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Key Characteristics for a Sports/Charity Partnership

Philanthropic and community giving is a strategic initiative that has been around for a while, but is quickly growing. Companies have looked to align themselves with charities or non-profit organizations because of the positive media coverage that comes with these partnerships. The same holds true in the sports world.

The majority of professional athletes has clean reputations and is model citizens on and off the playing field. However, due to the high-profile spotlight players have, it only takes one negative misstep for a PR crisis to occur for these athletes. To help alleviate these crises, athletes are partnering with charities that are important to them.  These cause-related partnerships help build equity and goodwill in the eyes of fans. This begs the question of what key characteristics are important in a sports/charity relationship. I’ll break this up and explore three types of relationships.

Player/Charity Relationship

1. Personal Connection to an Illness or Cause

In most cases, the number one contributing factor to this relationship is a player’s connection to an illness or cause. For example, Devon Still has raised millions of dollars for cancer research because of his daughter’s cancer diagnosis. He felt that he needed to contribute and do his part by raising awareness to help fight cancer. Not only did sales of his jersey raise millions for the children’s hospital in Cincinnati, but he used his platform at the ESPY’s to help raise awareness as well. Another example is the Indianapolis Colts; Chuck Pagano, their head coach, was diagnosed with cancer and the team rallied around him with the mantra of #ChuckStrong. This continued throughout the season and was broadcasted each week on national television.

Almost everyone these days has had a relative or friend that has been affected by an illness. This usually spurs the desire to make a difference and support the cause because of the personal impact it had on them.

2. Shared Values

An additional reason why a player may support a charity is because he or she shares the same values or core principles that the organization does. For example, Pau Gasol is an NBA player of Spanish descent, who has lived in the United States for years. As a result, he supports a national charity that is based in the United States as well as an international charity. As a player who has multiple “hometowns,” it is important to support charities that help keep his identity. Another way this is demonstrated is by having a charity or fundraiser in the city that a player grew up in, went to college in, or currently plays in. Greg Jennings raises money to give grants to local communities, focusing on Kalamazoo (where he played college football) and Minneapolis (where he played with the Vikings). JJ Watt is another player who follows the same path; his personal foundation raises money for youth in Houston and Wisconsin, as these are the two areas that he calls home. Finally, players simply may share the same core values that a charity does. The mission of a non-profit may be in alignment with the personal ones of an athlete, which is a factor in determining what causes to support.

Team/Charity Relationship

1. Local Impact

One of the biggest criteria when a team chooses a charity to support is local impact. It would make sense that a team invests its time and resources to help a charity that is grounded in its local community. One example of this is the Philadelphia Eagles partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The team hosts an event called Huddle Up for Autism, to support the Center for Autism Research in Philadelphia by raising awareness, educate, and fundraise. Another way to think about a local impact is a national charity that has regional offices based in a team’s backyard. Many charities have offices all across the country that supports the national office as well as patients and families that are affected in these cities. This is especially true for health related charities (think Make-A-Wish, St. Jude, Susan G. Komen, United Way, Red Cross). The Detroit Pistons have brought its players to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital the past few years when the team has a game against the Grizzlies. This helps instill a desire to give back, but it is also reinforced because there are opportunities to be involved back home in Detroit with the organization.

2. Visibility and Brand Awareness

Professional sports teams don’t need brand awareness in the most typical sense of the phrase. Most fans know that a professional franchise exists in its backyard. However, this does not mean that fans flock to every game and sell out the stadiums. A philanthropic partnership and community partnership can help teams address this issue as well as improve positive brand association. For example, players that get out in the community help build relationship with not only existing fans, but also with community members as a whole. Teams are always looking to increase its fan base, and partnering with a charity can help do that. Fans that have benefited from sport charity events, whether that be dinners, galas, or community clean ups, may be willing to attend more games or buy more merchandise of the local team. In addition, partnering with a national charity can provide positive brand association in the minds of its fans. The NFL has had a long-standing relationship with Susan G. Komen to help raise awareness during breast cancer awareness month. Players wear pink cleats or gloves and officials participate as well. The NFL definitely does not need increased brand awareness, but when the off-field incidents occurred this past year, the philanthropic relationship the league had with the charity helped keep the sport in a positive light in the mind of some fans.

Brand/Charity Relationship

1. Shared Organizational Values

Any type of great partnership requires a natural fit, which occurs when a brand and charity share values and business principles. For example, AECOM is a sports architecture firm, so it makes sense that they partner with Engineers Without Borders, Water for People, International Red Cross, and WaterAid. AECOM works on projects all over the world and as an architecture firm, it is critical that the organization be cognizant of health issues such as water conservation and green principles. Thus, the mission of these organizations is aligned with each other.

A company with an international book of business may partner with an international charity because both organizations impact people across the globe. Coca-Cola is one of the largest international brands, working with the Olympics on a global scale. According to its website, the Coca-Cola Foundation awarded a total of $26.2 million in grants to 74 community organizations, benefitting more than 90 million people in 76 countries in the first half of 2015, according to the company’s website. This demonstrates the power of an international brand to impact the world.

A second example is GEICO, the second largest insurance company in the United States. GEICO, a partner with the NHL as well as in college football and basketball, was originally an insurance company targeted at U.S. government employees and military personnel. As a result, the company gives time and money to Wounded Warrior among other charities.

2. Employee Engagement/Employee Giving

One key to employee happiness is employee engagement. Many times, employees want to make a difference in the community through their company. The opportunity to give back to the community has led to businesses offering service days each year for employees. Think about how much an organization could fundraise if each employee gave up one coffee a week and donated that money to charity. Pretend a coffee was $3 each and a company had 1000 employees: over the course of a year each employee would give up approximately $150 worth of coffee for charity. As an entire organization, they would raise $150,000. Many people wouldn’t notice this change in lifestyle, but employees would be proud to be a part of an organization that raises $150,000 a year for charity.


These are just some of the key reasons why a player, team, and brand might partner with a charity. The list goes on and can depend based on the leadership at an organization and personal relationships that exist. However, there is no denying that partnering with charities or non-profit organizations helps put businesses in a positive light and gives players, team members, and employees a feeling of satisfaction.


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