The sense of community and inclusiveness of pickleball has made it a popular fundraising tool for charities and nonprofits. It also brings people together in times of personal loss.
Monica Aguilar Hicks, a mother of three in southern California, discovered this following the passing of her husband Leo. After being diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia six years ago, Leo received a stem cell transplant. Following the procedure, he made a vow that he would raise awareness for the Be the Match bone marrow registry if he beat leukemia.
“We were devastated. But when they told us about Be the Match, it gave us so much hope for a second chance.”Monica Aguilar Hicks
Leo succumbed to the disease 14 months later, but Monica was determined to fulfill his promise. The question was how.
Paying It Forward
In December 2020, Aguilar Hicks went to a pickleball court and played against Mitra Sushinsky, a former tennis player who was born in Iran but has lived in the United States most of her life. Sushinsky beat Aguilar Hicks soundly, but the two became fast friends.
Sushinsky was intrigued by Aguilar Hicks’s story and her desire to honor her late husband. The two decided to launch Dink For Cause, a nonprofit focused on raising funds and awareness through pickleball tournaments.
Since 2022, the organization has hosted several tournaments and raised nearly $40,000. Best of all, 230 people signed up for the Be the Match bone marrow registry.
“That is important to us,” Sushinsky said. “If we can find one match out of those 230, that would be incredible.”
Charities of all types and sizes are picking up their paddles and hitting courts all over the country. Earlier this month, Big Brothers Big Sisters of New Hampshire held its third annual pickleball tournament fundraiser at the Exeter Recreation Center.
The event netted over $56,000, well above the intended goal of $50,000. Over 323 participants from 22 states and Canada came to play.
“This event is one of two (annual fundraisers), and it’s almost raising as much as our other event,” said Nicole McShane, vice president of philanthropy for BBBS New Hampshire. “It’s a top priority for us and it’s raising quite a bit of money.”
A Natural Fit
Why is pickleball becoming a go-to event for charity fundraisers? According to Joe Santoro, a certified referee and Pickleball Hall of Fame board member who assisted McShane with the BBBS event, people who have discretionary income are more willing to socialize and stay physically fit.
“Although there is a garage group of 19- and 20-year-olds who are playing, the people who tend to come out are those above the age of 50,” Santoro explained. “Between giving them a sport that they can easily accommodate and an opportunity to spend discretionary money that satisfies their overall objective, they’re more inclined to participate in pickleball than perhaps some other sport like badminton or baseball.”Joe Santoro, Pickleball Hall of Fame Board Member
Ruth Milligan, a strategy partner for Pickle and Chill, an Ohio-based group that hosts pickleball events for organizations including World Pickleball Tour, has organized causes similar to Aguilar Hicks’s. One involved a charity helping the family of a young man who died suddenly. The last thing he did before his death was play pickleball with his father.
“It helps the grieving process,” Milligan said. “People find joy and belonging. Because pickleball is something you can do together, even if you don’t know how to play, it falls in that category.”
Elements of a Successful Event
Sponsorships are crucial, according to Sushinsky. Dink For Cause has had the support of loyal sponsors including the Paseo Club, who donates the courts used for the tournaments. This has been especially helpful since renting courts can be quite expensive.
“There’s a limited amount of money you can make from a pickleball tournament because of time and courts,” Sushinsky explained. “But having sponsors does make a difference.”
Milligan advises charities to keep events simple and not try to do too much.
“People want to do silent auctions, raffles, tournament brackets… That’s not what this is for,” Milligan said. “Charity events are to come together for the specific purpose to support a cause that’s greater than yourself. Leave it at that.”
Willie Williams, head of the Kentucky-based organization Big Boyz of Pickleball, says every event needs a solid, dedicated team of organizers and volunteers.
“The struggle points I’ve seen is when you don’t have a good team that’s running the event, or everybody who’s trying to run the event is trying to play,” said Williams, who also serves on the board of Derby City Pickleball Club. “You create a lot of gaps that naturally wouldn’t be there.”
As more people take up pickleball, it stands to reason charities and nonprofits will continue to use it as a way to bring awareness to their cause. Aguilar Hicks offers advice that cuts to the heart of why the sport has become so popular.
“It’s a happy occasion; have fun,” she said.
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