“On behalf of the Atlanta Hawks, I’d like to thank our ownership group for recognizing that for every dollar we give away, we get three in return!”

In 1990’s the Atlanta Hawks representative said these words upon accepting the „Pro Team Community Award“ from the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Same as many other sport franchizes the Atlanta Hawks are also involved in charity work. These words opened up the discussion about benefits of charitable work for both individuals in need, but also the sport organizations. From this quote it is easy to see the win-win situation that occurs when sport helps its community with charitable activities and campaigns.

In 1988 there was not a single US major league could say that they have more than 5 teams with their own charitable foundations.

In 2010, there were at least 24 teams with their own charitable foundations in each of the US major sport leagues. Their charitable work awarded on average the total of $115M annually in grants to the community, usually to three main causes: youth health and sports, breast cancer awareness, and green initiatives.


One of the most known charitable campaigns in the world of sports is the NFL’s A Crucial Catch, the Pink October campaign. It is a month long campaign that takes place each October, when the NFL donates money earned from pink merchandise to support the American Cancer Society’s CHANGE program. For the duration of the campaign players wear at least a part of their uniform in pink, inviting ans to buy the official pink NFL merchandise.


NFL donates money earned from those sales to the ACS, in attempt to increase awareness, education and screening for women over 40. As the NFL’s spokesperson explains:

“The NFL does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise, all money the NFL would normally receive from merchandise sales goes to support this program, either through direct funding to [the American Cancer Society] or covering the costs of A Crucial Catch. ”

The NFL states that 100% of their net proceeds go straight to the league’s „A Crucial Catch“ campaign or to the ACS. Since 2009 the NFL has raised the total of $3M for the American Cancer Society, which comes to the amount of about $23,500 donated from each team on average each year.

As the ACS spokeswoman Tara Peters confirms, they use all the NFL donations to award grants to the community based health facilities located within 100 miles of an city with an NFL team for education women about breast health. In the last 3 years these centers have consulted about 72,000 women and screened about 10,000 women at practically no cost.

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At the moment the NHL also has a Hockey Fights Cancer campaign in place. This initiative was founded in December of 1998 by the NHL and the NHL  Players’ Association. The general idea of the campaign is similar, with promotion and sale of pink merchandise. Difference is that the NHL donates money to support national and local cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, player charities and local cancer organizations. So far the NHL supporters and fans have donated more than $15M.

Athletes’ Involvement

Every charity campaign needs the attention of the public to be successful in their mission. Since athletes have more than enough public exposure to secure charities enough media space which then makes a push for a social change much easier. Compared to other celeberities, athletes have exposure on a weekly basis, making them the ideal spokespeople for any charitable campaign.

In the last 10 years the North American sport organizations have been more and more involved in charity work and more focused on their social responsibility. This „boom“ has even triggered interest from a scientific community. Scientific discoveries descibed in „Measuring and Leveraging the Contribution of Sport to Business and Society“ by Seung Pil Lee and „An Investigation Into Professional Athlete Philanthropy: Why Charity Is Part of the Game“ by Kathy Babiak, Brian Mills, Scott Tainsky and Matthew Juravich are very interesting and thought provoking works, which I highly recommend. Most of the quotes that follow in this article have been collected from these two scientific articles. These quotes are collected from North American professional athletes and team executives, but because of the scientific approach all off those individuals remained anonymous, which is understandable, but rather unfortunate for the purpose of this article. But, to be honest knowing that professional athletes or team officials are standing behind these quotes make them relevant enough, and their words and experiences are actually what matters.

