How This Foundation Got Behind a Push to Bring Soccer Fields to Poor Kids Around the World



The organization love.fútbol describes itself as a “nonprofit that mobilizes and engages communities to plan, build, manage, activate and redefine their own football pitches as sustainable platforms for social change.” It was launched in 2006 by Drew Chafetz and Alfredo Axtmayer, former college soccer teammates at Dickinson College.

For the bulk of its history, love.fútbol has relied on grassroots funding and corporate sponsorship from the likes of Coca-Cola, ESPN, and Manchester City. Now comes recent news that the Pincus Family Foundation made a $1.135 million grant funding five projects in 2019, including two all-new community sports fields in Philadelphia’s lower income communities. This marks the first time love.fútbol has received a major investment from a foundation.

I recently spoke with love.fútbol co-founder Drew Chafetz and Pincus Foundation board member Eric Epstein to find out more about how the two organizations connected and their hopes for the big seven-figure gift. In the process, I learned how a nonprofit and a family foundation, each dedicated to helping children around the world, have fostered a strong philanthropic partnership.

Bootstrapping a Nonprofit

Chafetz began by telling me about his travel experiences growing up and his passion for soccer, both of which play heavily into love.fútbol’s founding. “I was in Brazil and Argentina at eight years old, Kenya and Tanzania and 10 and 11, and in Tibet at 12. In every single one of these places, kids were playing the game that I loved. I had this special medium—soccer—to connect with people with polar opposite life experiences and realities. But through the game, we could see that we were fundamentally the same.”

In college, when Chafetz was studying abroad in 2005, he traveled from Spain to Morocco and saw kids playing at a grassroots level again, creating spaces for play—even in the unlikeliest of places. He came across a group of kids playing soccer in an opening in an alley with a deep water canal running through their makeshift pitch. Despite these circumstances, children jumped back and forth effortlessly over the gap without looking, and their cracked plastic ball rolled relatively true over the cobblestone surface.

This writer recalls his own Nigerian-born father waxing poetic about the concrete pitches he played on, and showing me his battle scars to prove it.

While soccer’s simplicity draws millions of people the world over and can make the sport more accessible to urban and low-income communities, Chafetz started worrying about the kids that don’t have a safe place to play the game they love—like those boys next to the canal. “It crossed the line from imperfection to a bit dangerous and hard to romanticize. And it planted a seed in me. That moment changed the rest of my life,” Chafetz says. He adds that two stars of Brazil’s 2010 World Cup National Team each had a brother who was killed by a car while playing soccer in the streets as kids.

On the heels of Morocco, Chafetz and Axtmayer went down to Guatemala for what he describes as a “three-week exploratory adventure” driven by one single question—“do kids face challenges while playing soccer?” Guatemala made sense to them because of its passionate soccer culture and its rank near the top of poverty metrics in the Western Hemisphere. Having identified partners, they returned to the states to do grassroots fundraising. They then moved back to Guatemala in earnest in May 2007, initially taking on their first nine projects.

Chafetz doesn’t romanticize the early days of love.fútbol. But he’s remained adamant throughout about the power of its model. He says, “For the next five years, we did very grassroots-funded projects. Our organization was highly under-resourced, and I took on second jobs for a time. But what we did during that first era was develop a methodology for engaging communities around their own sports spaces. We specialize in partnering with and engaging communities to take these projects into their own hands so that they have ownership over the project process. The average project we do has over 2,500 hours of volunteer community effort across hundreds of volunteers investing up front in this asset. They’re creating spaces and reclaiming ones that haven’t been utilized in a long time.”

A key word for Chafetz and love.fútbol is “community.” The hardware, if you will, is an engaged community coming together around a sports-based project. But for Chafetz, the software is just as important, and wherever love.fútbol lands, they aim to lay out a programmatic side that is tailored to the needs of each community.

After a grassroots funding era lasting about five or so years, love.fútbol started bringing in corporate sponsors during the buzz of the 2014 World Cup. “We did a project with Coca-Cola, and ESPN has been an incredible partner, as well.”

A Grantmaker Focused on Children

But for Chafetz, the large gift from the Pincus Family Foundation represents a new age of funding for his organization.

The foundation was established in 2005 by the late David and Gerry Pincus, Philadelphia philanthropists who dedicated themselves to learning first-hand about the challenges children face worldwide. In conversation with Eric Epstein, David’s nephew, he couldn’t have been more passionate about the philanthropic legacy his uncle left behind. “He was the crazy uncle that would show up with a convertible with a dog in the back. Was a huge personality,” Epstein says.

