A few weeks ago, I linked to the Are Athletes Obligated blog hosted by Athletes for Hope. The blog features a surprisingly robust and candid discussion between professional athletes like Steve Nash, Mia Ham, Alonzo Mourning and Jeff Gordon.
I agree with Mia that sport and notoriety increase our capacity for impact. I’d take it one step further, though — it’s not that I think athletes are obligated to give back, I think people are obligated to give back. We do this because of personal experiences and passions, and we just have the bigger platform because we’re athletes.
We’re all on earth for a pretty short time — some of us are born into communities with resources set in peaceful parts of the world, while others are born into conditions that make survival, let alone altruism, a goal riddled with struggle. If I have the luxury of comfort, shouldn’t part of that comfort-time be devoted to helping someone else? Shouldn’t we, as a people, aim to equalize the dichotomies out there so that everyone — even the baby born into seemingly-abject poverty — has a closer-to-equal shot? There’s no one that’s too busy to take time every day to help out someone else — no one — and how would we change if we took that on? What if people who have a lot shared just a little bit more to make sure that everyone has something?
Right now, I think there are a lot of excuses made for not doing anything — we blame government, blame systems, blame the people who need help. One thing we talk about at the Steve Nash Foundation is how ridiculous it is to call a child “underprivileged.” If a kid doesn’t have a safe place to go to school or clean drinking water, or access to healthcare, that child doesn’t lack privileges . . . she lacks services. The adults and systems around her are failing to get her what she needs. That makes her underserved, not underprivileged. So my Foundation is working to increase access to critical heath and education resources for underserved kids in my home country (Canada), my wife’s (Paraguay), Uganda, and in Arizona, where I play.
Daniel Ben-Horin, the CEO of TechSoup Global, found these comments and the ones from other athletes as fascinating as I did and emailed me:
This is ‘celebrity transparency’ on a level our society hasn’t experienced; it’s really huge, in a great way. I mean, think about it: These people make multi-mega=millions a year. But they care. And they’re trying to make sense of their wealth and their caring, and they’re willing to be open about it.
Bottom line: through the evolution of technology, they are putting themselves ‘out there’ for people like us to respond to. This hasn’t happened before, folks.
Interesting stuff. So I contacted Athletes for Hope and asked them what the field of philanthropy could do to better support athletes who want to make a difference and they offered this in response:
By Ellie Cox, Athletes for Hope
In order for the field of sports philanthropy to be more successful, the non-profit sector and the many assets embodied by the sports sector need to be connected in a more efficient manner. If, as we often see, the non-profit and foundation communities view the athlete or sport entity as a liability rather than an asset, the full potential of this powerful combination will never be realized.
It may be true that negative headlines sell more papers, but in reality, there are millions who have been inspired, encouraged and supported through effective athlete philanthropy. This story is not heard often enough or used effectively enough to provide athletes with the tools they need to be just as goal oriented in their philanthropic aspirations as they are on the field of play. When you consider that sports philanthropy is just 2-3 decades “young” compared to nearly 100 years of corporate and private philanthropy, it is incredible that in such short time so many individuals, such as Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, have had such an incredible impact on the communities they serve. In the next few decades the hundreds or thousands of athletes following their footsteps, inspired to make their difference, could benefit from the great amount of knowledge and tactical information those with more experience can share. So where do we start?
1) Value the Asset Appropriately: A celebrity athlete who donates their time, their brand and their access to a charity, should not be viewed as less valuable than a major or mega-donor, just different assets in play. But, even more importantly, fans and their athlete, whether at high school, university, minor or major league level, are more connected today than ever. This bond is an asset for charities that chose to engage the hometown hero athlete, regardless of their “fame” outside that community. Amazingly, we have too many teams, leagues and athlete foundations who tell us that they are not really “welcomed” at the community table as an equal when the civic sector leaders convene to address serious local social issues.
2) Effectively Leverage the Platform of the Athlete: Competition is an asset in sports, and a game changer in social impact. In the “Racing for Cause” competition, the charities are all benefitting from each others’ learning and success in social media rather than being pitted in a win-lose or get left-behind situation. Nonprofits and leaders in this sector should apply as much positive competitive strategies as possible when engaging the sports field.
3) Recognize the movement: As with any nascent movement, it will be later, looking back that we will be able to capture all the data points explaining how this movement materialized, but, there is no doubt that a movement is gathering momentum and that there is a huge interest in sports philanthropy at this moment.
- 1973 NFL/United Way partnership begins
- 1978 First team foundation in NFL
- 1986 First team foundation in NHL
- 1987 First 2 team foundations in NBA
- 1989 MLB’s RBI is introduced
- 1990-95 Foundations spread across major leagues teams
- 2005 NBA Cares is launched
- 2005 PGA Tour “Drive to a Billion” goal met in one season
- By 2006 519 player foundations (est. for just major leagues)
- 2009 Every major league team has est. foundation and community relations, thousands of player foundations