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A whole new ball game

A top athlete’s name, money and drive can be an incredible boost for a charity, but does a career at the pinnacle of sport prepare you for life as a philanthropist? CampdenFB reports

After the final slog towards the Arc de Triomphe on the last leg of the 2005 Tour de France, world famous cyclist Lance Armstrong took to the podium to take the yellow jersey for a record-breaking seventh time.

Over the course of his career “le Boss” had become a household name – his tale made all the more powerful because it was a near miracle that he had ever raced at all. At the age of 25, Armstrong had been diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer, and even after hasty surgery doctors had only given him a 40% chance of survival. But survive he did.

Alas, the saying “if something is too good to be true it probably is” was bitterly apt in Armstrong’s case. After 13 years of detective work by journalists, the US Anti-Doping Agency finally accused the supposed miracle man of a litany of doping and drug trafficking offences spanning the length of his career, as well as obstructing investigations and witness intimidation. Armstrong admitted the extent of his deception publicly in an Oprah Winfrey interview in January 2013.

He was stripped of his cycling titles and reportedly lost $75 million-worth (€57.6 million) of sponsorship deals in a single day following the revelations, but what of his life outside cycling? It soon became clear there was a lot more at stake than money and reputation – Armstrong’s cancer charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, could easily fall from grace with him.

Armstrong is just one of hundreds of professional athletes and celebrities who have decided to set up a foundation. Anyone can set up a charity under their own name, but a celebrity’s name is arguably more fragile than a greying, unknown millionaire investor. There’s nothing the press and public love more than to build a star up to demi-god status, only to watch with satisfaction as they tumble back down to earth with a bump a few years later. In fact, one of the ways Armstrong was able to preserve his secret for so long was by condemning media reports of his doping as “a witch hunt” and “tabloid journalism”.

Angela Kail, head of the Funder Effectiveness department at research and advisory firm New Philanthropy Capital, says: “Celebrities setting up a foundation is not necessarily a problem, it’s what can happen later down the line if their reputation gets hit. It’s the Jimmy Savile problem for example – his charities had to shut down, despite having done nothing wrong.” Kail was referring to the notorious case of the British TV presenter and philanthropist who was revealed to be a serial child abuser after his death.

Beyond the risk the athlete poses to their chosen cause, a well-meaning athlete can do a lot of damage to their own reputation if they decide to start a foundation without understanding the amount of work involved in effective philanthropy. Outside the Lines, a programme on US cable network ESPN, conducted an investigation into 115 charities founded by sports stars, which was televised in early 2013. It found 74% were failing to meet governance standards for non-profit organisations. Some of them had been set up as tax vehicles; others could only be described as corrupt, but many – after an initial burst of enthusiasm from the founder – had lost momentum and were sitting dormant, sometimes with thousands of dollars of cash donated by fans and sponsors still sitting in their accounts.

“This is possibly our main point with all these individual foundations,” says Kail. “If you can subsume your ego and say, ‘Actually I don’t want my name on this, what I am about is making a difference,’ and you choose to give your money to an organisation which has already got all of these processes set up, which has already been on what can be quite a steep learning curve, you can often achieve more. But that is not usually what people want to hear.”

The sheltered lives led by sports prodigies can leave them ill-equipped to launch a foundation – having usually spent their adolescence entirely occupied by a gruelling training regime they may suddenly find in their early 20s or even late teens they have enough money to change the world, but without a similar level of experience to make it happen. Athletes also have a shorter shelf life than other celebrities on similar pay. It is rare that an athlete will be competing for more than 10 years, at which point their income through both winnings and endorsements falls away almost immediately and many are notoriously bad at managing money.

In research conducted in 2009, US-based magazine Sports Illustrated estimated 78% of former National Football League players hit financial difficulty two years after leaving the game, while 60% of former National Basketball Association players met the same fate within five years. In the UK, XPro – a charity set up to support former professional footballers left with health and financial problems – reckons three in five Premier League players also declare bankruptcy within five years of retirement. Having to support a foundation as well as numerous hangers-on must be pretty daunting for any former hot shot with decades of retirement stretching before them.

Still, there is very little that can unite people the way sport can, and the presence of a sports star is undeniably a great advantage for a charity. Ned Wills, global director of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, knows this well. “It obviously helps to fundraise. Sports stars giving their time and profile to us elevates our ability to fundraise among core audiences, particularly corporate, and gain sponsorship for charitable fundraising events.”

An academy of 46 celebrated athletes from across the world (all of whom have retired) act as ambassadors for Laureus. It is involved in approximately 140 projects in 34 different countries and tackles issues such as gang violence, education, and racism, as well as HIV and Aids. Academy members visit projects, encourage young people to participate in sport, and raise awareness of the issues Laureus focuses on. Cricketer Ian Botham, skateboarder Tony Hawk, tennis player Martina Navratilova and sprinter Michael Johnson are among the academy’s members.

