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robert macleod

Star athletes are uniquely positioned to generate charitable donations within the city in which they play, and their teams often rely heavily on their drawing power when it comes to the big business that is sports philanthropy.

When those players leave to play elsewhere, their cause may be left wanting unless their former team jumps in to continue the charitable legacy.

Michael Bartlett, executive director of Team Up Foundation, the charitable arm of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., said his foundation has benefitted greatly over the years from the support of athletes who have passed through Toronto.

Bartlett stressed, however, that a foundation needs to establish its own charitable footprint in the community it is serving, aside from what individual athletes may be doing, in order to have a lasting impact.

"Donor movement is something that we all have to be prepared for," Bartlett said in a interview. "It is not considered good business sense to have to rely primarily on athlete contribution to make your foundation a success."

During the seven-plus years he was a member of the Toronto Raptors, Vince Carter became the most popular player in the NBA and he launched his Embassy of Hope foundation to benefit children's causes in Southern Ontario and in his home state of Florida.

A regulation-sized outdoor basketball court in Toronto's west end and a children's playground on the east side are two of Carter's philanthropic legacies.

In total, Carter distributed $780,757 in grants and charitable donations in Canada while playing for the Raptors from 1999 to 2004, according to Ann Smith, the administrative assistant for Embassy of Hope.

Records filed with the Canada Revenue Agency show that in 2005, when Carter was winding his foundation down in this country after he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, the organization showed zero revenues, claimed charitable expenditures of slightly less than $200,000 and spent roughly $9,100 on administrative costs.

Although Carter is now gone, his philanthropic ideals to invest in the city's sporting infrastructure has been continued by Team Up, MLSE's fundraising umbrella for the organization's professional sports franchises – the Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL, Toronto FC of Major League Soccer and Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.

Since it was formed in 2009, Team Up has invested more than $4.5-million back into the community, including nine arena refurbishments in the Greater Toronto Area and a new $120,000 basketball facility at Variety Village.

Team Up has also funded improvements to two downtown Toronto soccer pitches and helped transform a basketball court at St. James Town, Canada's largest high-rise community, into a welcoming recreational gathering space for its 15,000 residents.

"This is going to be a $20-million charity in the foreseeable future," Tom Anselmi, MLSE executive vice-president and chief operating officer, said of Team Up.

Outfielder Vernon Wells was heavily involved in the Toronto Blue Jays Care Foundation, primarily through its Rookie League program which this past year provided equipment and baseball training to more than 800 children from 33 community housing neighbourhoods.

When Wells signed a seven-year, $126-million (U.S.) contract extension with the Jays in 2006, he pledged to give $1-million to charity and to date he has been making yearly donations that have so far totalled more than $500,000 in support to the program.

"You'd like to think with all the time you spent within a community doing charitable work that you were able to have an impact," said Wells, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels last December, after 12 seasons with the Blue Jays.

Other sports figures, such as Dion Phaneuf of the Maple Leafs, also contribute out of their own pocket with the team captain donating a luxury suite at the Air Canada Centre for all 41 home games this season to the city's Hospital for Sick Children. That's a personal expenditure worth roughly $200,000.

While charitable conglomerates such as Team Up have more resources at its disposal than individual athletes to fundraise, it comes at considerably more cost.

According to annual returns filed with the CRA, MLSE's four franchises raised $4.1-million in charitable donations in the fiscal year that ended in June of 2010. Of that total, about $2.2-million was dispersed through grants and programming. However, $1,574,553 – or 37.9 per cent of total revenues – was consumed in administration and fundraising costs.

"That's a pretty big haircut on the dollar," noted Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence Canada, a national, non-profit body that provides advice to the public on Canada's 86,000 registered charities.

Roughly 30 per cent of Carter's fundraising revenues were swallowed up by operating costs.

Bahen said most charitable organizations these days are spending about 35 cents on the dollar in operating expenses, which is more than double what it was about 10 years ago.

"The landscape is changing," Bahen said. "These aren't your old volunteer organizations, people out on the street selling apples or Girl Guide cookies. These are professionals. It is big business."

MSLE outgoing president Richard Peddie said annual golf tournaments and banquets are fundraising staples of many charities aligned with professional sports teams, and they aren't cheap to run.

"People aren't just going to hand over a cheque for $250,000," Peddie said. "You've got to run these kinds of events and that costs a lot of money."

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