Guides & Resources

The Case for Sport Philanthropy: Why Isn’t Sport Considered Charitable?

ice skates

For as long as I can remember, sport has been an integral part of my life. Whether it was being born into Habs fandom, following my dad around between rinks and baseball diamonds, cold Saturday morning figure skating lessons, years on the softball team, or waking up in the middle of the night to catch Team Canada hockey games during the 1998 Nagano Olympics—I have both competed and cheered for sports.

I’ve been enamoured by the Olympic movement almost my entire life. I’ve watched athletes use their star power to elevate communities and seen sport save lives around the world. I’m also a career fundraiser. Yet, with these two passions—philanthropy and sport—running side my side in my life, it had never occurred to me that using sport for good was something that existed.

Upon completing the Humber Fundraising Management post grad, I worked in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal in the social services, heath and education sectors prior to starting my own business in sport philanthropy. Having a career in philanthropy meant that I could spend my days working towards helping others—and that was important to me.

A job in Athletics Development at McGill was never part of the plan; in fact, working for a university was never part of the plan. But I suddenly found myself moving back from to Montreal to build a philanthropic program from scratch around sports at McGill University. Admittedly—and bear with me, there is a reason I share this—the idea of working at a university and raising money for “wealthy” athletes was not something I was interested in. I thought it was a waste of my talents, when all I wanted was to help people who needed it.  

As it turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assumptions about the role, and the reason I share this ignorant and incorrect opinion is because if I, as a sector professional and sport enthusiast couldn’t see the charitable benefit of sport, how could I possibly expect anyone else to? 

The Real Student-Athletes

It only took me about a week to realize how wrong I had been about working in Athletics. One of the first student-athletes I had met was a basketball player who was the first in his family to go to university, thanks to a scholarship he received due largely in part to his basketball skills. Sport had given him an education.

As my time with the university went on, I saw more and more stories like this: students from broken homes graduating with a new family: their teammates; athletes learning how to navigate the competing demands of life through diligent support from their coaches; our facilities being used to keep our community healthy, both mentally and physically; and alumni crediting their teammates for saving their lives.

As a fundraiser, I couldn’t stay on top of the impactful stories I was witnessing on a day-to-day basis, wondering how university advancement offices had never paid much attention to their athletics and recreation departments. I would sit in my office and tear up proofreading thank-you cards from student-athletes to their scholarship donors because of how meaningful their sentiments were. I would think of the lucky donors who would receive these cards and know, without a doubt, they were literally changing someone’s life.

My time at McGill forced me to do some serious reflection on sport philanthropy. Why was this something I had never heard of? How exactly would you define it? What other organizations were fundraising in sport? It didn’t take me long to realize that many of the best practices and strategies I had learned at Humber and throughout my career were somewhat futile in sport—it required a very specific shift in how I operated. Dealing with multiple sport cultures, highly dedicated volunteers, alumni with more affinity than you could dream of, no databases and a moving target of a calendar meant that fundraising, as I knew it, required a whole new look.

After four years at the university, I made the jump into entrepreneurship: taking my lessons learned raising money in sports to more organizations that were creating lasting community impact, but not positioning themselves philanthropically. What started off with a lot of uncertainty quickly became my passion.  

The Power of Sport

I have always believed that sport is one of the greatest vehicles for philanthropy. Put a ball down in front of some kids and magic happens—it doesn’t matter what language they speak, their socio-economic status, the colour of their skin, their physical or mental ability or their gender. Sport has the power to help immigrants assimilate to a new culture or encourage people to take risks and push themselves. It’s capable of empowering women to be leaders or helping to create a healthier community from the bottom up.

The more research I did into sport philanthropy, the more I realized not only the immense impact sport has on individuals and communities, but how many key sectors are involved in and influenced by sport participation: Education, Aboriginal Affairs, Citizenship and Immigration, Culture, Health, Infrastructure, International Affairs, Justice, Media, Military and Defence, Municipal and Local Governments, Private Sector, Professional Sport, Recreation and Tourism–just to name a few.  

The argument can also be made that, much like the arts, sport plays an essential role in our Canadian fabric.  There is no shortage of reports demonstrating how sport consistently satisfies what the charitable sector would consider typical public benefit requirements. The Canadian Sport  Policy notes that high quality, intentionally-designed sport programming can contribute to the following broad societal outcomes: 

  • Excellence;
  • Enhanced education and skill development;
  • Improved health and wellness;
  • Increased civic pride, engagement and cohesion; and
  • Increased economic development and prosperity.

