D.C. teams boosting focus on charitable giving

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 15, 2010; A01

When Ryan Zimmerman was negotiating a contract with the Washington Nationals, the popular third baseman kept insisting on one thing: He wanted to be able to use the ballpark for a charity event.

It was an unusual demand, said his agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, but Zimmerman got what he wanted.

On Monday night, he hosted a concert, auction and dinner that raised about $200,000 for the ZiMS Foundation and gave a $30,000 check to the local chapter of an organization fighting multiple sclerosis. Zimmerman said he hopes the event will get bigger every year, eventually filling the ballpark with donors and spreading the word about the disease his mother has been fighting.

That impulse is part of what experts say is a huge shift in professional sports philanthropy. For reasons idealistic, self-serving or practical, athletes and teams are putting a greater emphasis on donating money, volunteering and helping local communities -- with more commitment to providing real impact rather than just photo ops.

"It has changed dramatically," said Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, a nonprofit group that studies the impact of charity efforts in the multibillion-dollar industry. "Now it's a central part of the business model of most franchises."

In Washington, the philanthropic push could get a big boost from the arrival of a new slate of stars and genuine excitement about the prospects of all four professional teams. The Capitals have Alex Ovechkin, arguably the best player in hockey. The Redskins traded for Donovan McNabb, a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. The Wizards drafted 19-year-old point guard John Wall with the first overall pick in June. And this summer the Nationals unveiled pitcher Stephen Strasburg, considered among the best prospects ever.

Their potential success could lead to more than just energized fans, sold-out games and additional revenue for the franchises. It could mean more donors to the teams' charitable foundations, more volunteers for team-sponsored charity events, more corporate partners for charity efforts, more athlete appearances for local nonprofits, and more fan response to team appeals on behalf of local causes. In other words, more leverage, more clout and more benefits to the city.

More than donations

Quantifying those benefits can be difficult, those who study philanthropy say.

How do you put a dollar figure on the influence Ovechkin has when he visits a child with cancer? What about when the Redskins encourage fans crowding training camp to donate school supplies to needy kids, or McNabb encourages kids to exercise?

If a team gives away tickets for charity, is that altruism, a way to fill unsold seats or a savvy tax break? What's it worth to a charity to have NFL-donated ad time during the Super Bowl?

By one measure -- contributions to nonprofits -- local efforts are dwarfed by the biggest team foundations nationally.

The Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, for instance, gave away nearly $400,000 in 2008, a fraction of the more than $3 million the Red Sox Foundation donated. But the fan base of teams such as the Sox, with a century of history, home runs and heartbreak, can't really be compared to a team such as the Nats, with just five years in Washington and a three-year-old foundation.

The Washington Redskins Charitable Foundation has long been the largest among the area's sports teams. It gave away more than $500,000 in grants in 2008, tax records show.

But just up the road in Baltimore that year, the Ravens donated $2.7 million.

Those contributions, however, don't reflect the other ways teams and athletes raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local nonprofits: By using their visibility to put the word out about good causes, sending players to charity events and donating signed merchandise. (One Capitals devotee happily plunked down $5,900 for an Ovechkin-signed hockey stick; another bid $12,000 at a charity auction to sit next to him at a college basketball tournament at Verizon Center.)

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment took over the Wizards and the WNBA's Washington Mystics in June, said sports is one of the biggest, most effective platforms for spreading a message. And that influence grows with the popularity of the team.

He watched it happen with the Caps, who finished with the best record in the NHL this past season. The team's foundation had its best season, too, raising more than half a million dollars.

Washington Capitals Charities was already ramping up its giving to causes including cancer prevention and the Children's National Medical Center, nearly doubling its grants from 2007 to just over $300,000 in 2009.

Now Leonsis will also be involved with the Wizards' foundation, Washington Sports & Entertainment Charities, which gave away about $230,000 in 2008 to support the Capital Area Food Bank, a teen-pregnancy prevention program and other groups.

Leonsis, one of the city's best-known philanthropists, has repeatedly encouraged the Caps to use their fan following to generate donations and volunteers, and he has already told the Wizards the same thing.

"Every business that I get involved in must pursue a double bottom line," he said. "I firmly believe that you can do well while you're doing good."

With such stars as Ovechkin and Wall, he predicted an even greater ability to leverage his teams' success.

That's been the case for the Redskins. The team uses its foundation to build and maintain fields at schools in low-income neighborhoods, give away Thanksgiving turkeys, and sponsor mentoring, literacy and education programs for children.

"The great fan base of the Redskins allows us to do more than any one person could do alone," said team owner Daniel M. Snyder, who also has made large donations, particularly to children's causes, through his family foundation.

Players including Chris Cooley have written checks for college scholarships and launched such efforts as London Fletcher's teen-mentoring program.

The team has already seen a surge of requests for charity appearances by McNabb, who champions diabetes prevention and awareness efforts.

Charitable legacies

There has been a huge jump in the number of athletes who want to create their own charitable legacies, said Marc Pollick, who started the Giving Back Fund to advise celebrity philanthropists 14 years ago after reading a Washington Post story about shoddily run athlete foundations.

"It's almost a status symbol now," Pollick said.

He often urges clients not to start their own foundations, arguing that they will waste money on overhead and staff.

Athletes for Hope offers the same advice. The Bethesda-based nonprofit, launched in 2006 by Andre Agassi, Lance Armstrong and Mia Hamm, works with more than 1,000 professional and Olympic athletes whom they connect with causes and counsel on effective philanthropy -- an attempt to avoid the problems some athlete-led foundations have had in the past.

Organizations such as Athletes for Hope have made it easier to give back, and so has the rise of the mega-agencies that can help star athletes create and manage foundations as part of their overall brand strategy.

There are plenty of business reasons for the increase, including tax breaks, and a kind of positive advertising that money can't buy.

"In sports, there's a lot of cheap grace," said Lee Igel, a professor of sports business and management at New York University.

Philanthropy can be a great way to chip away at ugly headlines about scandals and big money in pro sports. It can have enormous marketing benefits, too.

"You try to capture people to your brand at a young age, and hopefully you have a lifelong consumer," said Jimmy Lynn, an assistant professor at Georgetown who runs a sports advisory firm.

The Nationals are working to build a fan base after more than 30 years without a team in Washington.

Marla Lerner Tanenbaum leads the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation, which started in 2007 after the family of real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner bought the team. Someday, she said, she wants it to be like the massive Red Sox Foundation and have tremendous impact on the community.

One of the major goals is to build a baseball academy in a low-income neighborhood. The foundation also helps fund a diabetes clinic, donates tickets to military families, hosts baseball clinics and works on improving the neighborhood in Southeast Washington around the ballpark.

Tanenbaum, who also runs the Lerners' family foundation, is looking ahead: She hopes that Strasburg, their new pitching phenom, will propel their charity work to the next level. "Having Stephen and people being excited to cheer about the Nats really does help the foundation.

"Bottom line," she said, "it really helps to win."

Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.

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