Baseball may place more emphasis on individual performance than any other team sport, but people who work in the game know the difference a group effort can make. Case in point: when Katie Batista saw an opportunity for the Greenville Drive to do some good through Minor League's Baseball CommUNITY First campaign, straightaway she roped more parties into the fundraiser.
“The first thing we did was bring in our partners in the community, which really helped broaden the awareness of what we were doing," said Batista, the director of sponsorship and community relations for the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
"We brought in Duke Energy, the Trehel Corporation and Spinx, who are sponsors of the Greenville Drive, but they’re also just great people to get involved in a campaign like this. Not only did they make donations but they worked with all their employees and fans and followers. They branched out to involve more people, and that allowed us to make much more of an impact across the board.”
So much of an impact did the teamwork make that the Drive led all of the Minors by raising $7,215 -- more than twice any other club -- during the month of May. CommUNITY First, which ran from April 28-May 31, encouraged Minor League teams across the nation to engage with their fans to raise money for local food banks and provide tickets to future games to those working directly to alleviate suffering caused by the COVID-19 crisis. For every $10 donation a team secured, it earmarked a ticket for a local "pandemic hero." Overall, 100 teams spread over 36 states participated and brought in $54,820, providing 548,200 meals to families in need through 67 Feeding America food banks.
"We explored some different options and different nonprofits, but we wanted to find a partner who had the greatest reach, like we do," Minor League Baseball director of community engagement Courtney Nehls said. "We have 160 teams and Feeding America has a food bank or affiliated food bank near all of our teams."
Minor League Baseball Charities launched the initiative with a donation to Feeding America's official COVID-19 Response Fund, which allocates resources wherever they're needed most in the widespread hardship caused by the pandemic. Funds raised by each team were distributed within that team's community. Nehls, who credited Minor League Baseball chief marketing and commercial officer David Wright with originating the basic idea for the initiative, was pleased that CommUNITY First contributed to both the COVID-19 Response Fund and the feeding of hungry families right in teams' backyards.
"We talked to clubs and we realized that if they were going to ask their fans to donate, they wanted that money to stay there in their community. And that makes sense," she said. "Feeding America is OK with however you want to distribute the money; the distribution is at your discretion. And people who donated were allowed to [specifically] donate to the COVID-19 Fund if they wanted."
The local community tie-in had the added benefit of allowing teams to stress their commitment to the cities and regions that keep them in business.
“This happening during a time when we weren’t playing but should have been gave some visibility and an awareness of our partners and what we do in the community,” Batista said. "Not knowing what was going to happen with baseball and everything else, it was great to have a rallying cry and also to make sure we weren’t forgotten. It gave us a chance to still talk about ourselves without being selfish. It was a way to make sure people remembered that we’re there.”
With that in mind, the Drive and their partners varied their messaging throughout the month, sometimes emphasizing the heightened need during the public health crisis, sometimes hammering that each donation meant a free night at the ballpark for a frontline worker after the crisis. When a local TV station did a segment about the fundraiser, the Drive made sure it included appearances by staff from Harvest Hope Food Bank, Greenville's Feeding America affiliate.
"It was constant messaging but with different messages for different audiences, and it was staggered,” Batista said.
Nehls sent updates all month, listing the 10 top fundraising teams. Those emails netted Batista congratulations from her coworkers and motivated the Drive to keep going. They also inspired the Fayetteville Woodpeckers (Class A Advanced affiliate of the Houston Astros) and their fans to push a little harder.
"Our fans are very competitive," said Victoria Huggins, manager of community and media relations and director of the Fayetteville Woodpeckers Fund, which contributed $1,000 to bump the team's total to $2,790. "If there’s any chance they’re going to be able to see Fayetteville No. 1 in anything, they’re going to give us all of their support. We’re so thankful for that because we’re very competitive, too."
The moment Huggins heard about CommUNITY First, she knew it would be a great fit for Fayetteville.
“Being the largest military installation in the world at Fort Bragg, we have a strong, tight-knit military community," she said. "I knew that if we presented the opportunity to our fans, who had already reached out asking, ‘How can we help?’ … They did. They blew us away."
The club incorporated a Mother's Day promotion into the fundraiser, offering customized messages from mascot Bunker to those who donated, and publicized the donation from their own foundation to spur others to give. Huggins noted that the Fayetteville Woodpeckers Fund was modeled after the Astros Foundation, with a goal of providing support for youth sports, military families and natural disaster relief.
"When the pandemic hit, our team considered that just as much of a natural disaster as any hurricane or tornado because of the profound impact COVID-19 is having on our community,” she said. “That [money is] going to Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina, not even a mile away from our stadium, and a few members of our staff have expressed interest in volunteering [there], too.”
Of course, the Woodpeckers already had a relationship with Second Harvest Food Bank of Southeast North Carolina as well as with Operation Inasmuch, a nonprofit focused on homelessness. And lots of teams already had extensive COVID-19 community support initiatives underway. The Albuquerque Isotopes, who raised the third-most CommUNITY First funds ($2,720) among participating teams, were neck-deep in their own multi-pronged QuarenTEAM Outreach project.
"We’ve always had a very good relationship with [Feeding America-affiliated] Roadrunner Food Bank, with player and front office appearances and food drives at the ballpark," said John Traub, vice president and general manager of the Rockies' Triple-A affiliate. "As a matter of fact, my wife volunteered at the food bank. We’ve had a relationship with them for a heck of a long time.”
Nehls and her coworkers at Minor League Baseball headquarters in Florida were mindful of those sorts of relationships and ongoing community outreach programs. In fact, they were a little worried about nudging Minors clubs to overextend themselves -- financially or in terms of workload -- even for a good cause during an unprecedented time of vanishing revenue and great need.
"I was surprised how many [teams] wrote and said, ‘Thanks for putting this together. It was so easy for us to do. It gives us another way to communicate to our fans and give back,’" Nehls said. "To be honest, part of me thought they were going to be mad for giving them more work, but instead I got a lot of thank yous.”
Batista pointed out that Minor League Baseball made it easy by creating the donation infrastructure and sharing customizable graphics. Traub saw it as an additional opportunity to help the Isotopes' community without interfering with their other efforts.
“This was a different type of campaign, motivating people to donate, getting the community involved, doing the match with certain tickets. It was a Minor League Baseball initiative, first and foremost, where they asked us to hook up with somebody local," he said.
“It was a natural one for us to get involved in, and that we were one of the top teams as far as community engagement, that’s awesome because it showed that our fans and our community [care about] what’s going on and what we’re doing.”
Traub admitted that although the Isotopes "didn't look at it as a competition, we do have a competitive nature about us, and there’s a competitive nature in the industry."
Nehls knew about that competitive nature, and she used it to help bring in funds.
“Many teams sent random emails asking me, ‘Where are we at now?’ and wanting updates on ‘the leaderboard,’ as I was calling it," she said. “We usually don’t want them to compare their efforts to each other for so many different reasons – they’re in so many different markets -- but we also know they can get really competitive.”
As far as Batista is concerned, that was part of what made the CommUNITY First campaign feel so good for Minor League club employees.
“I think with the lack of baseball, we all needed some sort of competition," she said, "and luckily, it did some good for the community at the same time.”
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @JoshJacksonMiLB.