The Pincus family wealth has its roots in a Philadelphia clothing company that David’s father and uncles founded in 1911. David and his brother went on to expand the business, and as David had success in business, he also emerged as an art collector. He and Gerry amassed abstract expressionist pieces by Rothko and other artists. When the company shuttered, David started to focus on philanthropy. “If you don’t feel something, it’s not worth pursuing. This was the underlying motive of his life,” Epstein explains. Much like Chafetz, David Pincus’ life was transformed through travel. David helped establish clinics in Harlem, South Africa and the Dominican Republic for children with AIDS. He also traveled to places like Somalia, Haiti and Israel, at times celebrating birthdays abroad.

Epstein explains that when David was reaching the end of his life (he passed in 2011), he wanted to support this kind of global work for children even after he was gone. David willed the majority of his art collection to the Pincus Foundation, and the auction proceeds were underwrote the activities of the foundation. “You never get to own art; if you’re lucky, you get to live with it for a while, and then it moves on,” Epstein says, repeating what David often told him.

The Pincus Foundation reported assets of around $77 million in 2017 and its five original trustees are two doctors, an accountant, a lawyer, and Epstein, an architect. Epstein says the free rein David gave them to discover their own philanthropic interests was powerful. “He was very open to the notion that you really had to connect with it emotionally, whatever you were doing—otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense and have lasting value. It’s just amazing to have landed in a place where we’re able to support such fantastic work thanks to someone who believed in it, and he set up a system for it to continue after he was gone.”

Through the years, the foundation has been involved in a variety of projects, and not necessarily confined to Philadelphia, either. Epstein, for instance, is based in New Haven and New Orleans, and tells me about work at Preservation Hall in New Orleans to develop band music and give it to school music programs around the country. The foundation has also worked with Temple University in the realm of pediatric urban health, and is in talks with Tulane Medical School to conduct similar work. Epstein says the foundation’s guiding principle through the years has been “for the well-being of children.”

A Connection Emerges

This brings us to the story of how love.fútbol caught the interest of the Pincus Family Foundation. Epstein says that David used to support Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse, an early public playground that has a sliding board that’s over a century old. Epstein has always been interested in children’s play, and while he eventually found architecture, he studied developmental psychology as an undergraduate and had plans to go into education.

For a time, the Pincus Foundation had been looking for an ongoing playground project they could invest in. Epstein, though, explains that this was easier said than done, at times because of the difficult public-private dynamic and the politics involved. As this research was going on, Philadelphia lawyer Nick Sprague, chairman of the board of love.fútbol, connected with a Pincus board member and learned about Chafetz and his story. From the first conversation, the chemistry and alignment of mission was palpable, Chafetz tells me.

Chafetz came in to make a presentation to Pincus board members, and Epstein recalls a short video of a girls’ dance troupe in Mexico City. These girls lived in a very dangerous neighborhood for women, where even adult women went out in groups of 10 or more. In the video, though, these local girls and women had taken over the pitch, and were unapologetically taking up space in their community. Epstein vividly describes it: “The joy that just came through in just a 10-second clip with these girls in this dance troupe. That was it for me. Who wouldn’t want to do something where this was the outcome? I was completely sold.”

Later, when Epstein and other Pincus brass traveled to Mexico, he was even more impressed by love.fútbol and its work. “They showed us a pitch that had just been finished and I was just so impressed with them. The pitch was one thing. But once I learned that hundreds of volunteers helped build this thing in the middle of a very densely populated area, I was floored. It felt like an oasis—from the paintings on the wall, to the open space to not just play soccer, but also chess, and do boxing. There were also bathrooms, and next to the pitch was a defunct library that the city is now looking into getting up and running again. On top of that, the pitch is next to place where AA holds meetings every week. So yeah, now, it’s a community center, when before, it was a vacant lot.” 

In addition to the project just inaugurated in Mexico City, Pincus will fund four other love.fútbol projects—two in the Dominican Republic, and two projects in Philadelphia.

When I asked Chafetz what his biggest hope was for love.fútbol in the future, he told me, “We’ve said we want to make sure kids have a safe place for this game. We see the U.S. as a key and strategic stepping stone toward our global growth. We hope to take on many projects in the U.S. and envision thousands of projects around the world, partnering with communities globally to take on sports facility projects, but also engaging with the global soccer-passionate community around that vision.”

Once they cut the ribbon for the first Pincus-backed project, Epstein describes the moment when Chafetz and COO Mano Silva stormed the field and played with the kids. Even with 10 kids hanging on them, they worked their magic. And throughout his stay in Mexico City, Epstein says he could feel his “Unc” hovering over.