams are hoping to generate interest in their athletics, to spur ticket sales and revenue.  Sometimes particular events will make headlines, but for information on the daily successes of the charity, visit the team’s website, facebook, or simply google the charity.  I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the level of work they do.

Misconception #3 – If the charity is affiliated with the team, my ticket price helps.

Not true.  Sometimes teams will inflate ticket prices for the benefit of a particular cause, but they’ll provide loads of notice on that.  Otherwise, your ticket price goes to other important assets, like keeping the lights in the arena on.

…So how are team charities set up?

There are a variety of ways team charities are set up.  While some are foundations that donate funds to several charities, others are simply community relations branches that coordinate between nonprofit beneficiaries and the team.  The largest reason for not creating a separate entity is the need to consolidate staff – community relations and marketing overlap enough that the need for separate hiring is unnecessary, not to mention that the legal fees of creating a registered nonprofit are between $4,000 and $8,000.

…So what do they do?

Charities linked with professional sports teams help the players engage in the community, whether through appearances, autograph sessions, benefit events and fundraising efforts, or helping the individual players create their own foundations for their passions and causes.  In addition, many charities utilize the fans for social good, like Hockey Fights Cancer, and NFL Charities, which fundraise and donate grants to various causes.  To make a long story short, they work like a traditional nonprofit but have the added bonus of professional athletes ready to lend a hand.

…Can I volunteer?

I know that above I mentioned that they function a lot like a typical charity, but volunteering presents some interesting challenges.  Many teams don’t have office space for full time staff and a few interns, let alone a volunteer force.  Another factor are the fans – team charities have to ensure the security of their players, coaches, and staff, making it difficult to recruit and screen volunteers.  Another difficulty is pairing volunteers who are passionate about the cause with the volunteers who just want a glimpse of the locker room or their favorite player.  Some are very restrictive with volunteers, while others allow the community to participate.  No organization wants to turn away willing participants, so there is no harm in checking in with the specific team’s organization to see if they have a need you can meet.  You never know, you might have the skills they need.

…What now?

I strongly encourage you to think about your favorite team(s) and visit their websites and look for tabs like community, foundation, charity, or community relations.  You’re bound to find a wealth of information about philanthropic work you may not even know existed.

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