The NY Times: Golf Tournaments as Fund-Raisers Gain Popularity

Hours before the start of the Jonas Center Golf Classic, rain was pouring down. The skies were thick with clouds and puddles were forming in the fairways of the Stanwich Club, a private country club in Greenwich, Conn.

With 25 foursomes, each having paid at least $10,000 to enter the tournament, a rainout was the one thing the organizers could not control. “After all that planning it can fall apart in a cloudburst,” said Barbara Jonas, who with her husband, Donald, started the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare in 2006.

“It looked very dismal.”

As the 100 golfers were teeing off, the sun came out, and the event raised $325,000 for veterans’ health care. Charity golf tournaments like this one have become a part of the season for affluent golfers and the wealthy trustees who organize and help underwrite them for the nonprofits they support.

But with the proliferation of charity events — about 143,000 of them in 2011, according to the most recent survey by the National Golf Foundation — the competition to attract golfers is fierce. Not only is there big money at stake — $3.9 billion was raised through those events that year — but increasingly golf tournaments are a way to bring new donors to an organization and market its message after the day.

A putting lesson by Michael Breed before tee-off at the Jonas Center Golf Classic, held at the Stanwich Club in Greenwich, Conn.

“Charity golf tournaments are very important for the charities themselves,” said Steve

Mona, chief executive of the World Golf Foundation, which commissioned the survey.

“Among the charities we surveyed, 60 percent said the tournaments they run were extremely or very important to their success.”

While this weekend almost every golfer will be watching what happens at the conclusion of the United States Open at Pinehurst, in North Carolina, few of those golfers will play in even an amateur tournament this year, Mr. Mona said. But they are likely to play in a charity  tournament; 12 million golfers played in one in 2011, a number Mr. Mona called significant, given that only 25 million people play the game.

And golfers as a whole are affluent and older, which makes them an attractive group for nonprofits soliciting donations.

For the nonprofits, the lure of a day of golf with friends or business contacts at a nice course they couldn’t play otherwise is driving donations to and awareness about these organizations, even those not typically associated with sporting events.

Take Lincoln Center, that bastion of high culture in New York City. It will host its third annual golf tournament at the end of the month, having raised nearly a half-million dollars at each of its two previous events. “We went out to new people and they have come back year after year,” said Arlene Graime, director of the Lincoln Center Corporate Fund, which raises unrestricted money to be used by the 10 organizations that are part of Lincoln Center. “Now they’re involved and engaged at Lincoln Center. It was a great way to promote the mission of our organization.”

Like many organizations where golf isn’t an obvious outlet for fund-raising, Lincoln Center started the tournament at the suggestion of a board member who then did yeoman’s work to get friends and associates to attend and donate. For Lincoln Center, it was Keith T. Banks, president of U.S. Trust, a private wealth management division of Bank of America.

“He had played in many charity outings and we wanted to come up with a new idea that would generate additional revenue,” Ms. Graime said

In the case of the Jonas Center, George Fox, president of Titan Advisors, a firm that invests in hedge funds, offered to help. “We were having a board meeting and one of our new board members said, ‘Everyone here is so profoundly involved in nursing and I would love to be productive and helpful but I don’t know a lot about all the different issues in nursing,’ ” Mrs. Jonas said. “But he said, ‘I am good at golf and I could throw a golf tournament for you.’ ”

Mr. Fox’s membership at Stanwich helped the group gain entry, and he helped bring in sponsors. The costs of the event were underwritten by the Jonases and an anonymous donor so all the money raised went to the charity. This year’s event raised $45,000 more than last year.

Yet these tournaments are not simple to organize.

And it can be easy for nonprofits to be blinded by the sums raised at the high end of charity golf, which can top $1 million per tournament. The usual reality is less. The National Golf Foundation report found that the average amount per tournament was $26,300 — not chump change but not a great return on investment either.

There are, after all, a lot of costs involved. The first is securing a course. The opportunity to play a famous course, like Winged Foot or Baltusrol, is a draw for golfers. But while a board member can open the door to a private club, the charity still has to pay for greens fees, carts or caddies, and two to three meals for the players. Making the dinner enough of a draw to stay after five hours of golf is important since there are often live auctions that raise more money.

Another cost is the gift bag, which can range from golf balls and hats to nicer items of clothing, sunglasses or glassware. Nicole Garwood, who runs an event planning company, said budgeting $200 per person ensured a good gift. If the budget is lower, she said a group should focus on one nice item.

“Most people have 25 golf shirts in their closet with a logo on them,” she said. “Do they wear them?”

At an event she organized for Marquis Jet, she persuaded the company to put the event logo discreetly on the sleeve instead of on the breast pocket. “People liked the shirt and it was something they would wear again without thinking they were wearing a company shirt,” she said. And wearing it again gave Marquis Jet the opportunity to have people remember the tournament and tell others about it, she added.

The gift would seem like an area where a charity could skimp. But Roger Caldwell, owner of Great Golf Events, said this was a mistake. “People get cheesy and give a koozie and a sleeve of balls,” he said. “That’s not enough to say thank you.”

Lincoln Center, which charges $20,000 per foursome, has students from the Juilliard

School performing as golfers arrive, during lunch and after the outing. It has had various artists and celebrities participate in the tournament itself, including a ballet dancer the first year. All the prizes are tickets to a Lincoln Center event.

Even small tournaments have caught on to this. Ken Marini, an accountant who runs a tournament in honor of his brother who died of a brain tumor, raises $15,000 to $20,000 a year for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He kept the entry fees at $145 per player so more people could afford it, but to make the day memorable he negotiated one year to have the World Series trophy brought to the event. Another year he persuaded Miss Massachusetts to show up.

At the Jonas Center event, Michael Breed, host of a Golf Channel television show, played one hole with each foursome.

“Whether you’re raising money to provide scholarships for nurses or you’re helping the first responders who went into the Sandy Hook elementary school, I want these men and women to have a great time,” Mr. Breed said this week from the U.S. Open.

As for why charity seems to pairs well with golf, he had a theory. “The atmosphere of being on a golf course and seeing a different hole every 15 to 20 minutes makes people feel good,” he said. “They all talk about what a great experience it was, what a great golf course it was. Those are the things that make people really enjoy being part of the charity.”


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