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Originally published September 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 4, 2007 at 2:03 AM

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Teams give their shirts in name of charity

The closet sits right outside the office of Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke, the kind of place probably designed to hold office supplies. In a sense it...

Seattle Times staff reporters

The closet sits right outside the office of Seahawks CEO Tod Leiweke, the kind of place probably designed to hold office supplies. In a sense it does, considering this is a sports business.

The closet holds caps not copier paper, shirts instead of staples.

"You need something?" Leiweke jokes.

The closet is the most literal example that the city's pro sports franchises are ready to give. It's embedded in the corporate structure of the Seahawks, Sonics/Storm and the Mariners, who are targets for local charities seeking donations.

"It's in most fundraising manuals," says Joe Chard, who runs Mariners business and community relations. "Call your local sports teams."

Athletes are more mobile than teams. They can create charities in their hometowns or the cities where they play, and later move them. Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, says athletes are also generally closer to the people in need.

On the other hand, athletes aren't schooled in philanthropy and don't have the training of executive directors or community-relations folks.

The biggest difference, though, is power. Team foundations are generally larger than all but a few athlete charities. They are run by professionals. And they usually do more for their communities.

"Sports teams have such an amazing power in the community," says Lisa Willis, director of development for the SPP. "There's so much potential. And when it's done correctly, the power is huge."

The Sonics/Storm, Mariners and Seahawks all have foundations. They also have community-relations departments. There is a big difference between the two. Community relations are part of a team's overall business strategy, and while they do good work, they help teams take credit for what players and team do in the community.

Community relations include things like hospital visits, ticket-incentive programs, autographs and memorabilia, most accompanied by photo-ops and press releases. Foundations are more strategic, tackling one or multiple issues important to a particular team.

There are more touching differences, too. Like the e-mail Leiweke received last year.

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It said: "My son and I came to a game a year ago today. It was the last day he lived. And here's a picture."

The man attached a picture of himself and his son, with Leiweke and president of football operations Tim Ruskell.

Sometimes — like with appearances at schools and hospitals — it's easy for athletes to work in concert with their teams. But researchers at the University of Michigan, who are studying sports philanthropy, found that most NBA players and teams do not work together.

Other times, teams or athletes will donate to each other. Tax records show the Mariners donated to The Moyer Foundation (Chard says they purchased a lane at a bowling tournament); the Sonics donated to Ray Allen's foundation; and the Mariners donated to the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro's former team in Japan. Experts in philanthropy frown on donating back and forth, unless that donation is in line with the foundation's mission.

"Ultimately, anything positive a player does in the community is positive for us," says Rick DuPree, Sonics director of player resources. "The key is to get everything working together."

That kind of leverage provides optimum power.

"Seattle is one of the most notable philanthropic communities in our country," says Karen Bryant, Storm chief operating officer. "It's a crowded landscape. So it's trying to differentiate ourselves. What we have going for us, relative to some of the nonprofits in our community, is our athletes and the platform that sports provides as a means to speak to people with passion that sports, in such a unique way, can drive."

The NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball require a certain number of community appearances for players. But those who work in community relations or for team foundations have found players tied to specific causes are less likely to check their watches and roll their eyes.

The Mariners tell their players they can be most effective by narrowing the charities they work with to one or two they really care about.

Former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson told the team his wife used to be a teacher in Minnesota. So the M's hooked the Wilsons up with First Place School in Seattle, a relationship that still exists even though Wilson has retired.

"You find that passion," DuPree says, "and it will last forever."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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