Every industry, golf included, is required to keep tabs on its public image.
One way to get that process started is with some word association. If you try it with the dry cleaning industry, for example, you may get “groundwater pollution” as a response. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency has been treating abandoned dry cleaning businesses as Superfund sites for decades. No fewer than 20 scientific papers published by the EPA are devoted to remediation of toxic cleaning solvents.
Like any industry council that faces a reputation issue this serious, the Dry Cleaning Association (DCA) hasn’t been able to message its way smoothly past the problem. But the DCA does organize good-citizen programs with obvious public appeal, including a charitable program known as Coats for Kids.
The concept is so simple and logical it barely needs explanation, which makes it resonate with a wide audience: Dry cleaners come into contact with lots of coats, their customers can drop off their used coats easily, dry cleaning can make an older coat seem pretty much like new, and at-risk kids need coats to ward off winter chill—an unpleasant sensation most people know first-hand.
To be fair, dry cleaners likely would have launched this initiative had they been scot-free of reputation difficulties. The point is simply that good publicity and bad publicity weave their way through every industry—isn’t golf familiar with environment-related image problems?—and positive stories help counter any negative press that comes your way.
Is there a science to this? Some would say yes. At an organization called Charity Navigator, philanthropy expert Kevin Scally directs benevolent funds toward appropriate causes to effect outcomes of particular importance to donors. The clients he serves are individuals and foundations as opposed to industries, but Scally notices one important parallel between the two.
“There’s a very good argument for giving with your head as well as your heart, no matter who you are,” says Scally, whose title is Chief Relationship Officer. “Philanthropy starts with empathy, an important human emotion. Sooner or later it ought to be mixed with objective analysis, if your goal is to do the most good based on the resources available to you.”
An astounding number of non-profit, cause-driven organizations are studied and rated by Charity Navigator—200,000-plus. The services provided by Scally and his colleagues wouldn’t be in demand if aid organizations didn’t want to maximize and optimize their giving, based on thought-out goals. Meanwhile, since philanthropists and benevolent foundations seldom face public-relations challenges, it’s really an industry that would most want or need to bring analytics to its humanitarian activity.
In the corporate world, charitable giving long ago elevated itself past the “pet cause” level, professionalizing it under the discipline of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR—plus its offshoot, “cause marketing.” A recent article in Forbes by branding strategist Nikki Carlson dug into the nuances of both, with a focus on how they affect the attitudes and purchasing patterns of younger demographics.
“Philanthropy increases brand loyalty when you practice it genuinely,” Carlson believes. “Giving back increases engagement by sharing a mission and a purpose with your customer base.”
It’s worth pausing right there, because an industry like golf can have a legacy customer base that it engages effectively and at the same time recognize that this cohort skews older and whiter than what might be best for the long term.
Examining the mindset of Millennials and GenZ, Carlson says they “grew up in a world that encouraged social good.” Reinforcing that statement is a 10-year Case Foundation study of Millennial attitudes. It finds that racial equality and better access to education and employment across social strata are high-priority causes for this demographic (which is currently the largest segment of the U.S. workforce).
The golf industry supports and pursues those same priorities through national initiatives like First Tee and— locally in South Dallas—the I Am a Golfer Foundation, which is headed by Ira Molayo and Dave Ridley at Cedar Crest Golf Course. Acclimating at-risk youth to a well-ordered, healthy environment and teaching values like workplace discipline and caring for customers is central to these efforts, so indeed they do fit the belief systems and good-cause passions of younger Americans. The question would tend to be one of awareness—in other words, how well this type of golf story is told.
The gold standard in golf for powerful story-telling about humanitarian causes belongs to the cluster of initiatives supporting veterans and active-duty military in need of rehabilitative care. Rich Katz, founder and CEO of the Virginia-based consulting firm Katz Strategy, works with one of them, On Course Foundation USA.
“The stories of recovery that come out of golf’s work with vets in need will bring tears to your eyes—they’re that powerful emotionally,” says Katz, a veteran of countless public-awareness campaigns through his long career in golf-related PR.
Katz’s top-line thoughts regarding the public image of golf and the golf business range across a handful of topics. These include two misconceptions—that golfers are wealthy old white males playing at member-only enclaves and, similarly, that golf course maintenance is greatly at odds with environmental sustainability.
“We’ve been able to chip away at both these public beliefs, and we’ve got great stories to tell on each, but they haven’t yet made it out there to the extent they should,” Katz asserts.
On the plus side, Katz applauds the industry for its consistent and powerfully expressed messages about unremitting support for military personnel and their recovery-related needs. Additionally he feels that what PGA Tour events generate for charities, week after week, also lands in the public consciousness.
“That drumbeat is substantial and effective,” Katz says, “although I feel it needs to be amplified somehow, especially with the LIV Golf phenomenon, which has the effect of getting some people to think our best professional golfers are all about the money.”
