Professional sports teams, leagues and brands do countless hours of community and charity work throughout the year. Many times those acts of charity go unnoticed by the media or unplanned by the participants, but they are significant regardless of the recognition.
In 2009, the New York Yankees, while not slighting any of the work they do throughout the course of the year, came up with a very unique in-season initiative not just for the players, but for everyone in the organization. HOPE Week initiative (Helping Others Persevere & Excel) is rooted in the fundamental belief that acts of goodwill provide hope and encouragement to more than just the recipient of the gesture. On each of five consecutive days during the celebration of HOPE Week, the Yankees shine a spotlight on a different individual, family or organization worthy of recognition and support. Each day is designed so honorees can share their inspirational stories with Yankees players, fans and the media, while being surprised with the day of their dreams. Though each day’s celebration ultimately culminates with a visit to Yankee Stadium on the day of a game, outreach typically takes place at a location in the community that symbolizes the accomplishments of the honoree.
Every year the team tries to expand the platform, and this year the organization, with the buy-in from ownership, general manager Brian Cashman and senior vice president baseball operation Mark Newman, have extended the HOPE Week project to their six minor leagues affiliates, from Tampa to Scanton-Wilkes Barre. It is a unique way for fans at every level to be a part of a Yankees experience, and grow the footprint of the event again.
The brainchild and organizer behind HOPE Week is Yankees Director Communications and Media Relations Jason Zillo. We caught up with Zillo to talk about HOPE Week 2012 and how it got to be the event it is today.
The Yankees certainly do charitable events all year long, what was the impetus to brand the one week as an example of all that can be done?
It really didn’t come out of a master plan, it happened very naturally and it has worked so well because it is so genuine. There is no hidden agenda and it is unique to take a week during the season to tell these amazing stories. We could not have done it in one day and could not have taken a month, so it all came together for this week.
There has been talk of other teams in other sports creating a similar initiative. Why has it not yet happened? Would the Yankees consider another partner in another sport?
We would always consider other teams and gladly share what we do, but it’s not something we actively go out and seek, that’s not the type of program that it is. In fact, the Minnesota Twins have done a similar event so it is growing in the sports world. However what has really been satisfying is to hear from people outside of professional sports, a high school athletic council in Rhode Island, a business in New Jersey, that have created their own HOPE Week because they have heard about what we have done. It has grown organically because it is so unique and that is very nice to see.
Has there been talk of an overall title sponsor or charity for the week?
No there has not been talk of commercializing it at this point. We would not want to water down the importance or distract from the goal because it is so genuine, and the goal is to help a wide swath of individuals so at this time I think the diversity is very important.
This year the work filters down to the affiliated clubs. What’s the reason and how will that work?
Brian Cashman, Mark Newman and I sat down during spring training and talked about the concept, and Mark thought it was a wonderful way to share the experience with our six domestic affiliated clubs. They are all part of the Yankee organization and are part of a shared history, responsibility and philosophy, so getting our players and staff to experience and share HOPE Week in their communities make a great deal of sense. We gave the teams the overall structure and some examples, and are letting them tailor the events to their communities as they best know their markets.
What areas does Hope Week not touch on yet that you would like to see included?
There are so many opportunities and stories we get, it would be hard to touch on one area. I think the goal is to make those experiences very unique and to be as diverse as possible, so we keep the breadth and depth of the stories fresh every year.
Is there ever a worry that the events will become a distraction to the players?
No it’s just the opposite. The players have now seen the power of this event and they want to participate, as does everyone in the organization. It is not a month, it is a series of events over five days and it never distracts from the business of baseball. They love being involved.
Where do the initiatives come from?
We have a place on Yankees.com to submit ideas, people send us random letters, some happen organically, there is really not one place. The number of stories is very diverse and very impressive though, and it is never an easy choice.
Do you have a favorite activity from Hope Week to date?
They are all special in their own way, especially the depth of the stories that we get with children. There is never a moment of regret when we finish the week, other than the fact that we can’t tell every story. The impact our organization can make is really astounding and it makes us all very proud.
What has been the biggest surprise with the initiative?
The way the initiative has grown with fans, and not just Yankees fans. We get letters from Red Sox fans complimenting the work we do and the stories we tell, and even the toughest of critics don’t find fault with the program. It is not something that we planned out for the long term, but we are very happy with what has happened and what HOPE Week stands for. It is the most satisfying thing we do.