Giving back is the game plan for Caps and Griffs

October 14, 2011
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In addition to both franchises having their primary affiliates in Detroit, the two corporate entities that own and operate the city's professional sports teams also share a similar insight into philanthropy.

Both the Grand Rapids Griffins and West Michigan Whitecaps strongly believe that true generosity is measured by more than the dollars they raise — despite the fact that both have raised loads of greenbacks for schools, nonprofits and their respective key charities since they've filled the city's craving for top-notch sports entertainment.

"From the way we look at it, philanthropy is a lot more than just money. More than anything, it has to do with our participation in the community — in big ways, of course, and in all the little ways, as well. Our philosophy toward philanthropy is that it has a lot to do with volunteer time and the other kinds of initiatives we make in the community," said Lew Chamberlin, managing partner, CEO, and co-owner of the Whitecaps.

"We have a program set up where every member of our front office is granted a paid week off so they can devote that time to volunteering for the charity of their choice. So in a sense, I guess those are dollars that we're donating to the community. But I think the more important thing is the time and energy that our staff is devoting to the community. And, obviously, the same thing can be said for all the initiatives the players take part in, in terms of visiting schools and DeVos Children's Hospital," he added. "It all adds up. You may not be able to put a price tag on it, but it certainly is a part of what we consider as philanthropy."

The philanthropic values the Whitecaps have embraced also are held closely by the Griffins.

"We take a tremendous amount of pride in all that we do in the community. It's great that we raise a lot of money and I guess, at the end of the day, that is the most important thing. But there are a lot of other things that we do, including creating awareness of various causes in West Michigan. I think we do a pretty good job at that," said Bob Kaser, who is in his 12th year as vice president of community relations and broadcasting for the Griffins.

"We also do a lot of volunteering — like building houses for Habitat, serving food at the missions, visiting kids in hospitals, assisting with bagging lunches for Kids Food Basket — and we use our staff, players and coaches to do all those things," he added. "We're so lucky to work with hockey players. With all due respect to other athletes, I don't think there is another sport where the players are as committed to giving back as hockey players are. They want to be involved in the community."

Although Chamberlin and his entrepreneurial partner, Dennis Baxter, started the Whitecaps in 1994, they actually laid out the franchise's philanthropic thinking almost a decade earlier.

"When Denny and I sat down and started talking about what our vision was for minor league baseball in West Michigan way back in 1986, we realized that we had a common vision, and part of that vision was that the Whitecaps would actually become a fabric of the community, that we become a brand in the community, that we become a tradition in the community," said Chamberlin.

"One of the primary ways you achieve that is by giving back to the community that supports you so well. So it really has been part of our strategic vision from the very beginning. It just makes sense. It's good for the community. It's good for the nonprofits. And, hopefully, it's good for our business, too."

Like the Whitecaps, the Griffins' philanthropic directive started at the top. The franchise is owned by Dan and Pamella DeVos and David Van Andel, who are well known throughout the region for their personal philanthropy outside of the team's successful efforts and its Youth Hockey Foundation.

"We owe it to them to honor their names and their contributions and do the exact same thing here with the Griffins," said Kaser.

As for the money, the combined franchises have raised more than $2 million for worthy causes in just the past five years. The Whitecaps have donated about $600,000 during that timeframe, while the Griffins have contributed an estimated $1.5 million to charities over that period.

"I think it's a pretty impressive number. Would we like it to be more? Yes, absolutely," said Kaser of the team's total. "If there was a way that we could reach out and help every great cause in West Michigan, we would certainly do it. But, obviously, we're limited in time and resources. But I think, given the fact that we're not an overly large organization, we have to be pretty pleased by those numbers."

To put the Griffins' charitable cash results under a more revealing light, the local franchise has raised about 10 percent of all the funds raised by the American Hockey League in recent years. The league, which grew from 29 to 30 teams this year, has annually accounted for roughly $3 million in charitable donations over the past five seasons, and the Griffins have consistently topped $300,000 in each of those seasons.

The Whitecaps raise money for charities in a variety of ways that range from hosting its annual winter banquet, to letting groups set up tables and booths on the Fifth Third concourse, to partnering with nonprofits on 50-50 raffles, to donating tickets, suites and team merchandise for charity giveaways and auctions, to making straight cash contributions to worthy causes.

"We try to be pretty focused on that. As you know, the primary beneficiary of our philanthropy is the Inner City Youth Baseball Program we do with the Y. So that gets the lion's share of the money, but we certainly financially support other organizations, as well. We tend to sort of focus on families and kids when we can and when we're talking about cash support," said Chamberlin.

"We try to help out almost everybody who makes a request, at least in some small way. All that we ask is that they are a 501(c)(3) and we'll try to provide at least some kind of support for almost everybody," he added. "So it is community wide and it holds with our philosophy that philanthropy has as much to do with participation in the community as it does with the actual money," he said.

Chamberlin and Kaser said their respective teams' charitable endeavors have been nicely enhanced by area businesses that have come on board with them in those efforts. Firms such as Centennial Securities and Dean Foods, just to name two, have been consistent corporate partners.

"We have a trophy that we give to our community player of the year. That trophy has the Dean Foods and Centennial Securities logos on it. They both sponsor the community player of the year, and that player gets a check from those companies," said Kaser.

Not surprisingly, Chamberlin told the Business Journal that the Whitecaps will definitely get back on its philanthropic journey in April when the season opens. "Yes, that is an effort that is never ending and it will continue," he said.

All of the fundraising events the Griffins have held in past years are on this year's schedule, the home portion of which began last Friday.

"All of them are back. They're all so successful that there is no way we would eliminate any of those," said Kaser, who credited the team's staff for the achievements of the franchise.

"Not only are we keeping most of everything that we've been doing, but we're always looking at ways to add to our list of programs and initiatives that we are rolling out. And we'll be busy and active in the community again this season."

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