Aside from fundraising, the academy members are enormously beneficial in terms of advocacy. “These names effectively can open doors at a much higher level than we can, or indeed the grass roots projects around the world would be able to,” reckons Wills.

He cites the example of 11 times Paralympics gold medal winner Tanni Grey-Thompson. “She was visiting a project in Rwanda, and the only reason the minister of sport for Rwanda came to see the project was because Tanni was there.”

“We often get approached by athletes asking us how they set up their own foundations. At the moment we’re looking at ways we can work with them to see what opportunities a platform like Laureus can provide from a distribution of funds perspective, and also whether working with this wider family of ambassadors might be a better alternative to raising funds for a brand new foundation,” says Wills.

Amid the cautionary tales about bankruptcy and abandoned foundations it is easy to forget that to get to the top an athlete has to be as results driven as any banker. With a little guidance an athlete’s natural drive can be a formidable engine for a charity and many of the titans of the sporting world have built up exemplary organisations in terms of impact and governance. Tennis players (and philanthropic power couple) Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, Roger Federer, golfer Tiger Woods and sailor Ellen MacArthur are just a handful of many sports stars whose charities are consistently held up as examples of what an athlete’s name, money and sheer commitment can achieve.

The Roger Federer Foundation supports a range of educational projects in southern Africa (Federer’s mother was born in South Africa and he holds dual Swiss and South African citizenship) and Switzerland. Having his name on the foundation acts as a mark of quality for Federer, according to Janine Händel, chief executive of the foundation, and every potential partner project is scrutinised to ensure that the money the foundation donates is having a tangible impact.

“If you have your own foundation, your commitment is very visible and that somehow acts as a guarantee, you take visible responsibility and also control of the organisation. If you give a cheque to any international NGO, or if you become just an ambassador for an organisation you never have the control over it and are therefore not responsible for failures,” she says.

“That’s Roger’s approach in his sports life too,” she adds. “If he does something, he wants to do it right and he wants to do it completely. Having his own foundation where he stands for quality – for the failures as well as for the successes – was very important for him.”

Federer set up his foundation in 2003 and staffed it with members of his immediate family. The tennis ace is now second only to Tiger Woods on the list of the highest earning sports stars, according to Forbes, with a rumoured fortune of $140 million, but at the time he had only just won his first grand slam. He was spurred on, according to Händel, by the advice of Agassi. “There was an exchange between the two – it’s a bit of a legend – Andre said, ‘If I could change one thing I should definitely have started my foundation earlier,’ and Roger took that into account.”

“It started small, at first it gave money to one organisation and then after two years a second etcetera. Then finally in 2009 Federer and his family wanted it to grow and really reach the next milestone, this is the moment when they said, ‘Okay, I think we need to invest in the professional management of the foundation as we want to spend much more money and become more impact orientated in what we do – not just donate money but really focus on achieving goals.’”

Federer still has a hectic match and training schedule, but when he does finally lay down his racket he looks forward to spending more time on the foundation. “Time wise he will become more engaged,” Händel says, “but commitment wise he could not be more committed than he is already – he’s extremely committed.”

The Lance Armstrong Foundation didn’t escape the fallout of the scandal surrounding its founder, with former Armstrong fans taking to social media to post images of their Livestrong bands – the iconic yellow rubber advocacy bracelet campaign – doctored to read “Lie strong”. Armstrong quickly distanced himself from the charity by resigning his post as chairman, and it underwent a hasty re-branding in late 2012 to become the Livestrong Foundation.

Despite the damage control, in May 2013 Nike, a long-term partner, declared that after the end of the current contract it would no longer produce Livestrong merchandise – anything related to Armstrong was considered too toxic for its brand. The charity cut its 2013 budget by 10.9% while it regrouped, but was pleasantly surprised to find other supporters were more discerning than Nike when it came to distinguishing the charity from the actions of its founder.

“Revenue projections are currently ahead by 2.5% and we have a strong and growing line up of partnerships that will help us reach more people and help us keep our financial structure strong,” says Rae Bazzarre, communications director at the Livestrong Foundation.

“Strategic planning is taking place in earnest right now but we are measuring success here according to how many people we serve and how well we serve them, not by the amount of money that we raise. Already in 2013 the demand for our free cancer support services is up 8%,” she adds.

A quick trawl through Twitter gives ample evidence of how much the charity means to the people it has helped. It has generated around $500 million dollars worth of funds in its 16-year history – spending the money on services to help people deal with the practical challenges that come from a cancer diagnosis, such as filing insurance claims, fertility preservation and how to get involved in clinical trials. All its services are also available in Spanish.

What about the Livestrong employees? It can’t have been easy finding the foundation’s image was built upon a lie. As Bazzarre says, “We’re eternal optimists and the success of the foundation has never been about one person, it’s about the cancer patients and survivors that we serve every day and that’s who our staff is focused on. They are the inspiration behind our work.” Long may it continue.  

Image credits: Associated Press, Elizabeth Kreutz, Press Association, Marcel Grubenmann, Laureus/Getty Images, Rex/Jonathan Hordle

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