Dugout Raising

Can’t afford the facility your program needs? The solution may be to collaborate with your community to harness the resources for turning your field of dreams into reality.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway is the Head Baseball Coach at Black Hills High School in Tumwater, Wash., and former Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School.

Coaching Management, 12.7, September 2004, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1207/dugoutraising.htm

If there is one essential element of a successful baseball program, it is a sound facility. A safe and attractive field is not only a place to practice and compete, but a rallying point and source of pride for players, coaches, parents, fans, and the community.

But such a facility takes money, and in this era of tight budgets, that’s not a given. Upgrading a field, let alone starting from scratch, can seem an impossible task for a coach.

The solution is to make your facility a community project. Communities seem to always need athletic facilities for school sports and youth and adult recreational programs. It’s possible to use that demand to share the burden and create win-win situations for groups otherwise at odds. Action comes out of collaboration. Think of demand as a way to leverage assets, whether they’re materials, money, or manpower. If you ask the right people the right way, you’ll more often than not get what you need.

At Anacortes (Wash.) High, where I used to coach, we wanted an aesthetic wooden fence for the baseball field. We asked a contractor to help with plans, but would use volunteers for the work. After providing a materials list and plans, the contractor offered to have his workers do the installation. He wanted to make sure it would look good when finished, and it was his way to give something very visible back to the community. The attractive new fence inspired others to get involved in later improvements. The lesson is that people and businesses usually exceed your expectations, especially when your reason for asking is community pride and to help the kids. A lot of mistakes are made by simply not asking.

It’s not easy. But I’ve found that after a period of frustration, people will decide to act because they’re shown community needs or a clear plan of positive improvement. Donors come forward. Volunteers join in.

In Anacortes, we used private donations as seed money to leverage free or at-cost materials, professional expertise, and volunteer manpower to build our field of dreams. The result is a facility rated among the top 10 scholastic baseball fields in the state of Washington.

Plan of Attack
When I became the Head Baseball Coach at Anacortesl, I was quoted in the local newspaper saying that I wanted to build a baseball field the whole community could use and be proud of. The next thing I knew, a wealthy donor contacted me with a pledge to help. What attracted the donor, I believe, was that I had stated a community need and a desire to meet it. That is the first step in forming a plan.

A detailed plan is essential. While you will inevitably need to refine it and shift your strategy as circumstances dictate, it pays to outline the process into these five parts: stating the need, identifying leadership, taking input, establishing priorities, and writing a timeline.

Use facts and figures to show why more facilities are needed. In Anacortes, the need was simply a field the school and community could be proud of and that would meet the scheduling demands of the youth sports groups for practice and playing facilities. The need evolved as other organizations joined the effort, but my program’s original statement started the process.

Who will lead the project? The supporting cast should be wide and varied, but someone with organizational and leadership skills has to coordinate the multitude of things that have to happen. I was able to devote time to the project, but many other coaches may not be so fortunate, or they may lack the skills needed to spearhead the effort. In that case, should the leader be an athletic director, a school administrator, the president of a booster club or youth organization, or a community political leader? One option might be for the head coach to get the project started, then turn it over to someone better situated to carry it to completion.

What’s needed in leadership is someone who knows when to push and when to be patient. He or she must have time to devote to the project, the ability to stay with it to completion, attention to detail, and the willingness to delegate so that as many people as possible can share in the ultimate success.

The next step is to identify the permits required by the appropriate authorities. You’ll have to go through government channels. Tell elected leaders that they’ll be welcome to stand in front at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and any other opportunities for recognition that might arise as long as they help avoid the obstacles.

Officials and civil servants are more likely to join if you can show them how your plan meets their needs. For example, local governments are often required under certain federal and state programs to provide a specified amount of public recreational space. A plan that shows how your project can fulfill this obligation makes it easy for officials to support you.

Establish ways for anyone involved, or who would like to become involved, to have input. This will build support and helps present a united and positive front. There is power in numbers.

Who should you consult? It’s imperative that professional contractors be tapped early to head-off problems. These include professionals who deal with site and soil evaluation, heavy equipment operators, lumber yards, fencing companies, and landscapers. Some might donate expertise. In addition, government agencies must be given an opportunity to analyze the plans to see that all current building codes, land-use regulations, and environmental laws are followed. Asking for their input before plans are finalized can avoid big headaches after the fact.

As with any complex undertaking, some tasks take precedence. The number one priority is to construct—as soon as possible—a playable, safe field. This enables the facility to be used, which in turn generates further enthusiasm and confidence. Amenities and upgrades can come later.

Similarly, the final part of your plan, the timeline, will help keep things on track and maintain enthusiasm. This should contain a detailed list of work to be done, who will do what, the materials that must be obtained at certain junctures, projected completion dates of each phase, the names of the workers and providers involved, and a catch-up window if things should fall behind.

Keeping everyone posted is imperative. I suggest a Web site. Update it frequently—every two days if you are able—and include pictures of as many contractors and workers as possible as it progresses.

Finally, establish a tax-exempt organization under Section 501 of the federal tax code. If a local government is involved, it may already have a process in place for receiving tax-exempt donations. A little inquiry into the mechanics can save a lot of jumping through hoops later and be a determining factor in whether certain business people get involved in an enthusiastic way.

Selling Involvement
If you have a good plan and present it positively, people will usually want to take part. The trick is to think up good leads. Don’t be hesitant to ask, and don’t take being told “no” personally.

The most obvious source is the parents of kids who’ll use the facility—both immediately and in years to come. But don’t stop at your own program. Call every baseball team in town. You may find that the local Babe Ruth League needs more field time. We learned that by adding lights—the high school team played all our games in the afternoons—the youth leagues could finish three games a day at the height of their season, and would be happy to join.

With imagination and design know-how, you could share the facility with other-season activities. Soccer and football programs need only a wide, leveled field—you instantly have two more groups on your side.

Another key tactic is to find out where your students’ parents work and what kind of organizations they belong to. Their employers may be willing to help directly or through their connections. Some companies can’t give materials but could provide supplies at cost or approach their suppliers for donations or price breaks. It’s worth asking. Remember, it’s for the kids.

Many parents may be in organizations—Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary, for example—that provide community service as part of their charters. They are often well-connected, experienced people who can get things done.

When we sought additional amenities for our multiple-use baseball park, I asked a service club if they needed a community project. We presented our proposal, and the club agreed to take charge of completing the upgrade. In their organization was an architect and some city employees. I gave them the measurements and other information, and in return I received a materials list and bought the materials needed to complete the job at a very favorable price. The project took three weekends, and along the way I took pictures the club could use at its state convention to show its community involvement. It was truly a win-win situation for everyone.

Another source of help is labor organizations. The local electricians’ union worked for us one day a month, with volunteers helping pull wire for them. We were even able to obtain some used lighting fixtures when a local supermarket remodeled.

You can even turn the inevitable negativity to your advantage. When some parents objected to having to use portable toilets at the field, we told them we couldn’t afford to connect to the sewer system. They got on it and raised the money, and we built bathrooms. Never underestimate the power and influence of people.

Individuals and groups have many things to offer, and sometimes just by asking, you’ll uncover key resources. One lead will lead to another. The key is to create enthusiasm and the attitude that things can happen. A lot of people and organizations will sit back at first, but once they see things happen and people start to talk, the sky is the limit.