Questions Every Athlete Should Ponder When Starting a Charity
Originally published in Sports Business Journal, February 29, 2016
Why is running a charity so hard?
It’s a question I have heard numerous times in frustration from professional athletes during my nearly 16 years of helping them manage their charities. The truth is, with the right preparation and a willingness to prioritize what is most important, establishing a charity doesn’t have to be as painful as the question implies. In the words often credited to author Peter McWilliams, “You can have anything you want. You just can’t have everything you want.”
Before deciding if starting a charity is the right decision, athletes should carefully consider their answers to the following four questions and let them be their guide.
■ 1. What will make my charity unique?
A person who’s a professional athlete does have a head start on standing out in a crowd. Most likely, however, that person’s community already has several professional athletes with charities. Nationwide, dozens of athletes have started charities often with similar missions, such as fighting obesity, providing college scholarships, and supporting youth sports. To truly capture the hearts and wallets of potential donors and sponsors, an athlete needs a solid answer to the question, “Why should someone give to my charity as opposed to many other existing worthwhile charities?
At varying levels, most professional athletes will have a social media following, team and teammates’ support, and fan support. For longevity beyond a playing career, an athlete’s charity also should have one or more of the following: an unusual mission, one that is implemented in a unique way, or a mission that is deeply connected to the athlete’s personal experience that he is willing to openly share. Without one of these three, the charity will mainly raise money on the heels of the athlete’s public and corporate appeal.
The athlete’s spokesman deals are a strong indication of what funds the charity will raise. If the athlete doesn’t have significant corporate deals, it’s unlikely that any will appear for the charity. Without unique assets, as the athlete’s professional sports career wanes, so will the charity’s fundraising.
■ 2. How much time do I want to commit to the charity?
If the athlete’s passion is improving high school education and the season is during the school year, that’s a significant consideration. That athlete may need to develop a program that can be planned and implemented in the offseason and not when school is in session. Alternatively, athletes in this case might decide that they need to assign someone whom they trust to serve as a decision-maker while they are busy. To avoid any misunderstanding, the stand-in should provide regular updates. Anything less than twice a month during an active time in the charity and they may start missing out on vital pieces of information.
■ 3. What financial investment am I willing to make to build the charity’s infrastructure?
Running a charity means running a business — a nonprofit business, but a business nonetheless. As Alex Rodriguez and Randy Moss can attest, an athlete can run into trouble, even with the best intentions, if he is not aware of the rules for governing a charity. Writing a check to a charity is easy; running a charity requires expertise or, at the very least, regular guidance from nonprofit specialists. If an athlete isn’t prepared to hire people who are familiar with nonprofit regulations, he should seriously consider other options — like a donor-advised fund or working with an existing charity, where the partnering charity provides skilled guidance.
All a person has to do is type in “poorly run athlete charities” in Google to see why an athlete should proceed with caution. One additional word of warning: Trying to play catch-up is always harder than setting it up correctly in the first place.
■ 4. How much am I willing to donate to the charity?
If an athlete is truly passionate about a charitable cause, he should want to give at least as much as he expects others to give. If he isn’t driven to give, then he is probably focusing on the wrong cause.
This isn’t that unusual in sports philanthropy. Athletes can often get caught up in the latest giving trends they see reflected in their community relations departments or other athletes’ charities. Very few advisers are skilled or comfortable enough to help guide an athlete’s decision about where to focus his charity, and so the athlete may ultimately choose the go-to cause of the moment.
This isn’t just a sports problem, either. As documented in the 2010 Fidelity Charitable Advice & Giving Survey, 44 percent of advisers do not proactively offer charitable planning advice because they see philanthropy as a client’s personal decision.
It’s a rare breed of human who isn’t moved to give to something. If an athlete isn’t inspired to give to a cause, then he should wait and/or seek guidance in finding the cause that truly inspires him. That passion, leveraged with the commitment and discipline it takes to become a professional athlete, will go a long way toward the success of his charity. Not having that passion will have an equal, but negative, impact from which the charity will likely never recover.