Role Models – Giving back to the Community

© St. Louis Cardinals, LLC

“Professional sports teams are leveraging their visibility and their deep pockets to spearhead philanthropic initiatives in the communities that support them.”

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Patrick Saunders, Denver Post

Giving back to the Community 

The ability to giving back to the community is one of the constitutive criteria of the definition of what a role model is or should be. Role models are other-focused and involved within their community life.  

Role models such as teachers or parents give to the youth what they choose to transmit in terms of knowledge, skills and values. With sports and a career in sports, some athletes acquire notoriety. Most of them use this visibility not only to give to the community, but to give back to the community, as they consider that it is thanks to the community that they have reached such a position in life and are where they are. Whatever they are naturally giving back or are expected to do so, the fact is that there is a “giving back” component within the role model character. And it is also expressed in a collective way. 

A collective involvement: beyond entertainment, the social role of sport 

In North America, and especially in the US, the functioning of sports leagues and clubs is intrinsically linked to philanthropic actions. Led by the private sector, sports clubs and leagues are managed in the same way as private companies and businesses are and corporate social responsibility is taken very seriously. Historically speaking, Protestant ethics include a “giving back to the community” component and this behaviour has spread also in the sport sector.  

It is obvious that the first goal of sports clubs and leagues is to perform and make money. However, the social and federating role of sport is indisputable. In a country where welfare state is not the norm, sports clubs and leagues are a powerful and responsive striking force to help the needy. Professional leagues and clubs can raise funds like few other organisations. This genuine philanthropy is also an efficient communication tool and allows to convey positive messages about sport and sport professionals.  

Leagues often engage in “big” national causes or create their own foundations, while local clubs usually get involved in local causes, places or events.  For instance, the NHL has its proper foundation, which distributes around $10 million a year to charities. It has a long-lasting partnership with the American Cancer Association.  

Nearly 100% of US and Canadian sports clubs own their foundation or fund, or both. Charity appears as a “natural”, de facto component in the functioning of clubs and leagues. This activity also looks self-evident as it is clearly an expectation from the community that clubs and players give back. They are what they are thanks to fan engagement, support and money, and also because local authorities invest in hosting a club.  

Although all clubs and leagues have philanthropic activities, there is no one-size-fits-all model:  

  • Club owners choose a cause that is close to their own concerns, for historical, personal or family reasons;  
  • Some players have their own charities and can convince other players or the whole team to get involved;  
  • Charities know the power of sports and the inclination of sports fans to their teams. They can bring a club on board and give the cause a new dimension with a team associated to it.  

These various reasons often overlap with one another and, at the end of the day, what matters is how and how much the community benefits from this engagement. As the Denver Post reports, “professional sports teams are leveraging their visibility and their deep pockets to spearhead philanthropic initiatives in the communities that support them”. Thanks to their philanthropic action, clubs and leagues as well as coaches and players go beyond sport and offer more than entertainment. As part of being a role model, community giving is an essential component, and it can be achieved in a rather institutional way. Beyond North America, some International Federations have started developing their own foundation /charity organisation.  

In 2012, the Badminton World Federation initiated Shuttle Time to the world. It is a “schools’ badminton free programme supporting the principle that children should lead a healthy and active life, both in and out of school”. In 2014, the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) created the UEFA Foundation for Children with the commitment “to reach out to those most in need by turning the fundamental values – such as human dignity, solidarity and hope – into opportunities for our children to improve their lives.” Relying on the position of football (soccer) as the world’s number 1 sport, in 2018 FIFA established the FIFA Foundation “with the objectives to help promote positive social change around the world and raise support for the recovery and reconstruction of damaged or destroyed sports infrastructure worldwide.” Some major European football clubs have also launched their own charities, like FC Barcelona. The club partnered with UNICEF since 2004, raising funds for the children-focused UN organisation and working jointly to use “the power of sport to deliver sustainable and large-scale results for children.” With its moto “More than a club”, FC Barcelona “has long made it a priority to support social development projects not only in its home base of Catalonia, but globally with UNICEF.” 

Progressively, federations and clubs are investing the charity sector worldwide. Beyond image and business purposes and thanks to the visibility of its “stars” – either local or international – sport has proven its ability to raise funds for causes of social utility. Let organisations benefit from this ability!