Professional athletes are very important „resources“ to their teams. Apart from bringing the success on the field, they are also very capable to make an impact on a social issue and to secure the positive image for themselves and their teams, as one of the interviewed sport executives stated:

„Players, in addition to their work on the field, must also do their part in integrating the team into the community it represents. Whether it is through community appearances for a sponsor or other community activities, the goal is to have fans in the market associate them and the team for which they play to positive community activities.“

Many of the professional athletes have decided to start their own charitable non profit organizations to raise their activities beyond the monetary contibutions. The athletes are well aware of their capabilities to draw the large number of people towards the charity they support, and raise the profile or awareness of that charity due to their fame, public appearances and passion people tend to posses for the sports of any kind. Athletes are proud that their charity work is altruistic, but they don’t hide that it is also self-interested. Another team executives explains the athletes’ reasons:

“We have to get out with our fans and interact with them as much as possible. We have to get our players out there . . . We have to get them into the community, shaking hands and supporting charitable causes. This contact is important because we are in an era where unfortunately so much of the business of pro sports has seeped into the front page of the paper, especially the attention given to the salaries our players earn.”

This charitable work and social activism among athletes was recognized in 1994 by the USA Today and its Most Caring Athlete Award, as well as Athletes for Hope, MVPhilanthropy, the National Heritage Fund, the Sports Philanthropy Project, the Giving Back Fund and the official awards from the major US leagues, the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy, the NFL’s Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, the NBA Community Assist Award, the MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award and the MLS’ W.O.R.K.S Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Sport is, at its roots, based on discipline, passion, dedication and aspiration to be the best. It has the unique ability to inspire and motivate and as such it gives the perfect platform to invite large numbers of people to join a good cause and help the less fortunate.

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People tend to be jelaous of the rich athletes that earn large amounts of money for „just“ playing sports. What tends to be forgotten is the talent, sacrifice, discipline and the absence of bad luck needed to succeed at the highest level. Many professional athletes had modest beginnings and they didn’t forget to give back once they earn their way out of the poverty. Their fame and their own experience makes them the excellent voices of the poor and unlucky. As they say it in their own words:

“Growing up, we did not have a lot – we were poor, and my parents worked hard. I always knew that if I was blessed with opportunity when I grew up, I would give back. Faith was very important to me, and by establishing my foundation with a focus on faith and Christian values, I felt that I could help people who were less fortunate than me, now that I have the resources and ability to do so.”


While another athlete added:

“Sport has definitely been an asset in my life and has afforded me many opportunities. I feel like it was my duty to help others who are not so fortunate, so I started this foundation. I wanted to have a legacy that was more important than what I did on the field. This legacy that is left behind – hopefully will touch the lives of many people. I see a lot of people do charity work to help themselves image-wise. My work, I like to keep it to myself – I feel better about it that way because I feel it is my duty to give back.”

People in general, not just the athletes, are more inclined to take part in a certain activity or behaviour if the outcomes seem favorable to them. That is why individuals tend to engage in charity work, as a result of their feelings of obligation to help others.

Athletes that have had longer careers have on average higher salaries and have higher rates of having established a charitable foundations. The athletes tend to decide in favour of founding a charitable foundation over the obsticles of establishing a foundation. Satisfaction, feelings of helping and being engaged in a community are most often metioned driving forces behind athletes that formed their own charitable foundations:

“It feels great to me personally seeing the help we can give to these school sport teams. They send us photos showing their team in action wearing the new jerseys we outfitted them with. They ended up winning a tournament, and they made sure I got a trophy too. You look at that and you can say you did something that mattered.”

Athletes have also stated that formation of charitable foundations have been motivated by career advancement, public recognition and social status. They have also mentioned that charitable work can offer a great deal of fun, can improve self-esteem, but also provide tax relif and echancement of their public image:

“What I do with my foundation – I get to meet a lot of people, have fun at my events with my friends and people who donate money, and work with people from local businesses and municipal government. Not only is it good networking for me, but I have access to a lot of powerful individuals through the charitable work I do.”

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Most of the foundations were, logically, formed in the cities where the athletes play and/or cities where they grew up. The reason behind this are more often than not simply logistic. The athlete has to be involved in foundation’s events and organisation to secure that their fame and public image take effect and draw people to get engaged in the charitable activities. One athlete’s foundation executive director voiced his concern, since athletes don’t seem to be aware of this issue:

“The cities in which [player’s foundation] are active are the cities he has played in. He needs to be around and close in order to be supportive of his foundation. It is a huge challenge to coordinate these activities if the athlete is not nearby, or somewhere where he visits often. Because he has the media attention and the notoriety, it has to be this way for the foundation to be successful.”

