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Golf Tournaments Can Be Record Fundraisers, but...

Excerpt from Going for the Green! An Insider's Guide to Raising Money with Charity Golf

Mark Twain once called golf "a good walk spoiled."

Twain's jibe at the sport of kings captures the love/hate relationship so many golfers have with their sport.

Charity golf tournaments often inspire the same conflicting emotions among the volunteers and organizers who host them. Yet, despite the work, the headaches, and the risk, golf tournaments are some of our most popular special event fundraisers. How can this be?

The answer's pretty simple really. While golf tournaments can be exhausting, time-consuming, and fraught with risk, they can be downright satisfying and profitable if done right. Ultimately, a golf tournament may be the hardest work you'll ever love.

Have you worked as one of the following?

  • Development director
  • PR director-fundraiser
  • Executive director-fundraiser
  • Program director-fundraiser
  • A volunteer-fundraiser
  • An anything else-fundraiser
If you've ever held one of these "hyphen" fundraiser jobs, you've probably encountered the charity golf tournament in one of the following incarnations:

  • You've inherited an annual tournament that's either dead or dying.
  • You've taken over a wildly successful annual tournament (equally terrifying).
  • You've been approached by a golfing board member who wants to put together a tournament.
  • You've been approached by a corporate type wanting to host a tournament: "We're looking for a charity to benefit," he tells you.
  • If you're really green at this, you may have seen all those other golf tournaments being held and rashly decided you "need" a tournament to go with the annual walk, the biannual garage sale, the Christmas campaign, and the autumn charity ball.
If any of those scenarios describes your situation, then, with apologies to the Prince of Denmark, the question becomes: To golf or not to golf?

Why Do a Golf Tournament? Not for Any of These Reasons!

I've heard lots of reasons for doing a golf tournament—some honest, some self-serving, some merely misguided. Here, I'd like to share with you seven bad reasons for choosing a golf tournament as your fundraiser.

None of this is made up. It all comes from my own experience working with tournament committees, board members, and nonprofit executives.
  • Bad Reason #1: An organizational budget crisis The very definition of a crisis is a problem needing  rapid intervention. Golf tournaments take six to eight months to organize. Not only that, but they require up-front capital. If you're already broke, a golf tournament isn't the road to quick riches.

  • Bad Reason #2: Because we've always done one Remember the question your mother used to pose: "If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?" Well, before you hurl yourself off the tournament precipice, make sure you have some hard numbers. Work up a budget showing expected income from sponsors, players, and sidebar events. Then deduct your estimated expenses. If it looks like the tournament won't pay off, terminate it before it's too late.

  • Bad Reason #3: Because a golf tournament will make our organization look classy This is like the proverbial fifty-something accountant who buys a sports car to help him cope with his mid-life crisis. Sometimes it works; other times it simply makes us look fat and old and silly.

  • Bad Reason #4: Someone else will do all the work for us (they promise) Companies will sometimes offer to organize a tournament for you. Be careful. Often the motivation is to make their company look polished (see Bad Reason #3) or to gather their clients to network (to say nothing of getting company execs some free golf). For you, it can be a lot of effort with little return, unless the company is willing to deploy resources and employees to do the work. If it becomes obvious they're going to be a "name only" contributor, it may be best to defer. At the very least stop and evaluate whether the company's association is worth anything in terms of attracting money for your cause.

  • Bad Reason #5: The board sees it as a better way to raise money Translation: The board doesn't want to ask their friends for money. They'd rather someone else take care of the resources problem ... namely you. Just because you can make money doesn't mean you're guaranteed to. Like any entertainment-based event, you're competing with others for the same audience, it's hard work, and glitches await you at every dogleg. Know that going in.

  • Bad Reason #6: Everybody likes golf and it'll be good for staff morale Yep! So what? Everyone likes cookies, too. So, why should they buy yours? Not every cookie company succeeds. Same with golf tournaments.

    A successful tournament can be a great morale booster, that's for sure. But like any two-edged sword it can also slice your staff and volunteers' spirits to ribbons if things go badly. The ensuing faultfinding and recriminations can be breathtaking to behold.

  • Bad Reason #7: You want to build your organization's reputation The hitch is that you want it to be a good reputation and, as we've seen, there are plenty of pitfalls that can actually impair your standing.
So, how could a little name recognition and a happy-time-had-by-all have any negatives? How indeed!? What follows are actual PR disasters suffered by organizations hosting golf tournaments. (Names and certain details have been changed to protect the innocent—as well as the guilty.)

  1. The Visitation of the Beer Fairy Media sponsors, seeking to be helpful, swipe the beverage cart and load it with beer. Meanwhile, the tournament chair has snatched the backup golf cart and taken it joyriding, stranding the soft drink crew.

    When two groups of teetotaling, arthritic church deacons reach into the ice buckets, they're left fruitlessly fishing for Dr. Pepper. These religious folk donate thousands each year to the organization in cash and volunteer labor. They angrily threaten to withdraw their support forever!

    To make matters even worse, four drunken oil executives are discovered on the 9th hole standing up to their knees in a water hazard trying to "chip out." Thankfully the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms overlooks the whole ugly incident.

  2. The mayor can't hold his liquor The mayor of a nearby city is master of ceremonies at the tournament dinner. He drinks too much and makes unfortunate, career-ending remarks in front of eager members of the news media. Ensuing coverage of the gaffe inextricably ties the charity to his politically incorrect comments. The story is repeated endlessly in the media for weeks.

  3. Meanwhile, back at the ranch A resident of a children's home loses it. He steals a big yellow school bus and leads police on a merry chase during rush hour, finally striking a row of spike strips and overturning. Guess what's the number one subject of conversation at the charity's tournament the following day?
So, rather than assume you'll receive nothing but positive PR, you need to ask yourself: Am I going to make enough money on this thing to make it worth the PR  risks?

Not one of these reasons is sufficient to put you and everyone else through the bloody business of organizing a golf tournament. I can't emphasize this enough: there's only one valid reason for holding a charity golf tournament, and that is ...

To make money and lots of it.

Tom King
© 2008, Tom King. Excerpted from Going for the Green! An Insider's Guide to Raising Money with Charity Golf. Excerpted with permission of Emerson & Church, Publishers.

Tom King has worked with nonprofit organizations for more than a quarter century as a teacher, recreation therapist, program director, executive director, PR director, development officer, workshop facilitator, media consultant, advocate, and organizer. A veteran charity golf tournament organizer, he has planned and directed a string of successful charity tournaments and special events. He is currently developing, a networking tool for volunteers, advocates, community leaders, staff, and organizers of faith and community-based agencies.
Topics: Fundraising Golf