The Web gives charity a sporting chance

Online shopping taps alumni philanthropy and the old college team.

This wisdom of the ages has been passed down through the centuries. Generally, it is called philanthropy, the giving of cash, property, or self to assist socially-useful purposes.

A major early philanthropic pioneer in this country was Andrew Carnegie. A current giving star is Bill Gates, Microsoft Corp. chairman, who has made many gifts, including $20 million to Johns Hopkins University.

"America," says Sara E. Melendez, president and CEO of Independent Sector, "is still a nation of givers." And it's not only the province of the rich.

Her group reports that more than 70 percent of all households contribute annually to charities, averaging $1,075. This generosity is increasing dramatically. The American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel says that in 1998, Americans gave more than $174 billion, up nearly 11 percent over 1997 - the third straight year of double-digit gains.

The Handbook of Institutional Advancement, a highly regarded guide in the fund-raising field, says a key motivation for giving often is "a sense of obligation."

With giving enjoying such a good reputation (Giving USA says 43.6 percent of charitable dollars go to religion, followed by 14.1 percent to education) it's no surprise that business is hooking into this reservoir of good will in innovative ways.

For example, a company launched on the Internet earlier this year, mrgoodbucks.com, is aiming at a relatively narrow giving market that it sees as potentially lucrative: College, university, and high school athletics - but in a way in which the giver feels no pain. Certainly, the giver doesn't write a separate check.

"We're allowing people to give back to their schools, and they are not spending more," says Doug Easter, the firm's CEO.

It works like this: A customer goes to mrgoodbucks.com on the Web to buy something - ranging from binoculars to books from some 150 companies - and selects where he or she would like a portion of the purchase price to go as a charitable gift. While mrgoodbucks has about 225 charitable organizations listed, the niche on which it is pinning major hope is collegiate athletics.

Five percent per purchase

They have more than 20 athletic areas now, but David Randle, the executive veep, expects 200 to 250 schools to be listed by year end. "People love this idea," says Randle. "It makes sense to them."

Percentages vary, but typically five percent of each purchase can go to charity. Another five percent goes to mrgoodbucks. One quasi-athletic endeavor open to receiving contributions from mrgoodbucks: the Upper Dublin High School Cheerleading Fund in Fort Washington, Pa. Easter says it's simple: "Retailers say, 'Drive us traffic, and we'll give you a percentage.' " Prices, he says, are "always competitive." But Easter is skittish when it comes to how much sports at a school might get.

The company figures a large amount: The University of Florida should get between $200,000 and $500,000 a year; a smaller institution like the University of Richmond perhaps $10,000-$25,000.

The appeal of giving to sports, suggests Easter, is that "athletics play a lot into our experiences. We learn a lot from them." No wonder homecoming celebrations in the fall on most campuses, usually centered on football weekends, are the major alumni event of the year.

At the Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, executive director Eugene Tempel sees businesses like mrgoodbucks as "a good thing" but suggests the downside is it "causes unconscious philanthropy. It's always easier to give away somebody else's money."

There are minuses to what companies like mrgoodbucks are doing. A giver can't be specific in the gift, for example requesting the money to go to the University of Montana women's basketball team. Rather, it goes to athletics at the school generally. Also, the giver via mrgoodbucks is not identified, so the funds arrive anonymously. Part of the experience for many philanthropists is the personal recognition of their good works.

On the other hand, it does allow more specificity than the long-established affinity credit cards that were embraced by universities. These allow no giver direction other than the institution as a whole.

Lawrence J. Friedman, a history and philanthropy professor at Indiana University, is lukewarm to companies that try to wrap themselves in good works: "Rather than give their purchasers a product at a lower cost, the company markets its 'good' philanthropic intent. The company muddies the waters by coupling a commercial transaction with the appearance of being benevolent."

Another company in the philanthropy business is greatergood.com, which is more focused on college alumni associations. It urges customers, "You can help change the world."

But is it really altruism?

There is skepticism about the altruistic nature of sports giving. At the University of Connecticut, Ken Cutler, associate athletic director for advancement, says that sports philanthropy "really is the desire for tickets and seating preference."

At many institutions, being allowed to buy the best tickets requires a major contribution - often in the thousands of dollars. This factor is why Cutler sees true generosity of spirit in sports giving as "a lot less than in general philanthropy."

However, Cutler does see the giving in many cases based on "emotional ties." At UConn, Cutler says the athletic budget is $24 million, with annual fund-raising producing about $10 million.

A study at the University of Arizona found that 39 percent of givers surveyed gave out of "simple generosity." But Lawrence Friedman suggests, "Most people display diverse mixes of benevolence and self-interest in their donative intent."

No one thing, obviously, is the answer to athletic department budget shortfalls. But every journey toward financial stability must start with a single dollar. That's why David Randle sees blue sky everywhere in sports philanthropy: "We're on the front edge of this thing."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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