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Return of NHL ushers sigh of relief from Canadian charities

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Open the floodgates! The wait is over!

The 113-day spat that kept Canadians from enjoying the highest level of our national winter sport is finished, and with it, the dam withholding the millions of dollars, and ample publicity, that annually floods Canadian charities associated with the National Hockey League and its seven Canadian teams opened.

To offer the perception that during the lockout, charity executives sat in cold, bare rooms, eating meager meals over candlelight for fear of not being able to pay electricity bills, while their coffers collected dust…well, that would be misleading.

But to aver that Canadian charities suffered while the owners and players were engaged in negotiations...this would be accurate.

Some charities, mostly the organizations with vast networks of donors, outlasted the lockout by shifting their focus to other campaigns.

Others – the smaller guys – were sweating more and more as the lockout progressed, wondering if they would be able to make up the difference. While some charities took significant financial hits, others felt the pinch due the lack of exposure that comes hand-in-hand with an NHL partnership.

Not to mention the fact that many player ambassadors could no longer represent their NHL-affiliated charities. No more autographed pictures to offer as door prizes, no more signed jerseys to auction offand no more speeches.

Those days are gone, and we’re back to the Canadian norm.

But during the four-month impasse, our nation’s charities were left to weather the proverbial storm, and despite some tough times, it took quick thinking and leveraging of donor networks to make it out of the work stoppage unscathed.

Shuffling resources

They say that when one doors closes, another opens.

The Kids Up Front Foundation (Toronto) were hoping this adage would prove truthful, as when lockout was deemed ‘official’, the organization knew they would soon have to deal with the disillusioned looks of many disappointed kids.

The lockout meant that Kids Up Front Toronto, which provides access to arts, culture, sport and recreation for children who otherwise do not have the opportunity, had lost the opportunity to send children to the biggest sporting event in town: Toronto Maple Leafs games.

“With the lockout, there were no Leafs games, which meant no Leafs tickets for Kids Up Front,” says Lindsay Oughtred, executive director of Kids Up Front Toronto. “We knew we would have to work together with Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment’s Team Up Foundation, our biggest donor of tickets, to come up with something.”

With some careful planning, Kids Up Front Toronto ensured that indeed, when one hockey door closed, another opened.

“When we weren’t receiving Leafs tickets, the MLSE Team Up Foundation was sensitive to the fact that the children and youth we serve are genuinely excited about going to hockey games, to see their heroes play live,” says Oughtred.

The result?

“MLSE really made it up to us with Toronto Marlies tickets,” she says.

While the Leafs remained benched from the lockout, MLSE donated more than 2,000 Marlies tickets to the organization, and now that Toronto’s NHL franchise is back, the charitable arm of the team has offered up 80 Leafs tickets through the first three home games of the 2013 season.

Oughtred says the solid partnership between Kids Up Front Toronto and the MLSE Team Up Foundation allowed for the charity to continue to send children to hockey games without skipping a beat.

“We’re both just trying to get kids out to see live sporting events,” she says. “And the fantastic partnership between us allowed for us to send more youth to hockey games than ever before.”

Compounding the issue

Other Canadian charities have developed bonds with specific NHL players, along with NHL teams.

Take KidSport Calgary, a charity dedicated to giving children opportunities to play organized sport. The organization is Jarome Iginla’s charity of choice, and has been for the past decade. The Flames captain is Calgary’s most well-known sports figure, and donates $2,000 to the KidSport Foundation for every goal he scores – $1,000 to KidSport Canada, and $1,000 to KidSport Calgary. While this pledge may seem small, it is important to note that Iginla has scored more than 30 goals a season for the past eleven years.

So what does this mean, financially, for KidSport Calgary?

“Last year, in 82 games, he scored 32 goals, so he donated $64,000 to KidSport,” says Mark Kosak, KidSport Calgary’s regional manager. “His total donation is sitting somewhere around $750,000, a very generous act for just one person.”

The buck doesn’t stop there. Each time Iginla scores, the goal-scorer’s donation is matched by the Flames Foundation for Life.

“When a Flames player donates money to a charity, the Flames will match the donation up to a maximum of $25,000,” adds Kosak. “So whenever Jarome gives us anything in excess of $25,000, the Flames will match it dollar-for-dollar. Every year, we get a nice bonus cheque from the Flames Foundation for Life.”

Like many NHL-supported charities, the funds KidSport Calgary receives from the Flames Foundation is generated through 50/50 draw ticket sales at home games, along with other events throughout the year.

But during the work stoppage, there were no games to hold 50/50 draws, and with the players locked out and unable to attend charity events, the events raised just a fraction of what they would typically earn, or weren't held altogether.

It was the realization that the well may run dry that caused Kosak to fear the worst.

“We had concerns over whether the Flames Foundation for Life would be able to continue with that donation to KidSport next year,” he says. “The implications to our charity were in the neighbourhood of $150,000 or more that we’d have to make up somewhere else on our bottom line.”

Iginla has yet to pledge his association to KidSport Calgary for this season, though the charity is optimistic the two-time Canadian gold-medallist will continue his work with the group.

Intangibles

The Edmonton-based Inner City Youth Development Association was one of the lucky charities during the lockout.

Inner City offers Edmonton’s high-risk urban youth both an academic and arts-based alternative to a high school diploma, and as a recipient organization of the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation, the charity was able to receive all of the hockey club’s initially-pledged funding through the Foundation’s rainy day fund.

