Health clubs aren't about just health, fitness, financial numbers and membership figures. Many club owners also feel the need to get involved in the communities they serve. That involvement offers two paybacks: betterment of the community and goodwill toward your club.

Clubs can get involved in the community through sponsorship of races, events or teams or through donating time or space to events and groups.

“From a business standpoint, [community sponsorships] put us in the position to be known as a business with a heart. Corporate responsibility,” says Debbie Lee, marketing director for Gainesville Health & Fitness Center in Gainesville, FL. “So we are thinking every month and quarter how we can continue to serve the non-profits and organizations in our community.”

Bally's has become involved in the communities it serves through its Be Fit program and through charities such as Toys for Tots, Make a Wish Foundation and the Today show toy drive. They also sponsor several events, including Revlon Walk of Life and the Susan B. Komen Breast Cancer Walk.

“It's about giving back to the community,” says Jon Harris, vice president of media development for Bally's. “It's important that we embed ourselves in the community and show ourselves to be a community player.”

That community involvement comes at a cost that's difficult to compute.

“A lot of things that we do are brand building,” he says. “To put a price tag on how much that's worth is impossible. What it does for us as far as brand building is beyond counting.”

If you want to get more involved in your community, take some pointers from the following suggestions.

  • Remember who is the star

    “At a charity event, the star is not Bally's,” says Harris. “It's the charity.” The club's staff needs to keep that in mind. The effort is about helping the charity and branding your club as one that cares about the community, not one that takes over the spotlight.

    Besides, the event will bring you the publicity you desire. When Gainesville Health & Fitness Center agreed to be the main sponsor for the American Heart Association in its fundraising effort this October, they knew it would cost a large sum of money, but they also knew it would draw a large amount of media coverage, which is often better than a paid commercial.

  • Find a charity or a cause about which you are passionate

    Working with a cause for whom you have a connection will make it personal and will spur your dedication to the group or charity.

    “You need to believe in it and need to be behind it,” says Harris. “If you are passionate about it, it will work.”

  • Be creative in community involvement

    With money tight these days, sponsorships don't necessarily — and can't necessarily — involve monetary donations all the time, especially for smaller clubs.

    “When I talk to people who own multimillion-dollar clubs, it depresses me that I can't give what they give [financially],” says Bonnie Pfeister, owner of Club Legends Fitness in Valdosta, GA. Instead of giving up, Pfeister got creative and started donating time instead of money. The club has a group of women called the Legends Girls that donate their time for charity fundraisers. They may pump gas for tips to raise money for the American Red Cross one week and team with the Hooter girls for a money-raising softball game the next week.

    “Money does talk, but when you are an owner and you are out there feeding people or having a garage sale for people, that does make a big impact,” Pfeister says. Besides, clubs limit what they can do for a charity by just cutting a check, she says.

    “You could do a check and do something else,” says Pfeister.

    Instead of paying with cash for sponsorships, Pfeister has been known to trade for a sponsorship. Club Legends sponsored a charity game between county and city officials. The event displayed banners with the club's name on it everywhere, but Pfeister never wrote a check for the event. Instead, she “paid” for the sponsorship by having the Legends Girls play the Hooter Girls in softball before the official game to help draw the crowd to the game.

    In addition, the new professional minor league baseball team in Valdosta approached Pfeister about sponsoring their team, but she didn't have the cash. Instead, she offered to make Club Legends the official gym for the players and cheerleaders. For the opening game, everyone who bought a ticket to the game received a free pass to the gym. The Legends Girls worked the booth to take the tickets, and the club gave away a one-year membership half way through the game. All it cost the club was the Legends Girls time.

  • Work with schools

    Gainesville Health & Fitness adopts a school in its community and makes equipment as well as cash donations to the school. In addition, the center offers a cash donation for a high school graduation party thrown by the school district in an effort to keep just-graduated seniors from drinking and driving to and from graduation parties.

  • Serve on boards

    Pfeister serves on the local board of the American Red Cross. She says that while club owners are busy people, their schedules often are more flexible than their staff members', which makes club owners the natural choice to serve on the board of a charity. That charity can then become the club's official charity, which benefits the club and the charity.

  • Be careful when sponsoring teams

    While sponsoring a Little League team or an adult softball team might sound like a good idea for advertising, be careful if you choose to go this route. You could run the risk of alienating some members if you sponsor one Little League team but not the Little League team of other members' children.

  • Watch for the down side

    Sponsoring an event often opens you up to requests for sponsorships from other groups.

    “Prioritizing,” says Harris. “There are so many great causes out there. With every company, you have to pick and choose which work and which don't. Unfortunately, we don't have an endless supply of money.”

    A club must designate funds at the beginning of the year for certain charities. Charities that approach a club that aren't on the list can be placed on the list for the next year or those charities can get the “creative” donations and sponsorships.

  • Wait for the payback

    If you sponsor a charity event or donate time to a cause, it doesn't generally offer a club immediate sales, but with repeated involvement in the community, people will associate the participating businesses with community dedication and responsibility.

    “The payback is terrific over time,” says Lee with Gainesville. “It's not like just one sponsorship will do it. It will take a while for that to accumulate. Over time, you get a great reputation for being a community-based business. That's what we were looking for — to become established in the community as a giving business.”

    The payback can be great in other ways as well. “Every time I've given away something, I've gotten something in return,” says Club Legends' Pfeister.

    For some clubs, getting involved with charities through sponsorships or other methods is nothing short of mandatory.

    “We believe that it is not an option for a business to be involved in a community,” says Lee. “It should be in your business plan every year — how you can assist the community. There are a few selfish purposes, but we feel that there are so many people out there that need help and we can help those people. It's not an option. It is a responsibility. There's always something we can give of ourselves.”

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