In speaking with Tom Hall, lifelong athlete, bronze medallist and now senior manager of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Game Plan, he notes the importance of supporting sport: “Sport creates leaders. Athletes who leave sport go on to be entrepreneurs, political leaders, sport leaders and fierce advocates for making Canada stronger. But for sport to truly deliver on its potential we need more people participating. More athletes at all levels means a healthier, more confident Canada. Sport is increasingly more expensive, and sport organizations are struggling to keep the lights on when they could be building a safe, healthy sport system for all Canadians.” 

The Sport Philanthropy Landscape 

As an emerging area, sport philanthropy remains a difficult charitable landscape to navigate. In Canada, an organization whose purpose is to promote one or more sports for its own sake cannot be registered as a charity. However, when a recognized charitable purpose is furthered through activities that include sport, or where sport is an incidental and ancillary activity only, the organization can potentially qualify for charitable status. What a mouthful!

This distinction leaves the majority of sports organizations in a gray area whereby they either have to have as their exclusive purpose to promote amateur athletics, or else attempt to fit within a recognized charitable purpose. Most RCAAAs are National Sport Federations, and while they promote amateur sport, they are also seen as the governing body of that sport in Canada. By extension, their mandate includes initiatives at the grassroots, academic and master levels—in other words, sport for life—initiatives that would be considered public benefit. The reality is that most sport organizations have a mix of promotion of amateur sport and public benefit elements within their mandate. 

Making Sport Charitable 

In 2017, Canadians gave $14 billion to registered charities, but not included in this figure are donations made to RCAAAs and other nonprofit sport organizations. By recognizing sport itself as a charitable purpose, there is the opportunity to:

  • More accurately account for donations and impact in this space;
  • Potentially generate upwards of $280 million in additional revenue for community sporting organizations, particularly those in regional and rural areas (based on figures raised within the Arts subsector);
  • Increase support of our athletes and increase competitive advantage internationally;
  • Increase support of community and grassroots sports organizations;
  • Encourage the elimination of the state of dependency of sports organizations; and
  • Ensure the sport system becomes more sustainable.

Canadians and sports organizations have indicated that one of the major barriers in access to, promotion of, and programming in sport is a lack of funding.  Incorporating sport as a charitable purpose would not only help advance these objectives, but it would allow for all segments of the system to better deliver on public benefit. There are unlimited examples of charitable initiatives found within sport organizations, such as: 

  • Construction, maintenance or upgrade of amateur sporting facilities to improve community health via increased sporting activity and access to sport.
  • Programs aimed at improving or addressing mental health problems in the community through sport.
  • Participation programs intended to promote health or inclusion, or relieve disadvantage.
  • Purchase of sports equipment and uniforms specifically to enable community to improve health and activity through participating in sport, or to relieve disadvantage.
  • Funding any aspect of sport (whether facilities, equipment, coaching, uniform, free or subsidized registration fees etc.) specifically for underserved communities or needs of disadvantaged groups.
  • Sports scholarships (outside of the education sector) to promote health of community or to relieve disadvantage.
  • Education and Training those in coaching, umpiring or refereeing, for the benefit of:
    - a disadvantaged group; or
    - a rural, regional or remote area; or
    - individuals in targeted groups to promote the health of such individuals through encouraging participation in sport as a regular activity.
  • Recording sports history and memorabilia in any publicly accessible museum, with items of educational or cultural value and which would be of public interest.

Greg Ingalls, executive director for KidSport Alberta sees examples of the public benefit of sport everyday: "I love sport because it can teach children so many life lessons (team work, dedication, leadership, goal setting) at a young age. I also believe that all kids should have the opportunity to learn those lessons through sport.  Unfortunately in our user pay society, the cost of sport has made it unattainable for kids living in poverty. Sport should be a charitable purpose to assist in relief of poverty, giving those kids living in poverty the same opportunities as all other children.  The lessons learned through sport can help the next generation of kids break the cycle of poverty and become contributing members of society.

We have a massive opportunity here by recognizing sport as a charitable purpose. Similar to the arts, sport has an enormous public benefit, falls within the Ministry of Canadian Heritage and is at least as popular as the arts to the average Canadian. Incorporating sport itself as a charitable purpose reinforces the government’s stance that sport is important and provides the opportunity to fill the funding gap with private support. This in turn enriches key sectors involved in and influenced by sport participation, and supports the Canadian Sport Policy’s vision that all Canadians can pursue sport to the extent of their abilities and interests, including performing at the highest competitive levels. Sport delivers benefits, for increasing numbers, to individual health and well-being, and contributes to socioeconomic outcomes.

The bottom line is that we are failing sports in Canada. The lack of resources, talent, access, programming, and support in the sport system is leading our country down a path of unsustainability, and the organizations that will suffer the most are the ones with some of the greatest impact on our communities. As the source of limitless public benefit, sport deserves an equal seat at the charitable purpose table.

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