Brackets For Good readies statewide nonprofit tournament

BY Carl Carchia, Special to the Hartford Business Journal

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Jason Jakubowski is CEO of Foodshare, which is competing in this year's Brackets For Good tourney.
The UConn men's basketball team is unlikely to be participating in March Madness, but few fans will ever forget its out-of-nowhere 2011 national title run.

Connecticut's charitable foundations shouldn't either. UConn's improbable championship victory over Indianapolis-based Cinderella story Butler University indirectly led to nationwide philanthropic efforts that are now permeating the state.

Shortly after that game, a pair of Butler alums started the nonprofit Brackets For Good, which aims to raise awareness for charities by pitting them against each other in an online fundraising tournament. The idea was to re-create the same exposure for nonprofits that consecutive national championship appearances created for their tiny school.

Hartford participated in the five-week tournament last year after Boy Scouts executive Steven Smith kick-started the initiative. This year's tournament is open to charities across the state and runs from March 2 to April 6.

"Connecticut has always been part of the Brackets For Good story," said Reid McDowell, the nonprofit's partnerships and marketing director. "We kind of made jokes when we were in Connecticut last year that we were heartbroken and had upset feelings toward UConn and Connecticut, but we were also happy to bring the fun and good from Indianapolis."

The Brackets For Good tournament began in 2012 and, to date, 681 nonprofits have raised more than $6.4 million (Brackets For Good takes about a 5 percent fee from credit card transactions).

The Hartford tournament last year raised $216,348 -- 33 percent from first-time donors, a number slightly higher than the national average, which opened the door to expand the tournament statewide in 2018.

"A place like Connecticut is so synonymous with March Madness," said Foodshare President and CEO Jason Jakubowski, a UConn alum whose charity is a first-time entrant in the competition. "I can see why it's taken off here and so many different charities want to be part of it."

There will be 58 nonprofits competing in Connecticut this year.

"We're excited to see how well it does in Connecticut now that we've expanded statewide," McDowell said. "Most of the entrants have seen this playout and now know what to expect."

Here's how the tournament works.

Charities get one point for each dollar raised (they are grouped based on their resources to avoid any 1 vs. 16-seed type mismatches). The first four rounds each last one week. The "Philanthropic 4" and the championship last three days each. The winner at the end of the five-week tournament receives a $10,000 grant from New Britain-based Stanley Black & Decker, which together with Hartford-based Express Strategies, is again sponsoring the competition.

"It's a fun and engaging way to get our employees involved in the community," said Abigail Dreher, Stanley Black & Decker's director of public affairs. "[We want] to help them understand a little more about the nonprofits in our backyard."

One of those is 2017's winner, New Britain-based Community Mental Health Affiliates, whose officials said the added awareness and exposure is almost as important as the money.

"Mental health is sometimes overlooked," CMHA Communications Manager Amy Ogle said. "It's not warm and fuzzy like some of the other causes, but it's so important. We see it every day with the violence and shootings and the opiate crisis."

CMHA, which raised $46,000 last year, is using the winnings to move into a new building in downtown New Britain. It has also been able to educate more people about Narcan, a reverse-overdose medication.

Ogle said her advice for first-timers is to "Strategize, strategize, strategize. Stay on top of it. It's thrilling."

CMHA will go against about the same number of entrants this year, but the scope of their opponents' reach is larger. Foodshare, for example, runs a food bank that serves 127,000 low-income people in Hartford and Tolland counties and will feed 2.5 people for every dollar it raises.

Another first-time entrant is the Simsbury-based Ryan Martin Foundation. Martin is a huge UConn basketball fan who dreamed of playing for the Huskies as a kid.

Unfortunately, Martin was born with spina bifida, a birth defect that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don't form properly. Martin had both legs amputated at the age of 2. He went to Southwest Minnesota State to play wheelchair basketball and then played overseas for 10 years.

In 2008, he started the Ryan Martin Foundation, which uses sports to help people with disabilities.

"I always speak about how we are trying to use sports as a vehicle of change," said Martin, who serves as a consultant for the NCAA on their Inclusive Sports Model and is close to getting UConn to create a wheelchair basketball program.

"Using sports for a greater good is something we inherently believe in," Martin added.

McDowell summed up the cause best.
"We are using sports to get people excited to learn about, and then help,
organizations that are literally changing the world."