Jim is a diehard auto racing fan and a regular at the local Tucson, Ariz., racetrack. A veteran of a life filled with alcohol, drugs and poor choices that started at age 12, he s become one of the biggest cheerleaders of an innovative youth racing program created by Dave Larson, a retired officer with the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department (SPD). Jim realizes if he had been exposed to the positive social messages portrayed by Larson s racing team, and its main sponsor, SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), he may have chosen a different path.
Larson realizes this too. As a former officer with more than 20 years of experience with the SPD, 12 of which supervising the DUI squad, he knows the consequences of bad decisions made behind the wheel all too well. So when he decided to align his passion for auto racing with an important social message, it was only natural for Larson to work with organizations that could benefit from his expertise. Larson found his allies through established relationships with SADD and its Zero Nada None under-21 alcohol prevention program, as well as the Arizona Governor s Office of Highway Safety (AGOHS). The result: With the #21-Zero-Nada-None-sponsored NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series Late Model racing team making more than 50 racing and community appearances in 2007, the program has been wildly successful at delivering vital safety messages to combat underage teen drinking.
The challenge: Police agencies routinely deliver safety messages on different topics, but some markets are hard if not impossible to reach because of the enforcement role played by police. Nontraditional methods are then needed to reach critical target markets and deliver important messages in a more appealing format, which can be accomplished in a number of ways. Given Larson s long-time law enforcement background and the success of his SADD Zero Nada None racing program, I met with him to discuss some important aspects that must be considered when constructing a similar program.
Know Your Passions
Larson s first point is that it s critical to align yourself with a cause you truly believe in. The message must make sense to you, and it should be something you have passion for.
Example: Years ago, I worked with a friend to develop a racing-based charity that raised awareness of domestic violence shelters for battered women and children. The reason: My friend had been a domestic violence victim at a young age, and as a police officer, I have zero tolerance for domestic violence abusers. In short, we both had genuine, personal reasons for choosing domestic violence as our cause.
Larson s racing team is no different. He says his years with the SPD allowed him to develop a passion for alcohol awareness and underage-drinking prevention. His passion provided the motivation to approach people such as Coordinator Jessica Smith of SADD and Director Richard Fimbres of the AGOHS for assistance in developing the program.
So go with what you know, and find a good social cause that aligns with your values.
Have a Plan
Many charities and social organizations are regularly approached for participation and sponsorship. Many of these requests don t include a plan detailing the how, where, why, who, when, how much and the what s-in-it-for-me aspects critical to a partnership. When you re putting a plan together, make sure you can address all of these questions and make sure you have enough experience in the area you want to use as a platform for delivering the social message.
As Larson puts it, someone who isn t into racing may see the benefits of having a race car adorned with a particular social message, but won t have a clue about what it takes to actually build and race a car. Although some programs have built race cars only for show, one valuable aspect of the Zero Nada None #21 NASCAR Late Model race car is that it s raced regularly at Tuscon s Raceway Park. Larson says this allows race fans to directly identify with the message, and it adds significant credibility to the program.
He further adds that having a comprehensive plan constructed before meeting with potential sponsors is essential. In Larson s case, the race car is only one component. There s the race trailer, tools, tow vehicle, fuel, entry fees, the costs of a race weekend, spares, collateral-marketing materials, time and fuel for community events, and a host of other expenses that had to be accounted for before he could approach SADD and the AGOHS. It s important to pick something you have personal experience with because you know the hidden costs associated with the program. Charities, government safety advocates and social organizations work very hard to cultivate and maintain strong and trusting relationships in the communities they serve. They won t be willing to work with you unless they see you have a comprehensive plan that benefits their message.
Incorporate Existing Relationships
As a police officer, your career is based on the trust you build with society, your coworkers and yourself. As you develop your career, there are people around you who know who you are and what you are about. Larson advises individuals to take advantage of these relationships in a good way.
For Larson, his work in law enforcement led him to contact people he worked with for years on other projects, such as Fimbres and Smith. They knew Larson and his passion for preventing underage drinking. These relationships helped him promote the racing team idea, which wasn t an easy sell at first.
According to Smith, the idea of a racing team was something unique that provided a nontraditional method for reaching a critical teen audience. The uniqueness of the platform and the ability to talk about topics, such as street racing, seat belts and responsible driving, convinced SADD and the AGOHS to sign on as primary sponsors. In turn, Larson cultivated these valuable relationships to get other sponsors, including Motorola, Jugan s Kustom Paint and 3-Alarm Designs. It even allowed him to include other worthy driver training education companies, such as DrivingMBA (a program designed to encourage safe teen driving) in Scottsdale to promote the idea of safe driving alliances.
Larson took the program one step further by engaging the participation of a young role model, Nicole Turner, Ms. Arizona 2007, to appear at events and to talk about SADD and Zero Nada None.
So, when you re looking at what to do, and how to do it, first consider with whom you ve built strong trust relationships, and go from there.
According to Larson, the SADD racing team is in high demand throughout the year. He says corporations call him to bring the car to safety fairs. High schools and colleges want the team regularly on campuses to promote its anti-drinking message, and various community groups frequently ask for participation at events. All this is in addition to appearances for SADD, the AGOHS and actual races. Larson says the team traveled about 10,000 miles in Arizona during 2007, promoting the program. The traveling has continued in 2008, with an anticipated 54 more appearances in addition to the races.
Each appearance requires a lot of time, which is an important ingredient to making an alliance like this work. Social messages are only effective if the public is regularly exposed to them, so decide beforehand what your time limitations will be before asking groups for sponsorship. This will create a reasonable and honest dialogue between parties and will help clarify expectations. If they align, great. If not, you haven t damaged an existing relationship. You can always scale back the plan, or choose a less labor-intensive cause.
We all got into law enforcement to help people and hopefully change the world one little bit at a time. But, we also have lives outside of work that have nothing to do with our job. Because of the finite amount of hours in a day, the more we allot to a project or cause, the less time we have for friends, family, hobbies, vacations, house projects, etc.
When considering your department s involvement with a social cause or charity, recognize that because you re developing it, you will most likely want to coordinate the activities. This role can be fun at first. But as time goes on, the demands of meeting your sponsor s and community s expectations can turn something positive into drudgery if realistic expectations weren t developed. To prevent this from happening, honestly assess the commitment you and your department can give to a cooperative project. Will you have sufficient support form your agency and enough officers for the project, or will you need to rob resources or short staff shifts to meet expectations? Properly assessing the scope of your involvement and expectations beforehand will go a long way towards making your sponsors and coworkers happy.
The Bottom Line
Larson s experience and preplanning has paid off. The team is off to a strong start in 2008 with top-five qualifying efforts, and the schedule is full of upcoming events. SADD is delighted at the success in getting their message about underage drinking out to a valuable audience, and the AGOHS has decided to fund the bulk of the program. New sponsors are thrilled to be part of a program that promotes a positive message, and Larson gets to engage his passion for auto racing.
Although your passion may differ, incorporating these guidelines when considering department involvement with a social cause can go a long way towards finding success.