Sports Foundations: How to Stay Strong after the Glory Days
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Professional athletes are often viewed as the ultimate fundraisers. Even long after their playing careers, they can leverage their fame and team affiliations to help charitable organizations bring in the donations that are their lifeblood.

Not surprisingly, many of these same athletes choose to start their own charitable foundations. But success on the field or court doesn’t always translate into philanthropic success. As great of an athlete as Michael Jordan was, for instance, his charitable foundations have had their ups and downs.

Marc Pollick (image courtesy Brian McGuckin)

This is not uncommon among sports foundations, says Marc Pollick, president and CEO of The Giving Back Fund, a not-for-profit whose mission is to help athletes and other celebrities become better philanthropists—and better at philanthropy. Athletes and other celebrities, it turns out, are often not very discriminating in regards to who they choose to run their charitable efforts. Usually it’s a brother, sister or best friend who gets the nod. “In every other aspect of their lives, they go to the absolute best professional money can buy,” Pollick says. “Why wouldn’t you do the same for philanthropy?”

Pollick spoke recently at a sports philanthropy workshop supported by Witt/Kieffer and organized by All Sports United, a non-profit  “think tank” which aims to help sports charities educate and empower themselves to leave lasting legacies. The event was held in the historic press room at Halas Hall, the Lake Forest, Illinois, headquarters of the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Among the many speakers at the workshop was Reggie Smith, President of the Chicago Chapter of the NFL Former Players Association.

The good news, Pollick says, is that sports foundations today are more savvy than in the past. And yet they are still learning and fighting to remain relevant and sustain themselves—especially after the athletes who support them retire and lose some of their star power.

Another point raised often during the workshop was the unpredictability of sports-based charities. Raising money is often tied to winning or losing. When the athlete or team succeeds, donors come out of the woodwork. But in tough times contributions are scarce. What most sports foundations are trying to achieve is a better equilibrium and steady flow of incoming funds so that they can remain sustainable and do more for their respective charitable causes and communities.

A major part of the solution is good leadership, believes Greg Santore, who heads up Witt/Kieffer’s Sports Leadership executive search practice. Speaking at the same event, Santore noted how sports organizations and foundations often spend a lot of money recruiting their athletes, but “they don’t always make the same investment with their executives,” he says. This may be changing. “The bad economy over the past four years has made the sports world in general think more like the business world.”

Greg Santore (image courtesy Brian McGuckin)

The end result can only be a good thing, Santore says. A foundation, like a great football team, needs to have a strategic plan and sound organizational structure. This starts at the top.

What does the new sports foundation leader look like? Among the qualities that Santore lists are expertise in:

  • Business and finance
  • Change management
  • Development/Fundraising
  • Collaboration/partnership
  • Drive execution
  • Decision-making
  • Ethics, integrity, and trust
  • Governance
  • Vision setting

Simply because someone was a great athlete—or the friend or relative of one—does not make that person a good executive for a not-for-profit sports organization, says Santore. In the future, executive leadership in sports foundations, and sports organizations in general, will need a much more sophisticated skill set than in the past.

By Paul Thomas, Witt/Kieffer Senior Writer (@PaulWThomas)

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