PlayHard GiveBack: The Social Enterprise That’s Changing the Game
By Alison Klein | April 27, 2016
In ancient Greece, the Olympic ceremony was linked to the cult of Zeus and though athletes were [obviously] mortal, victory immortalized them. We don’t involve Zeus in today’s athletic festivities, but there’s still a sense of awe and admiration elicited by athletic accomplishment.
People like Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, and Pele do things that shatter our concept of possible. While their feats border superhuman, the exciting thing is their humanity: they’re just people like you and me.
Because they exhibit what we could be (in theory, anyway), they’re natural role models. We want to do what they do. Or at least try to. And so we wear our Jordans or rock our Brazilian fútbol jerseys or eat our favorite athletes’ pregame meals before Zumba class.
Spencer Brendel is no Michael Jordan (sorry Spencer!), but he spent his fair share of time in the limelight. He played hockey throughout his youth in Sun Valley, Idaho and enjoyed a solid hockey career, playing for a year in the Swedish Junior league and for four years at NCAA Division 3 US Saint Thomas College in Minnesota.
Throughout his youth, Spencer accompanied his grandparents on trips to developing nations where they carried out humanitarian work. As he grew older, Spencer became hyper-aware of how much time he spent developing himself into an elite hockey player and how it compared with the time he spent helping others.
The summer of his junior year in college, Spencer took a road trip with his dad and came up with PlayHard GiveBack: an initiative that would help athletes match their dedication to bettering themselves with a dedication to bettering the lives of others. Spencer applied for and won a Wild Gift Fellowship, a fellowship awarded to aspiring social entrepreneurs that provides funding and mentorship to help them take action.
It’s been four years since Spencer retreated into the wilderness with other social entrepreneurs to kick-start his project. It hasn’t been easy but the resilience and drive Spencer cultivated as an athlete have served him well in his quest to help those who play hard and give back. Here’s what he’s learned (Click To Tweet!).
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1. Never abandon your mission; know when to abandon your model
PlayHard GiveBack (PHGB) has undergone several changes since its start. As Spencer put it, “We like to fail fast and often here.”
Initially, Spencer wanted to help athletes fund their training and causes. He introduced a model where athletes could create and promote proprietary trail mixes to be sold in retail locations in their local communities. 20% of the profits would go to support their training, 20% would support a cause of their choice. They could promote the products to their fans and admirers to support their cause.
Spencer soon discovered the delightful challenge of scalability. Sourcing so many different ingredients and printing different bags with different pictures and different labels wasn’t scalable. So PHGB pivoted and offered three generic types of trail mix through a direct-to-consumer model. The goal was to take the retail profit margin and put it back into the athlete and the cause.
Even athletes that aren’t what you’d call “famous” have huge followings on social media and Spencer hoped that with the new model, they’d be able to promote the products through social channels to draw widespread attention. It was around this time that Spencer learned another good lesson: athletes aren’t salespeople. Most of the athletes working with PHGB were less comfortable promoting trail mix than launching themselves off 394 ft. ski jumps. Go figure.
At one point, PHGB even dabbled in helping young athletes raise money. Kids could sell the trail mix to raise funds for tournaments, equipment and other needs, all while learning the importance of eating healthy and giving back. Unfortunately, Spencer soon found that there were too many hoops to jump through, even for a guy with his agility. Between the coaches, parents, foundation and board approvals, the process was just too slow. It was failing, but it wasn’t fast.
Spencer pivoted the business again and stumbled upon PHGB’s newest approach – working with the hospitality industry. By working with upscale hotels, he’s secured consistent demand for his inventory. They use the trail mixes as complimentary gifts and stock them in minibars for their clientele to enjoy. Things are good, and this model is working.
2. Mission is how you connect with people
When people buy from PHGB, they’re very aware that they’re not buying into a product – they’re becoming part of a movement. Spencer finds that athletes actually want to sport PHGB apparel because they’re aware of what it means – “It’s different than wearing a T-Shirt with your favorite cereal on it.”
Spencer has had success inspiring athletes to give back by helping them take action around their values. Along the way, certain trends have emerged. The first is concern for the environment. Spencer works with a lot of athletes involved in lifestyle sports – surfing, skiing, snowboarding, triathlons and the like. These sports depend very clearly on the maintenance of the natural environment for their viability. You can’t ski when there’s no snow. No one wants to surf in an oil slick.
Motivated by their connection with the natural world, athletes have partnered with PHGB to give to organizations like Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund, The Climate Reality Project, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation and Protect Our Winters.
The second big trend is a focus on physical healing and wellbeing. According to Spencer, these initiatives resonate with athletes because “They’re taking huge risks on a day to day basis. Life-altering injuries are a potential reality for them so they’re very in touch with these causes.” Inspired by this reality, many of the athletes choose to support organizations that empower athletes like the High Fives Foundation, SheJumps, the Flyin Ryan Hawkes Foundation and Skiku.
Back when the model was a 50/50 split between athletes and causes, some athletes donated all of the proceeds to their cause. Today, some endorse a cause and leave it at that while others like Cody Barnhill volunteer time, donate their own money and really champion the organizations they’re supporting.
3. Don’t be afraid to take baby steps
If you look at the ingredients in PHGB’s trailmix, you’ll see a number of organic and Fair Trade ingredients. I asked Spencer whether that decision was motivated by a desire to fuel athletes or fuel change and he told me that it was a little bit of both.
Spencer stressed that as a millennial, he “recognizes the fact that the world is struggling and we need to do our own part.” Still, you won’t see a USDA Certified Organic label on the trail mix because all of the ingredients are not certified. Spencer wants to get there but right now, it’s cost prohibitive. He’s working to get to a place where that’s no longer the case.
In the mean time, he still insists upon creating a “clean product.” That means “No added preservatives: no extra salt, extra spice or anything like that. It’s natural. We just take the raw stuff and put it into a bag. People are so happy with it because it doesn’t have all of that extra junk.”
Spencer told me that he views sport as a unique medium for communication. “It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or anything else – sport generates a connectivity between people that not much else does.” It transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries to generate connection and admiration from others. By giving back, athletes can channel that admiration and make it a force for positive change.
“Champions keep playing until they get it right.” – Billie Jean King
Athletes are known for their tenacity, resilience and drive. They live by mantras like “Champions keep playing until they get it right” (Billie Jean King) and “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” (Wayne Gretzky).
That kind of unapologetic determination isn’t just good on the slopes and the court – it’s essential to those who want to create significant social change. The work Spencer does certainly sets an example for athletes who want to give back but it also sets an example for social entrepreneurs. Victory isn’t easy and failure is almost assured but his story proves that making change isn’t, as Vince Lombardi would say, about whether you get knocked down – it’s about whether you get up.
The Company Crush series spotlights companies using inventive business models to create positive change in the world. By sharing their stories, we hope to inspire more people to use business as a force for good.
*All images are courtesy of PlayHard GiveBack. Thanks for the hookup, Spencer!