The work of PGA HOPE, Folds of Honor, On Course Foundation USA and others didn’t spring from any centralized study group or committee charged with strategizing around reputational goals for the industry generally. It was an organic process led by Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooney, a Class A PGA professional and a decorated F-16 fighter pilot. If Rooney’s inspiration to spearhead this cause, and the human success stories that flow from it, don’t show the golf community at its give-something-back best, it would be hard to imagine what does.
The stats on PGA HOPE alone are robust. In 2021, the program positively impacted 4,500 veterans, with a 2022 goal of 7,500 served. It’s the only adaptive golf program that has an official memorandum of understanding with the Department of Veterans Affairs. This enables VA facilities to refer veterans to the program as an approved form of therapy.
So if there actually were a centralized committee charged with pooling industry resources and creating a blueprint for image-building through good works, its logical next step might be the creation of something as impactful and persuasive as what Folds of Honor initiated. And if it operated on the basis of give-with-your-head-as-well-as-your-heart, it would think about causes that align with younger demographics in ways the work with military personnel may not.
“There are all sorts of reasons why a particular cause means more to one caring person than it means to another caring person,” Kevin Scally points out. Looking at that 10-year Case Foundation study, which interviewed 150,000 Americans born in the 1980s and ‘90s, and stacked up a list of imperatives, one doesn’t see mention of rehab for service people. “Does it come down to having greater affinity for that cause because you served in the military yourself, or a parent served?” Scally speculates. “You’d have to research something like that to find out.”
Karen Moraghan, one of this industry’s most accomplished opinion-influencers, is president of California-based Hunter Public Relations and a member of the board of directors of a unique charitable organization called ClubsHelp—in some ways it’s a Charity Navigator exclusively for networks of private golf clubs.
“The beauty of ClubsHelp and how it operates is to empower clubs, at the local level, to select and support the charities that are most in need in their local communities,” explains Moraghan, describing what sounds like a research-and-vetting process. “Whether it be for a local pediatric cancer organization or youth golf program, funds can be raised and directed accordingly—this helps motivate and encourage support—including event participation—within a club community.”
The crisis of Covid 19’s onset produced the jolt of energy and urgency out of which ClubsHelp was created. Moraghan’s perspective on good works within golf links the pandemic with a shift toward the basic human needs mentioned in that Case Foundation research.
“The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Monterey Peninsula Foundation shifted its mission in light of COVID,” she says. “They segued from arts and culture to more people-centric life priorities, such as food insecurity, healthcare and the like.”
In philanthropy, as in other walks of life, you sometimes will encounter the proverbial idea-whose-time-has-come. A charitable initiative can gather momentum just like a political movement or an artistic genre or even a style of cooking. Which ones do and which don’t is partly determined by the bandwidth factor: How many different causes can come to the fore of public consciousness, and how much oxygen is left for all the rest?
Several years ago an opinion column appeared in the medical journal StatNews discussing the ubiquitous success of breast cancer research philanthropy, pointing out that research to find cures for other forms of cancer goes comparatively lightly funded. The title of the article was “Overshadowed by Pink: Breast Cancer is Important, But So Are Other Cancers,” written by a colorectal cancer sufferer, Tamlyn Oliver.
It’s worth pausing to remember how much work—lots of it unpaid—goes into setup and continuation of charitable work. When there’s a choice of this cause or that other one, it’s natural to want to be part of something a lot of other people get behind.
“To try and direct charitable resources toward something new and untested may mean facing an uphill battle,” says Katz. “It’s a factor that might lean you toward sticking with what works.”
He flips the script, however, when asked whether golf is ready to broadly support something more in tune with Millennial-GenZ concerns, for example, The Trevor Project, which is aimed at preventing suicide and generally averting trauma suffered by LGBTQ+ teens. Going in that direction, Katz reasons, would mean starting at the same place of “empathy about hidden wounds” that helped get Folds of Honor started. “It could be a matter of just one person stepping forward for a cause like that,” he muses. “Bring it on, I say.”
The hearts-and-minds challenge the golf industry has long faced will only get tougher as climate change brings ever-greater threats and disruptions to daily life. The intense effort the industry makes to mitigate its role in water usage is one of those positive stories that Katz has said needs a stronger telling.
Publicizing the USGA effort alone seemingly would have to alter the mainstream narrative. The USGA just committed $30 million over the next 15 years to further reduce golf’s use of water by 45 percent. It spearheaded the activity that dropped golf’s use of applied water by 29 percent from 2005 to 2020, with two-thirds of that amount directly attributed to advances in water efficiency. More than 40 new turfgrass strains have been developed by USGA-funded scientists, many of which use less water and tolerate irrigation by poorer-quality water. On that note, the amount of golf acreage irrigated by recycled water is far greater than what most people would ever guess.
Climate change is tightly associated with water scarcity but it’s also a widely known factor in destructive flooding. Golf property—all those permeable acres and all those retention ponds—is part of the floodwater solution, not part of that problem.
Good publicity and bad publicity, as noted above, weave their way through every industry. Some of the good-citizen stuff will have to be generated by strong statements of fact. Some of it, the experts point out, has to have a powerful emotional component. As the years roll on, the audience for good-citizen storytelling inevitably changes – which logically means the messaging should, for greatest impact, change with it.