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November 14, 2016

Philadelphia Union Foundation eyes 'larger initiatives' in 2017

Union Soccer
111416_Union_Kinkead Kevin Kinkead/PhillyVoice

Cocktails and Cleats" gala is a combination fundraiser and celebration for the Philadelphia Union Foundation.

This version of "Cocktails and Cleats" didn't seem to feature the glitz and glamour of past occasions.

Tables draped with sports memorabilia for silent auction were swapped out for a custom jersey printing station. The live auction did not feature grandiose trips to Africa or ultra-expensive luxury items. An annual award presentation was not included in the program.

Instead, this was a more tempered version of the yearly event that functions as a combined fundraiser and celebration for the Philadelphia Union Foundation.

But if pomp was lacking at Vie on North Broad Street (and that's not a bad thing), substance certainly was not.

Chairman Michael Curry opened the program, with color commentator Tommy Smyth assuming this year's auctioneer duties. The dinner hour was followed by a roundtable discussion with Sporting Director Earnie Stewart and head coach Jim Curtin, hosted by play-by-play announcer J.P. Dellacamera. Another auction round took place following the chat, this one featuring premier items such as training and lunch with a Union player, and a private session with the technical staff.

Like years past, this was a "who's who" of the local soccer community and its business partners.

This feels like "foundation 2.0", which is to say that the Union's charitable arm is going through the same evolution as the team itself, with infrastructure and organization now developed to a point allowing larger pursuits.

Among those is the creation of scholarship programs, and the construction of more mini soccer fields for local children. The first was built last fall at Stetser Elementary in Chester, as part of a league-wide program involving U.S. Soccer, MLS WORKS, Southern New Hampshire University, and Adidas. The goal of that original program was to build one mini pitch in each of the 20 communities where MLS teams are located.

From the beginning, the foundation has been involved with after-school and nutritional programs in Chester, such as "Soccer for Success" and Chester City United's efforts to support at-risk youth. The foundation is also involved with Philabundance and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

Involvement in those programs is the backbone of the foundation's charitable work.

Kevin Kinkead/PhillyVoice

Union play-by-play announcer J.P. Dellacamera hosted a roundtable discussion with head coach Jim Curtin and Sporting Director Earnie Stewart.

There are also a few changes in day-to-day foundation workings. Former Executive Director Rick Jacobs was let go in the front office transition that saw CEO and Operating Partner Nick Sakiewicz also depart last September. Community Affairs Manager Leah Moore and Community Relations Coordinator Nicolette Stoner now work hand-in-hand with the foundation's nine-person board of directors, with involvement from Union executives.

Just like a soccer team that now has professional practice fields and a brand new training center, the foundation has sound organization and now operates in a cohesive and fluid way.

I spoke with foundation chairman Mike Curry at the event.

PhillyVoice: Where is the Philadelphia Union Foundation in 2016?

Mike Curry: "So, 2016 was a great year. We learned to do a couple of things a little bit better. One is partnering with organizations who help us fulfill our mission. The three big ones are Philabundance, "Fare and Square", to help us with our goals to provide nutrition to kids in underserved areas. The other one is Big Brothers Big Sisters, and I'm proud to say that they just got some metrics back and majority of our (children) actually increased their grades by one grade level. That mentoring program is working really well. And the other one is "Safe Places to Play". We already have one mini-pitch, but we've been having discussions with U.S. Soccer, and ultimately through the Philadelphia Union Foundation, and the Union, and soccer partners within Philadelphia, we hope to move forward to help them with their initiative to build 1,000 mini pitches around the country. We want to carve out a small part of that for Philadelphia."

PhillyVoice: Last year, you talked about how behind-the-scenes foundation business really improved, from budgeting, to infrastructure, compliance, and just overall organization.

Curry: "Great memory, thank you for bringing that up. We're legal in every way. Our 990 (nonprofit tax form), our tax filings - the IRS loves us. We got a clean opinion from our auditors for the third consecutive year. All of the running of the foundation is working smoothly. I have my board members to thank for that, because they volunteer their time to help us with a lot of those legal, financial, and administrative matters. A lot of people don't realize, that in itself is a lot of pro-bono time that, if we had to pay for it, we probably couldn't afford it. We're well-run from that standpoint. We have committees now for programming and fundraising. Those committees have helped us organize around a budget that allows us to focus our energy and our resources. 2016 was a pivotal year for us, to say that we do that better."

PhillyVoice: Rick Jacobs mentioned, in 2013, that foundation proceeds were $45,000. In 2014 and 2015, net proceeds eclipsed $125,000. Is that dollar amount continuing to grow? Does it vary or reach a plateau?

Curry: "It varies. Each year it's kind of different. So, what happens is that we basically have three funding sources. We have grants, and we've been fortunate to get some pretty good ones. We have this event, Cocktails and Cleats, and then we have the 50/50 raffle. Those are the three biggest funding sources. (editor's note: the 50/50 raffle generates an average of $9,000 per Union home game, half of which goes to the foundation) Clearly, however – and let me say that I'm very happy with those – but to put on building 50 mini pitches, you're looking at maybe five or six million dollars to do that. Those types of efforts really involve 'friend-raising', and getting people to write some pretty big checks. We've evolved now to a point where these types of activities will remain, because they're fun, they help give us visibility, and help us celebrate, especially for people who support us. But the next phase will be going after some larger donors who can help us do some of these larger initiatives, like funding sources for building these mini pitches and scholarships for players at YSC and other ambitions and things we want to do."

PhillyVoice: Where do you begin with that?

Curry: "The first part is actually putting the program together and letting everybody know that we actually want to do that. Ironically, your question is a good one, because I'll be meeting with Union ownership in the next week to start kicking off those plans. We've had meetings with U.S. Soccer. We've had meetings with some of our sponsors. We're starting to lay the groundwork. The key is helping people to understand the value. The real testament to this is that, over in Chester, the first mini pitch that we put in, you go over there on any day, and what used to be an area where you had gang activity and all kinds of negative things going on, now you have kids playing and enjoying themselves." 

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