Breslow calls for efficient spending by charities

Red Sox reliever defends athletes' efforts, hopes for maximum impact from funds

Breslow calls for efficient spending by charities

BOSTON -- The problem doesn't lie with the number. It's the identification and interpretation of the number.

Ultimately, a judgment must be made: Is the impact of time, money and effort contributed to improving the lives of people affected by cancer, autism, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy or any other life-altering health issues measurable by one number?

"We funded positions that the [Boston Children's Hospital] cut out of their budget," said Jason Oberle, the executive director of the Josh Beckett Foundation, which was under heavy scrutiny in a Feb. 23 Boston Globe article for not donating enough of its revenue to problematic causes. "We wanted someone to be there, a weekend child life specialist. That person acts as a family member and plays games with the children.

"We funded the position, and it was about $50,000 or $60,000 -- I don't remember exactly. The child life specialist stays there when parents are gone on the weekends and acts as a friend or secondary family member to these sick children, and that's a position they originally cut out of their budget. That wouldn't have been there."

The Josh Beckett Foundation has raised more than $600,000 for the Boston Children's Hospital since its inception in 2007, with funds primarily raised in the annual Beckett Bowl, known around Boston as one of the more entertaining and enjoyable charity events held by an athlete each year.

But Beckett, who spent six-plus years as a member of the Red Sox, leading them to a World Series championship in 2007, wasn't dispersing enough of the charity's revenue directly to the hospital, according to the Globe article, which immediately invoked confusion upon many professional athletes, perhaps none more than Red Sox reliever Craig Breslow.

The article, entitled, "In nonprofit game, many athletes post losing records," led with a picture of Beckett with a cancer patient and took little time before accusing Beckett's annual charity event of eating up "most of the funds," with 37 percent of the charity's revenue going to Boston's Children Hospital.

The overwhelming emotion that Breslow felt, and one that may appear obvious after reading, was ambiguity. While Beckett was once portrayed as a villain -- and his name is listed alongside Alex Rodriguez in the article -- further ambiguity left the imagination to fill in the holes: Could athletes be taking the money for personal use?

"I think 99 percent of the athletes who start charities are doing it for the right reasons," said Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster, whose daughter, Riley, suffers from 22q11.2 deletion syndrome and inspired the Dempster Family Foundation, a charity dedicated to raising awareness. "I don't see anybody out trying to make money off of a charity, even though it might come across that way [from reading the article]."

The number in dispute revolves around two figures: The total amount of revenue taken in by a charity each year, and the portion of that revenue that reaches the final donation target. While many charities, including Breslow's Strike 3 Foundation, strive to achieve the most efficient percentage possible, others place a greater importance on total impact made, or the total donation given, regardless of the percentage.

Breslow, a Yale graduate who was on the verge of going to medical school before his baseball career flourished, was so outraged by the thought that he wrote a letter to the Globe that was published six days later.

"Part of this point I'm trying to make is that as athletes, we have this ability to mobilize people," Breslow said in an interview with MLB.com in May. "And we have this ability to get them to go into their wallets when they otherwise wouldn't. The option is that you can go to the Beckett Bowl, you can go to Sip Happens [an annual Strike 3 event], and you can have a great night out and meet some of the Red Sox, and you can feel good because some portion of the money you spent is going to help somebody.

"Or you could go out to dinner at the Capital Grille and zero dollars are helping people. The other alternative is not to sit home and write a check to an organization which may donate a higher percentage of its revenue. Let's not lose sight of that.

"The $37,000 [of each $100,000 raised] Josh was able to give to Boston Children's was $37,000 that was not available. It's not $37,000 that instead would have gone to Dana-Farber or The Jimmy Fund. Someone is actively deciding that it's worth $100, or $200, to go to this bowling event and meet him. I promise their alternative is not to write a check to the Jimmy Fund for $200 because The Jimmy Fund does a better job of dispersing their funds. This is real money."

