Sports Team Philanthropy: A Closer Look in One City

photo: dean bertoncelj/shutterstock

photo: dean bertoncelj/shutterstock

As another NFL season kicks off, it's a good moment to take a quick look at the logic and mechanics of sports philanthropy.

This is a corner of the giving world that doesn't get much attention, but which we drop in on regularly in the context of our coverage of local philanthropy—looking at the grantmaking and other activities of specific sports teams in various cities. 

The stakes here are higher than the modest dollar amounts involved might suggest. Lots of sports fans feel like their favorite teams are obligated to give back to the local community, especially after hearing about the types of salaries these athletes are making or the hefty profits of franchises. In many cases, cities have given big tax breaks to help franchises build stadiums. Charitable giving is one way for teams to nurture good will and get some good publicity. 

Professional athletes, meanwhile, have a long history of adopting charitable causes they identify with and drawing attention to certain issues. Because of their high-profile jobs, they have the power to bring little-known causes to light in a way that other philanthropists simply can’t in American society. With that influence also comes a certain level of responsibility. Just as an athlete’s actions on and off the field affect public perception of the team, so can the nonprofit or cause that he or she is championing. As we've reported, some athletes are quite serious and dedicated when it comes to philanthropy. Others have barely thought about it.

Typically, though, it's franchise management—not the athletes—that spearhead sports philanthropy in different cities. But effective local giving can be harder than it looks. There’s a big gap between old-style sports charity work, like signed memorabilia for an auction or players making a public appearance at a fundraiser, and targeted grantmaking based on a strategic plan.  

Some teams do this better than others, and a good example of a franchise that seems to know what it doing on the philanthropy front is the Philadelphia Eagles. So, as an example of how sports philanthropy is unfolding in America today, we turn our attention to Philadelphia.

The Philadelphia Eagles recently teamed up with a new set of Eagles Care partners, which are local nonprofits in the Philadelphia region. Every year, the team engages in season-long partnerships to increase its impact in the community. This year is chose three nonprofits to devote attention to and provide resources for.

One new partner is Dignity Housing in the Germantown area. This is a program founded by homeless people and activists to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness through affordable housing in Northern Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, a youth engagement group that teaches urban teens to build boats and participate in on-water programs, also received the funder’s 2017 support. Finally, Eagles Care is supporting Ryan’s Case for Smiles, an organization that aims to improve the quality of life for children and their families while kids are undergoing serious medical treatment.

With many sports teams around the country, youth is a prevailing focus of giving back to the local community. And this is a good thing, considering that professional athletes have a way of connecting with kids that really no one else does. But the Eagles are an example of a team that has taken a bit broader approach to their giving over the years too, touching on issues like hunger, affordable housing, and the environment.

Eagles Care is now in its fifth year of operation in the Greater Philadelphia area. It’s a sports team philanthropy that’s grown quite a bit since the beginning, largely because of its success with local nonprofits. But as we’ve covered in the past, Eagles Care is just one piece of the puzzle for the team’s philanthropy. There’s also the Eagles Charitable Foundation that focuses on vision care and autism research and services.