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Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Athletes & Philanthropy

Now that the National Football League playoffs have been battled and we’re racing toward the Super Bowl, I’m feeling nostalgic.  My first job after college was in the marketing and special events department of the NFL.  It was a dream job in many ways: not least because it was a fun product to market and it certainly presented iconic special events.  It may sound strange for a middle-aged woman to be waxing nostalgic about this particularly brutal sport, but as my career developed, I had the great fortune to work with athletes who wanted to do charitable work: it was through football players that I learned a lot about the emotions that inform a person’s desire to engage in philanthropy, and the potential pitfalls of this work.

Professional athletes earn an astounding amount of money at a very young age. The signing bonus that many receive changes their lives with the stroke of a pen. Most of the young men I worked with had already thought about what they wanted to do with their newfound wealth; they had dreamed of this moment when they could take care of all the people who had supported them, and give back to the community that formed them. This inclination can be found in donors of all kinds: the feeling of gratitude for having money to share with others less fortunate and contribute to improving the world. This altruistic motivation can run amok, though, if it’s not approached in a sensible, businesslike way.

I saw many athletes over-reach as far as what they were capable of achieving. A typical approach would be for an athlete to start his own foundation and hire a trusted family member or friend to run it. As advisors we would encourage an athlete to start small, and to educate himself on what organizations were already active in his area of interest. It was critical to warn an athlete of the stringent rules associated with starting and managing a foundation, whether public or private, and the demands that are put on anyone listed on the legal documents required to form a foundation – perhaps a friend or family member with no relevant experience was not the best choice. If the client was undeterred we helped support fundraising efforts and financial management. Since athletes are, by definition, competitive people, that behavior does not end when they step off the field. Golf tournaments were the fundraising event of choice, and they got competitive: not only on the course, but as far as how luxurious the resort, what was in the gift bags, what other celebrities were in attendance and what kind of entertainment was featured. Here, again, it was important to rein in the extravagance and remind our client that the goal was to raise money and that the IRS would look closely at expenses. There’s a balance to be found between providing a fun party, and ensuring that there is minimal waste of money that could be going to charity. A gentle warning that they wouldn’t want their foundation to receive the wrong publicity was usually effective.

The most successful athlete foundations I worked on were those that had a clear mission; this made the decisions around grant making easier.  When an athlete could focus on what he wanted to achieve and what organizations he wanted to support, he could build mutually beneficial, sustainable relationships.

What I learned all those years ago through the eyes of football players holds true for all: start with a clear goal of what you want to achieve, surround yourself with people who know the business of philanthropy who can lend good advice, find a balance between keeping the fun in fundraiser without overlooking the primary goal of raising funds, and get to know the people who are already doing amazing work in the community. It’s an admirable endeavor when done right!

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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