Defining Sports and Social Change: Sports as a Vehicle for Advocacy, Awareness and Fundraising

This post, last in a series of three, is by guest blogger Howard Brodwin of Sports and Social Change, a sports marketing firm focused on cause marketing, CSR and social enterprise development.

This is my final segment on “Defining Sports and Social Change” and here I’ll be shining a light where sports are used as a platform for advocacy, awareness and fundraising campaigns. This is the category most casual sports fans and active “weekend warriors” are familiar with, where we see sports as a central, unifying platform to rally an audience and raise awareness and/or funds around a particular cause.  

Probably the most common examples are the thousands of run/walks, marathons and endurance races that happen every year, raising funds and awareness around a myriad of diseases and critical social issues. Run/Walk/Ride events have proven to be effective fundraisers and are used by some of the largest nonprofits and cause programs in the world including American Cancer Society, National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Alzheimer’s Association.

Also falling into this category is a majority of the efforts we see in professional sports. The major pro sports leagues, teams and athletes are often central figures in campaigns and initiatives designed to bring fans together around a particular cause. The NFL Crucial Catch program, promoting Breast Cancer awareness during the month of October, and the NHL Hockey Fights Cancer program are good examples of this type of initiative, as are ongoing campaigns from many individual athlete foundations and team foundations.

The broadest of all the categories we’ve outlined, these advocacy, awareness and fundraising programs address all types of significant social, economic and environmental issues, and use a wide range of team sports, recreational sports, action sports, motor sports and more.

Some examples in this category include:

Environmental Issues 

Protect Our Winters (POW) was founded in 2007 by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones to engage and mobilize the winter sports community to lead the fight against climate change, with a focus on educational initiatives, activism and the support of community-based projects. POW is a community of proactive individuals, pro riders, resorts and corporations who share a commitment to protecting their lifestyle from climate change, and who are taking the lead in developing solutions. POW’s “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes” was created in partnership with The North Face and Alliance For Climate Education (ACE) and is targeted to high schools, leveraging the power of a pro athlete to inspire and motivate young kids about climate change.

Human Rights / Equality 

You Can Play is a social activism campaign dedicated to the eradication of homophobia in sports and is centered around the slogan, “If you can play, you can play.” You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation and works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.


Cycle for Survival is an indoor, team cycling fundraiser founded to build awareness and raise research funding for rare cancers (pancreatic cancer, sarcoma, cervical cancer, brain cancer, ALL pediatric cancers, and several others), which make up more than 50% of all cancers. An official Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center event, Cycle for Survival began with one event in New York in 2007 and is now a national, multi-city event, has raised over $31 million dollars, and funded 53 clinical trials & research studies. 100% of the money raised goes directly to research within 6 months.

Just to clarify, as with any sort of categorization there are surely going to be organizations that either do not fit one of the specific groups I’ve outlined, as well as ones that may straddle the line between several categories. In fact, the “hybrid models” can be quite effective, as they blend best practices from several sides of the table. Right To Play is one of those, providing sports programming for underserved communities around the world, often times in conflict zones and much of it with a development focus, while also working to advocate and raise awareness for many marginalized populations.

Looking ahead, one area that I’ll touch on in a future post will be the emerging Social Enterprise space, where companies and organizations are using business principles and revenue models to tackle social issues. Social Enterprise is still a very new concept in the sports industry, but we’re seeing more interest in the space and I look forward to highlighting some of these unique companies for you – game on!

To learn more about nonprofit organizations that may be a good partnership fit for your company, join us in Anaheim, CA on May 1st and 2nd for the Business4Better Conference and Expo where we will explore building better communities together. 


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