Careers in Nonprofit Sports Organizations

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By: Greg Santore, Witt/Kieffer

Many people who want to work in the sports industry begin their careers by targeting high-profile employers — leagues like the NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL, or the dozens of teams that are part of them, or the marketing, PR, and apparel firms that support them. Only later in their careers do these individuals come to learn that the sports industry is incredibly varied and that careers go well beyond the obvious. This includes the not-for-profit side of the business.

For every league, team, or corporation, there are just as many related foundations, associations, and charities. NBA Cares, The First Tee, NASCAR Foundation, and the Philadelphia Eagles Youth Partnership are just a few examples. Professional athletes from LeBron James to Jordan Spieth have their own foundations which need passionate, sports-oriented leadership and expertise. Governing bodies and federations like the U.S. Olympic Committee or U.S. Tennis Association are great career options. Special Olympics has dozens of chapters in the U.S. alone, and hundreds internationally. In addition, most colleges and universities have alumni association foundations and sports-related charities that need good talent.

Sports-related nonprofits provide professionals with opportunities to work in a field they feel passionate about and still be close to athletics and sports leaders. For new graduates or young professionals, the way to get a foot in the door is often through volunteering or part-time involvement. The key is to remember what these opportunities can do to launch or advance one’s career.

What I see today in the sports executive recruiting work that I do is a demand for professionals who have broad resumes and have worked for diverse organizations, for-profit and nonprofit. Many skills and specializations such as marketing, technology, and finance are transferable across the board. Those who get to see the industry from different perspectives ultimately create more value for themselves and build stronger, lasting careers. This is particularly true as for-profit companies and nonprofits increasingly collaborate on long-term partnerships and community initiatives.

Career Skills

The expectations of today’s sports foundations and other nonprofits are much more rigorous than in the past. Some of the key qualifications that they look for in candidates include:

· Mission orientation. As always, nonprofits want employees who are aligned with their missions. They want individuals who are bent on making a difference in the world and doing it through sports.

· Fundraising skills. Competition for donations and corporate support and partnerships is as fierce as ever, and so nonprofit executives must have a knack for contacting donors, generating funds, and building collaborations. These individuals tend to be exceptional communicators and relationship-builders who enjoy engaging with potential contributors and partners and getting them on board with the mission and importance of the organization.

· Creativity. Related to the above, nonprofit sports leaders need the ability to think creatively and outside the box about growing their organizations and expanding their impact. Well-known campaigns such as the Ice Bucket Challenge for the ALS Association and head-shaving events for St. Baldrick’s Foundation show the imagination that executives in the nonprofit sector have cultivated.

· Vision for sustainability. The challenge for foundation leaders is to build a successful organization that can sustain itself over many years, through changing economic cycles and ebbs and flows of a given sport, team, or spokesperson. Nonprofits are looking for leaders who see the big picture and know how to strategize and plan for long-term growth and stability.

Nonprofits offer those who want to work in sports or sports-related professions a chance to make a difference and build careers all the way up to the executive and CEO level. These organizations may not be professional leagues or teams but they require highly talented individuals just the same.

About the Author

Greg Santore, principal and managing director of the Sports Leadership practice for the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer, has worked extensively with colleges, universities, governing bodies and nonprofit organizations to identify and place exceptional sports leaders.