Athletes’ comments on this issue were similar:

“The community expects a lot from us – both on and off the field. Professional sport teams and athletes are high profile in the cities in which they play, and oftentimes whether we like it or not, we are viewed as role models. The community gives us a lot, and so for me, it is important for me to be seen giving back to the community that supports me and my team so strongly.”


“Before I started my foundation, I had been doing charitable things for several years. I gave scholarships out of my own pocket to students at the high school where I grew up, and the NFL matched the money I donated. I also bought blocks of tickets for games and gave them to programs for kids in the city. I did appearances and gave money to several other non-profits. Then, I decided that I wanted all these activities under one umbrella, and then I could really impact who I wanted to and just have it be more legitimate in other people’s eyes. So, if I hosted a fundraiser, for example, people who made a donation could receive a tax deduction.”

Professional athletes are scrutinized by the media for their actions on and off the field. This can be very harmful for the athletes’ charitable foundations. But then again, the foundations can offer the athlete a helping hand in his time of need. Because of potential troubles for both the athletes and their foundations, athletes have to be aware of their public activities and of-the-field actions even more.

Every team likes to have their players scandal free. Running a charitable foundation can help the players stay that way, since the damage of a scandal can cause double damage in their case.

Athletes were not shy to confirm that one of the reasons to establish a foundation is to help them build their reputation, which may lead to more endorsements and make them more valuable to their teams. This way athletes become even more of a positive role models for both their team mates and the youth. This can help the player when roster decision have to be made. One athlete gives the inside view and talks about previos experiences:

“Right now, the league and every team are so involved in philanthropy and charity. We have to do community and charity activities for the league, and for our teams – it is written into our contracts that we have to do a certain number of appearances each season. So being charitable is definitely valued and appreciated. Over and above what I do for the league and team, I do on my own with my own foundation. I think that this has value for the league and team as well. It cannot hurt to have players seen doing positive things because so often what you read about professional athletes in the media is all the negative stuff.”

The NHL and the NFL league executives add their oppinions:

“There is a pretty strong history and relationship between the players’ foundations and the support they get from their clubs. The NHL fully supports the philanthropic efforts of our players, for example we provide a digital connection between our website and player foundation websites, and in some instances there are partnerships between team and player charities. The fact that our players are charitable dovetails nicely with our league CSR messages.”

“There has been an increase in charity at the player level and an increase in grants and foundations established by players. NFL Charities, our foundation, gives $1 million annually to players that have started foundations – to give you an idea of the increase, 5 years ago we had about 20 players applying, and this year we had over 100 player applications for that $1 million pool. On the flip side, we caution players that they should not establish foundations right away, but rather work with community organizations to get a good sense of what is involved and to find a cause they can be passionate about before they start one.”

This situation with athletes and charitable work really seems to be a perfect fairytale, a win-win situation for the both sides. Athletes themselves get many positives from their own charitable work and the community recieves much needed help.

But unfortunately, like everywhere in life, there are also problems. One league executive gave an insight of this situation regarding different views on athletes’ foundations:

„Everybody wants to start a foundation; everybody wants to run their foundation; everybody wants to be a part of their foundation and depending on who you talk to like financial advisors or teams, some will tell you it is great for a player to focus on a non-profit as long as they are committing their time and their funds. Others will tell you that it is better for them to partner with a cause or athletic league. From what I have seen teams are very strict. It is also a question of what they want to do after they retire. Are they going to dissolve their non-profit because they do not have the income that they once had, or will they take a more prominent place on the board because they have more free time? I would not recommend it for a rookie, they can get their foot in the door with the team and the league if they love being in that city. Players will start one and then end up playing in 4 or 5 different cities before they retire. So do you pack it up and move it with you, or do you just not have the pull anymore because you are not with that team?“

In 2008 the NBA was the league with the highest percentage of players that had their own charitable foundations, but the other leagues were not far behind. In the NBA 23,8% of all players had their own charitable foundation, in NFL 17,3% players had their own charitable foundation, in the MLB 7,6%, in the NHL 4,3%, coming to the total of 13,7% of all professional players in US major league that had their own charitable foundations.