Inner City’s association with the Foundation began in December 2010, when the Foundation purchased for a $2-million space to serve as Inner City High School’s new home, accommodating 150 students.

“Every commitment that they had to us was met during the lockout,” says Joe Cloutier, executive director of Inner City. “The Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation purchased a building for us, and they’re three-quarters of the way through renovating it.”

Although funds were secure for the 2012/2013 hockey season, there was something far more important that Cloutier feared would be missed as a result of the lockout.

It’s what Cloutier calls “the little things.”

“The small differences the Oilers make are profound,” says Cloutier. “Every Christmas, they cater a dinner for us, and the whole team comes. They set up tables, and they just mingle with youth – no media or nothing like that – they sign sweaters for the kids, and they sit down and eat with them, and chat with them. It’s a big thing for the youth, and it didn’t happen this year.”

Cloutier recalls a moment that epitomizes the importance of the hockey club to his organization.

Ethan Moreau was captain of the Oilers a few years ago,” he recollects. “He would just drop in unannounced, and we’d meet in a circle with the youth. He’d just chat with them. One time he brought his young son in with him, another time he brought a stack of movie tickets, and winter coats, and a lot of those kinds of things. Things that slip under the radar.”

“The feeling that the kids get from those kinds of visits, it’s hard to sum up. There was a comment from one youth: ‘I never thought people like that would care about us.’ I mean, we work with street youth...” says Cloutier, trailing off as he audibly welled up with tears.

“Sometimes, it’s not about the money. It’s about the little things. And now that hockey is back, we can begin to have more moments like this.”

Spin-off ramifications

One of the toughest pills for NHL-supported charities to swallow during the lockout was the fact that along with losing player and team-driven donations, they lost a major byproduct of the partnership – exposure.

Despite receiving pledged funds, Cloutier says his organization, like many others during the lockout, took a hit from the lack of exposure.

“Even for the Oilers to say they’re a partner of ours, and that they have a long-term commitment to support us, when the game is on hold, it puts our partnership into question,” he says. “We weren’t in the public eye as much, and I think it clouds public perception of our charity.”

Oughtred, whose organization also found ways to bridge the gaps the lockout created, admits that Kids Up Front may have lost some exposure during the work stoppage.

“MLSE Team Up Foundation was incredible to us during the lockout,” she says, though she understands that “the Leafs ticket is the most coveted ticket in Toronto,” and if an organization isn’t present at the hottest sporting event in Toronto, it misses an opportunity.

With teams earning less revenue generated by merchandise sales, the trickle-down effect was felt by charities.

“The Flames are very generous in donating products to various fundraising activities we do, whether it’s a silent auction or something where we need a door prize,” says Kosak. “I know their supplies had been depleted, and they weren’t producing a whole bunch of stuff to give away for those types of requests, so that hurt us.”

From there, many charities lost connection with their player ambassadors.

“Jarome will typically sign six jerseys for us that we use for various silent auctions,” adds Kosak. “Without him playing, we weren’t able to get in touch with him to get those jerseys signed.”

Lessons learned

When faced with the prospect of an NHL lockout, the Ottawa Food Bank sprung to action, searching for ways to make up for the half-dozen canned food drives the Ottawa Senators typically hold for the organization.

With careful planning, the Food Bank managed to offset potential losses in food and monetary donations by planning new drives, and shifting resources.

“Here in Ottawa, we didn’t see that much of a blip in donations,” says Peter Tilley, executive director of the Ottawa Food Bank. “Our numbers have been consistent over the last six-months, when you compare year over year.”

Tilley says his organization wasn’t discouraged by the lockout. Rather, they tried to turn a “negative into a positive” by using connections they’ve developed in the city.

“While the players were off, the Senators coaching staff and some of the management had time to spend a day here sorting food to help us get through this pile of food that came in from the Christmas season,” says Tilley. “That was a nice treat that we had, having (head coach) Paul MacLean and some of the coaches in, as they’d never been here before, and maybe during a busy hockey season, I doubt they’d be able to find the time to come down.”

Kosak says it is important for charities to expect the unexpected, as a means of fighting against complacency.

“You can’t have any firm expectations for any donor on a year-to-year basis,” he recommends. “Each donation, regardless of the size, is a gift, and they choose where they want to give it, so you have to be ready for anything, even something as unexpected as an NHL lockout.”

When the lockout was announced on September 15, Cloutier knew there would be a few sleepless nights to come, but tried to remain as positive about the situation as possible.

“There’s always that ‘uh-oh’ moment. As the lockout stretched on, the ‘uh-ohs’ began to come more often,” Cloutier laughs. “But we had faith, and you have to look on the bright side, and that’s what we did.”

Tilley says that Canadian charities will always be tied to NHL hockey – it’s something that’s inherently Canadian, regardless of lockouts.

“We’ve got to carry on, and there’s no doubt that when hockey is played, it invigorates this whole community, this whole nation.”

And while charities across Canada had to make umpteen extra phone calls to donors, start new fundraising campaigns, and use Plan Bs, Cs, and Ds to make up for lost revenue during the lockout, Tilley speaks for all when he says, “It’s just good to see that hockey is back.”

 

Brock Smith is a radio reporter/producer and communications specialist based out of Ottawa, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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