Sports Nonprofits Fight to Adapt to New Normal

Welcome to TMR’s Sports Philanthropy Spotlight…Today we look at–what else?–coronavirus and adapting to the challenges it presents for sports-centric philanthropy with insights from Sports Philanthropy Network’s Roy Kessel.

As we enter week five of the national coronavirus lockdown, like all organizations, sports nonprofits are struggling to figure out how to adapt to the new normal.

Nonprofits are trying to work through their operational, program delivery and communication issues. A large number of sports-focused organizations face further challenges as a result of the inability to gather in groups.

Fortunately, the sports nonprofit landscape is developing strategies to react to the crisis. For most of them, these reactions fall into three categories:

  • Communications with stakeholders;
  • Activities, Engagement and Program Delivery; and
  • Fundraising

During times of crisis, one of the most important things you must do at a nonprofit is make sure that you remain in close contact with your stakeholders.

At the Sports Philanthropy Network, we have been hosting town hall meetings and webinars as well as participating in multiple webinars hosted by other organizations aimed at this sector, and we are finding fairly consistent messaging across leading organizations. I will specifically address fundraising later, but consensus strategy emphasizes three important steps that every nonprofit should take:

  1. Call and ask your donors (or customers) how they are doing
  2. Thank them for their continued support
  3. Explain to them how your organization is responding to the crisis

A little more on each:


As you call to check on your donor and their families, the emphasis needs to be compassionate and centered on their well-being. We are all in this crisis together, and your donors need to feel that your organization cares about them as individuals.


The reason you are phoning them in the first place is as a result of their prior support of your organization and its mission. Re-emphasize this prior support to demonstrate that you understand that they have been on your team all along. You will need their support in the future.


It is important to highlight how your organization is responding to the crisis. This does not require having all the answers, simply that you can articulate the steps that your organization is taking to address the current environment.

These three talking points—much of which apply equally well to for-profit businesses as well—do more than just tackle the now. They will help your organization set the tone for the months ahead and be in position to thrive in the post-crisis stage.

Activities and Engagement for Program Participants

Since sports inherently mean getting together in person and competing, social isolation provides a special set of challenges.

Millions of school kids struggle to get the nutritious food they need to fuel their bodies and brains they received through school meals.  Many are with little to no access to internet and computer resources they need to study.

At the best of times, only about 24 percent of the kids in the U.S. get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day. Our current shutdown is not only limiting kids’ essential physical activity, but many now find themselves in an unhealthy mental health environment.

We must urgently examine what kids need for their own mental health. Issues such as domestic violence and absent parents (due to work, divorce or incarceration) can impact the mental health of many children. School, sports and physical activity can serve as a much-needed buffer to these stressors. Too many of our children currently have no mechanism to get that activity.

Many organizations have created or shared special programs and most are generously offering these services for free. Our Sports Philanthropy Network COVID-19 Resource page lists a whole array of programs and services that organizations can use to support their participants. Excellent resources we have found include (in alpha order with links to their websites):

Many companies and organizations are stepping up to provide free services. It is heartwarming to see the increased degree of collaboration and the shared resources which will provide much-needed support for many young athletes. Some of the best examples that we’ve seen over this past month:

It doesn’t have to be complicated! Project Free Play WNY offers 40 different games via their free to download “Free Play Deck” of cards

As the social distancing requirements extend longer, the challenges will increase as a result of rising restlessness among the young athletes (and athletes of all ages). Helping young athletes cope and thrive is an ongoing problem for almost every organization.

The programs listed above will continue to be a lifeline, but it is much harder to capture attention on the flat screen of Zoom, as opposed to a live sports practice. These organizations will have to work hard to innovate to retain a high level of engagement for the duration of the crisis.

Many now predict that COVID-19 fallout will continue to impact youth sports for much longer than initially anticipated as the entire summer and fall sports seasons could be cancelled. This uncertainty has caused virtual training of athletes to explode during the crisis.

Interested in more sports philanthropy? Don’t miss our TMR Insider piece from Christine Pinalto, Executive Director, Sidelined USA, on “Unfinished Business: 5 Insights When Your Athletic Season is Sidelined by a Pandemic

Every organization is facing difficulties with fundraising. With most of the country practicing social distancing and the unemployment rate skyrocketing to a historical high, raising money likely becomes even more difficult than usual while youth organizations seek $8.5 billion of government support.

This has also brought about wide-spread cancellations of all fundraising events through early July. Nonprofits are facing really tough decisions on how to proceed the most common options we are seeing rise to the top being:

  1. Cancel the event for 2020 and move immediately to planning for 2021
  2. Postpone the event until later in 2020
  3. Shift to a virtual event

Unfortunately, each of these options have significant drawbacks for fundraising efforts.


Completely canceling an event for 2020 leaves a gaping hole in the organization’s calendar and fundraising efforts. Galas and other large fundraising events can raise a substantial portion of an organization’s budget. Estimates vary, but large organizations are reporting losses typically between $300,000-$500,000 while smaller organizations may be losing up to $100,000 per event


Deferring an event until later in 2020 poses different challenges. First and most importantly, it is not clear how far into the future the event needs to be deferred in order to ensure that it is safely out of the “danger zone” for a second date change.  While a first cancellation is understandable due to the COVID-19 crisis, a second is less likely to be acceptable to supporters. Another difficulty with a deferral is the prospect of a suddenly crowded landscape. Even if the whole country is “open” as of Aug 1 or Sep 1, a fall fundraising calendar jam-packed with potentially twice the events (already planned Fall events plus pushed back Spring events) means intense competition for the same philanthropic dollars and corporate sponsorships. Plus, we expect an uphill battle securing donations from individual donors who have also plunged into financial distress.

Going virtual

Virtual events are a popular solution, though the current models and technology are untested as to long-term viability. Yes, large organizations like professional sports team foundations and organizations with a national scope (Special Olympics, American Cancer Society, etc.) have the resources and technology to pull off large-scale virtual funding raising events. However, in speaking to smaller nonprofits such as Bounce Children’s Foundation, Chicago Run and Peace Players, I hear that they struggle to draw the same amount of funding from their smaller pool of supporters without the connection and emotion of a live event.

What’s next?

There is hope the stimulus bill could help youth sports, but with the rules changing on a daily basis, it is extremely difficult to predict what will happen several months from now. Some argue that this hiatus may actually cause people to reevaluate—and lessen—the priority placed on organized sports.

We believe that may occur in the short run, but that sports are far too embedded in our society to take a significant permanent step back.

Over the coming weeks, we will examine how these problems are being addressed by athlete’s foundations, community-based organizations, professional teams, leagues and governing bodies. Crises bring communities together.

We have seen enormous creativity from all these directions and expect even more in the weeks and months ahead.

If you have any resources you would like to share on the Sports Philanthropy Network COVID-19 Resource Page, please email them to or connect/message with Roy via TMR Messaging

Roy Kessel is the Founder of the Sports Philanthropy Network. Roy has worked in the sports business world for over 20 years including serving as an instructor in Northwestern University's graduate Sports Management Program. Having served as a sports lawyer representing athletes, entrepreneurs and start-up businesses, Roy has extensive experience helping organizations improve their strategy, marketing, communications and leadership development.