Financial advisors do suggest that a player should be patient and wait until his fame has grown enough to start a foundation, so that his engagement can make a full impact. On the other hand, young players could have problems when starting a foundation, since they could be moved to another city. One foundation director explains:

“Our foundation is unique because people will just turn out just because of the organization is affiliated with (player). People just seem to acknowledge professional athletes and they do have a kind of celebrity status, and that is a huge draw for a lot of athletes and their non-profits and what typically distinguishes them from other types of charities. In some ways it is a misfortune because you are criticized more, but I would definitely say the pros outweigh the cons in regards to a professional athlete having a charity compared to a “regular person” having a charity. That name recognition is worth a lot.”

An athlete commented that:

“I think the biggest advantage I have as a professional athlete with a foundation is the notoriety I have offers a unique platform to deliver my message about what I care about.”

Another huge problem is the cause why the experts suggest to younger players to be patient with starting their own charitable foundation. The current estiamtion says that about 60% of all NBA players go bankrupt in the first five years of their retirement, while 78% of all NFL players go bankrupt or suffer financial trouble because of joblessness or divorce within the first two years of their retirement. Numbers are not collected for the MLB players, but it is well know that they also suffer financial stuggles after retirement. The problem is that many of athletes are not household names, especially after their retirement. This can cause problems for their foundations once they can not use their fame as a promoting tool for their charitable work, as one executive director of an athlete foundation states:

„When he retires – for us that is the unknown. Now some players like Peyton Manning will not have that problem, everybody knows who Peyton Manning is and he will pull people to the end of time because that is his celebrity status in his non-profit.“

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Professional athletes are very rich compared to other people in the society, but their wealth can’t even be comapred to the wealth of billionaires, hundred-millionaires and CEOs. The Giving Pledge, a worldwide known effort started by famous billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates invites the wealthiest individuals to commit to this great cause. Billionaires commit themselves to give majority of their wealth to the chariable organisations of their choice.

The list of billionaires commited to The Giving Pledge is forever growing, so it is not a surprise to see billionaires from the world of sports on that list, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison, Teda Forstmann and T. Boone Pickens, to name a few.

It is not a surprise that ambitious and successful people like these gentlemen were not happy to see athletes struggle with their own foundations, and it would be a surprise to see them being satisfied with just a win-win situation for athletes’ foundations and community. Natual born winners that they are, they were looking to find few more „wins“ in this equation, and they had the resources to make it happen.


Brands’ Involvement

Collaborations between sport organizations and charitable foundations were not as effective as they would have wanted, so big brands and media partners joined them on their mission.

Trends Report noted that more than 70% of American consumers would likely change brands if they find the brand associated with a good cuase, given the same price and quality. At the same time Treds Report also states that 90% of employees at the company with a good cause feel proud of their company’s values.

Sports have joined with the brands to form a new type of charitable campaigns. Even though sports have been a very positive social influence, this new form of cross-sector collaborations create a range of new opportunities.

Sport events have been an important tool for companies, non profit organizations, goverments and sport organzations in attempts to address social issues like community development, health, education, societal equity, sustainability and peace.

Social partnerships between sport organisations, charitable foundations and brands have proven to be successful way to even improve the charity work in comminities.

Creative minds from sport organisation, brands and charitable foundations can easily develop new and fresh programs that will make an impact. It is already discussed all the advantages the sport organizations and athletes get from charitable work. These new collaborationprograms also improve the image of the brands, showing their emotional side. This way all the sides involved in a social partnerships can also grow their online communities.



PHOTO: KHL Medveščak

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