Breslow presented an example he once heard during a speech by the head of a major American organization.

"He was able to raise $180 million," Breslow said, "but he had to spend almost $60 million to raise that. Well, $180 million is a significant amount of money. And to me, that can invoke a significant amount of change, more so than a bake sale that can donate 100 percent of revenue but raises a total of $70. So if that's the only thing you look at -- percent of revenue -- you're leaving a lot for the audience to assume."

Kelly Shaffer, Breslow's fiancée who followed more than a decade of business experience by joining the Strike 3 Foundation as a full-time volunteer in charge of the business operations, believes certain fund-raising events work better for different charities.

While events like golf tournaments and the Beckett Bowl -- which will be taken over by Clay Buchholz this year in an attempt to continue the donations to the Boston Children's Hospital -- are expensive to run, they often produce great results.

For the right charity, they work. But because of their high costs, it's natural for the total percentage of funds dispersed to be low.

"The golf tournaments seem like one where there's transportation involved, getting people to fly in, and that's all expensive," Shaffer said. "And unless you're getting the course donated to you, we've struggled how to find that balance."

This is where networking enters the conversation. And it's almost exclusively why charities often struggle to produce high percentages of revenue dispersed in their first year of operation.

Planning an event, Shaffer says, requires a whole lot of networking. Even for a simple auction dinner, getting the wineries, chefs, catering, service employees and venue require substantial costs that can often be cut dramatically if a charity forms a bond with a vendor.

While Beckett was criticized for spending money to bring in country star Jason Aldean for a post-event concert, Aldean's service was acquired for about one-tenth of the cost he would normally charge, Oberle said.

And while most vendors set a certain amount of cash aside for charitable contributions each year, that money can be eaten up quickly if strong relationships haven't already been formed.

"We feel like when we do an event in the city that Craig is playing in, it's important to highlight the different places in that city where the funds will be distributed," Shaffer said. "It's a combination of that and working with companies who have good hearts. Some don't donate simply because they've allocated their charity dollars somewhere else.

"We've learned the types of things we have to do over time."

And that's another point Breslow is keen in making. These things take time.

In 2008, the first year of operation for Strike 3, the percentage of revenue donated was 21 percent.

"If the article were written in 2008, the bold headline would have been that Strike 3 lost," Breslow said. "We should have packed up our stuff and gone home. If you looked at the exact same charity in 2012 [when Strike 3 dispersed more than 90 percent of its revenue], we would have been one of the three that did it right.

"Same organization. The only difference? We're four years down the road.

"When it was founded, not only would it have been foolish, but it would have been impossible to donate 100 percent of our revenue. We have startup costs."

In five years, Strike 3 has donated more than $500,000 to Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, including a $50,000 research grant to Sarah Tasian, who is studying CRLF2-overexpressing acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer that approximately 20 percent of children will relapse and die from, according to Breslow.

Strike 3's percentage of revenue donated has fluctuated each year.

"It's an understanding that this is a sizeable commitment," said Breslow, who spends about 20 hours a week volunteering at his "part-time job" at Strike 3, which now has about 20 staff members, all on a volunteer basis. "We're now running a business that raises more than a million dollars. This isn't just an afternoon hobby. But we've come to the understanding that people want to help and they're serious about helping, as long as you empower them with some creative freedoms. And it's worked out really well for us."

Because of their salaries, athletes understand that there are heavy expectations to contribute to the community. They don't have to, though most do, in some way.

But generally, these aren't experienced businessmen. They aren't used to running million-dollar organizations. An efficiently-run charity isn't created overnight.

"For a lot of guys, this is their third job," said Dempster, who occasionally puts in 40-hour work weeks with his foundation, on top of his full-time job as a starting pitcher. "You're a father, you have a career and the foundation is really a third job. So it's being able to manage that as well and figure out the best way to do that."

"Guys will get criticized for not giving back," he said. "And the minute they give back, they don't give back enough."

Jason Mastrodonato is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @jmastrodonato. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.