Indianapolis' Rx for Building Community: Volunteers
by Wesley Cate
When a charmingly brash Dennis Hopper appeared on a video screen in front of 32 NFL team owners in 2008, he told them, “Indianapolis doesn’t host events; it employs some special alchemy to transform them.” Hoppers words could not have been more insightful. Since winning the Super Bowl bid in 2008, Indianapolis has mobilized in ways far beyond what anyone expected. So what is the city’s secret sauce? Volunteers.
A recent article in Indianapolis Business Journal offered some staggering statistics concerning the upcoming Super Bowl: 8,000 volunteers of the 13,000 that signed up will collectively commit 17 years worth of time to make the Super Bowl happen. Seventeen years! And this is not just any ol’ volunteer mobilization. Participants are being employed at every level of the Super Bowl event machine. The IBJ article goes on to explain that, “Nearly every Super Bowl function—including insurance, human resources, and legal work—is farmed out to volunteers. About 200 leaders of 60 organizational committees manage some 900 committee members involved in planning, while another 7,100 volunteers will be deployed through 25 teams during the event.” Even those that wouldn’t normally be able to volunteer have participated by knitting 8,000 Super Scarves to keep the outdoor crew warm.
Ever since Indy won the bid in 2008 volunteers have been working around the clock for their super city. Most impressively, a once blighted 44-square block community on the near eastside of Indianapolis is being revitalized through a plan built and implemented by neighborhood residents and community leaders. Since the initiative began in 2008, 4,000 volunteers have been directed toward the neighborhood effort alongside $150 million in state and philanthropic dollars. To date, 250-300 homes have received some type of improvement; a community center was built; and businesses are starting to return to the area. For the Lilly Day of Service held in 2011, 8,000 Eli Lilly & Co employees volunteered at 46 sites across the city and contributed hours and service valued at $2 million. For Indy’s Super Cure, hundreds have volunteered and hundreds more have donated breast tissue to the Susan G. Komen tissue bank, the only one of its kind in the world, in the hope of helping find a cure for cancer. Five hundred volunteers descended on 32 Indianapolis parks to refurbish and beautify for the Super City Clean and Green initiative. And the list goes on.
Perhaps the most tangible expression of Indianapolis’s special alchemy comes in the form of corporate citizenship. Echoing its past when the city built the Hoosier Dome before landing a NFL franchise, Indianapolis is the first city in history to fully fund its Super Bowl budget before winning its bid to host the game. This is not merely an interesting anecdote. It displays the city’s corporate leadership in fulfilling the sports strategy. Prior to the winning bid presentation before NFL owners in May 2008, the Host Committee had already raised $25 million. This corporate engagement was unpredictably useful given the economy’s downturn and NFL labor strike. As the game kicks off, the committee has raised $26 million plus $2 million in in-kind donations.
These numbers are a testament that the city’s civic spirit isn’t something that has just happened because of the Big Game. Indianapolis has been building its volunteer base as an asset for years. As Mark Miles and James Taylor point out (“A Lasting Legacy—Indianapolis Style” pg 6), Indianapolis has been using volunteers in the sports policy game long before it won the Super Bowl bid in 2008. In 1987, for instance, the Pan Am games held in Indianapolis mobilized 36,000 volunteers to make the event happen. Through events like these the city has built a culture of civic engagement that the Indiana Sports Corporation has made part and parcel of its hosting strategy—something Chicago, a competitor with Indy’s strategy, will have difficulty replicating.
There are economic benefits to the way Indy does sports business as well. According to Indy’s Economic Development Portal, a 1993 cited Indianapolis as the only US city that realized tangible, economic benefits from its investment in sports. Since 1979, the city has hosted over 400 national and international sporting events with an economic impact of over $2 billion. That impact would not have been realized if not for the donated time and effort from Hoosiers willing to make sporting events happen.
As a final word, John Miller, author of The Big Scrum wrote, “I came to realize that these contests are more than athletic competitions. They are cultural rituals of deep significance. They not only unite a diverse campus of engineering students and English majors, but they also create a community of fans across a region and beyond.” Likewise, Super Bowl XLVI has helped unify Hoosiers across economic and cultural divides. After February 5, the thrill of competition will fade as sports fans make their way back to their homes. Yet for Indianapolis, the euphoria will give way to a profound legacy—sparked by sports and given life through neighbors.
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