Fund-raisers are on the ball

Charities: Cashing in on the increased popularity of golf, many groups now hold benefit tournaments.

July 08, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

When grieving parents Julie and Todd Ruprecht wanted to raise money to help other families cope with the financial and other needs of terminally ill children, they turned to one of Todd's favorite pastimes: golfing.

An occasional golfer, Todd Ruprecht had participated in several charity golf tournaments and knew that the popular American leisure activity is a lucrative source of funds for nonprofit organizations.

Kristin's Friends - named after the Ruprechts' daughter who died of brain cancer at age 8 in 1997 - is among the many organizations throughout Maryland that have tapped into golf tournaments to raise thousands of dollars. For many groups, a tournament is their best and only fund-raising event, eliminating the need to hold other fund-raisers during the year.

No one tracks how widespread charity tournaments are - local observers estimate that in metropolitan Baltimore two or three are held weekly during the summer - but a 1990 study counted about 35,000 fund-raising tournaments, raising more than $250 million, in the United States that year.

"If the truth be known, there are probably more than that," said Judy Thompson, media relations coordinator for the National Golf Foundation, which tracks statistics on the sport. "Those who enjoy playing in these tournaments like supporting a cause, but they are also doing something they love."

It's a win-win situation for everyone involved, it seems - the golf courses receive free publicity, the nonprofit groups raise money from sponsors and participants, and altruistic-minded golfers enjoy a day outdoors putting and driving - and often away from work.

Kristin's Friends, for instance, raised $50,000 in registration fees and silent auction bids in the spring during a charity tournament at Finksburg's popular River Downs Country Club. The money will be used to provide families with custodial care, laptop computers and handicapped-accessible swing sets.

A couple of factors contribute to the success of such tournaments, observers say. The number of golfers in the United States is on the rise - up 34 percent since 1986 to 26.7 million, according to the National Golf Foundation.

"More people are playing golf, thanks to the Tiger Woodses of the world who get more people into the golfing industry," said Bill A. Fullard, president of Long Island-based BF Golf Tournament Services, a company that helps companies coordinate tournaments.

Charity tournaments have been around for 30 years, but their popularity "has gained a lot of steam" during the past 10 years, he said. "The black-tie dinner is nice, but it's old hat," he said. "People get tired of that. People want to be outside and having fun."

The tournaments also are attractive to civic-minded and tax-conscious corporations, which can afford the hefty price tag: Up to $1,000 for a foursome and $250 for a single player. Tournaments also provide networking opportunities for corporations, which often provide not only sponsorship but participants - their employees.

Tournaments are popular with small groups as well as big charities such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.

"I thought it worthwhile to give it a try for the troop," said Brian Lipsky, organizer of a recent Westminster Boy Scout troop's golf tournament. "This turned into our biggest fund-raiser this year."

These aren't the tournaments at which you'll see the likes of Tiger Woods or Beth Daniel, but instead guys like Joe L. Canby of Reisterstown, who came out on a sunny but windy spring day for the Ruprechts' tournament.

In his polo shirt and shorts, he wore the uniform of choice on the green. He works for a company that assesses accident damage to vehicles, and was part of a late-starting foursome about 11 o'clock one morning at River Downs. His partners worked as insurance adjusters, and he joked, "It gives us a day where we're not fighting with each other."

Canby and his partners joined nearly 300 golfers that day who were similarly jovial, playing leisurely in a scramble format, which means everybody in a foursome tees off at each hole and then everybody plays from where the ball in the best position lands. Some shots skidded across the green like stones skipping across the water, others caught enough air time to soar into the woods adjacent to the fairway, and others were buried in the bunker.

"A bad day golfing is better than a good day working," said Tom D. Lekkas, an auto-parts salesman from Baltimore, who admired the picturesque course, with its rolling hills, woods and the feel of a country resort.

Overseeing a golf tournament is not without work, and those who succeed work hard at soliciting enough hole sponsorships, silent auction and giveaway items, food and T-shirts to make a profit after renting a course and paying for other overhead.

The Kristin's Friends tournament keeps Julie Ruprecht busy behind the scenes for about six months. The more donations she's able to solicit, the more money can go toward her causes, which include the Make-A-Wish Foundation. She scored a coup this year when local businesses donated all the food for the luncheon, saving her hundreds of dollars.

"Just about anything we ask for, the community steps up and comes back tenfold," she said.

Later this year, Ruprecht will be at it again. She knows there's a lot of competition among charities for donations, but, she said, "What's the world we live in if we have a ton of whales and no kids to see them?"

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