Four time Major winner Rory McIlroy is one of the most recognisable names in golf. In 2013 he set up The Rory Foundation to support children’s charities and ‘help kids live better lives’. The Foundation focuses on three key themes – health, community and research.
Rory started seriously thinking about philanthropy after visiting Haiti as a UNICEF ambassador in 2011 following the devastating earthquake the previous year. He believes that “the future generation’s philanthropy will depend on the legacy of those of us presently involved and the example we set.”
When and how did your philanthropy begin?
Early in 2011, I was asked to consider going to Haiti as a UNICEF ambassador to see for myself the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. It was a real honour to be invited and, naturally, I agreed. I was a top ten golfer by this time, generally well recognised and the idea of my visit was to help draw increased international attention to the plight of Haitians trying to somehow rebuild their lives after the earthquake’s devastation.
Golf and golfers were by no means a priority in Haiti in 2011 but I was struck by the welcome I received and generosity from people who had lost everything and had little or nothing to give. It was probably around the time of that visit, or soon after, that I really began to think seriously about ways I could give something back to help change the lives of young people, whether at home or further afield.
What were your main motivations for becoming a philanthropist?
I suppose it was a combination of factors, some of which were a little less obvious than others. There was the realisation, by the time I reached my early twenties, that I was climbing the ranks as a professional golfer and being rewarded really well for playing the sport I loved. When significant sponsorship deals began to follow my career trajectory, the idea took hold that I could at least begin to consider some philanthropic projects.
I knew that I had wanted for nothing when I was growing up but only when I became a little more mature did I fully grasp the sacrifices my parents had made to ensure there were no obstacles on my golfing journey. In other words, while I counted myself as very fortunate, I was increasingly aware that others were facing challenges and hardships that I, growing up with little to consider than improving my golf game, never had to endure. Having the recent visit to Haiti fresh on my mind, I felt that being able to give was something enormously rewarding and meaningful – a real sense of purpose beyond my sporting life.
Do you remember the first significant donation that you made and how it came about?
Yes, I remember it very well. Having only recently set up my Foundation back in 2012, Barry Funston, my Foundation’s CEO, was approached by the Cancer Fund for Children, a Northern Ireland-based charity. The charity was seeking support for their ambitious plan to build a respite centre in Northern Ireland for children living with a cancer diagnosis. I was given a crash course on what an entire family, emotionally and financially, must endure when somebody young is living with cancer.
I was immediately intrigued by the idea to build what is now Daisy Lodge and really warmed to the tireless energy of all involved in the early part of the project. We committed to funding to help complete this unique facility and have pledged a further €1.2 million for a new respite centre on Ireland’s west coast. And, as the need is great throughout Ireland and beyond, the drive will continue. Next stop: world domination!
What is the focus of your philanthropy and how did you go about identifying it?
The Foundation’s focus is quite a simple one, really. As the strapline on our website states: “My aim is to support children’s charities, big and small, around the world”. That’s a pretty accurate statement, and one that is intentionally broad in its vision: it allows us the scope to consider many options, home and abroad, as we evolve as a Foundation.
The idea of identifying children and young people as the focus of my philanthropy came about quite naturally – at least that’s how it felt. While I fully grasp the importance of more adult-focused charities and
In developing your philanthropy, what has been your approach to learning about the issues you focus on?
When we sit as a team and discuss the projects my Foundation is supporting, an enormous amount of time and energy is spent on educating ourselves about the work of that body or organisation. Does it fit, for example, with our mission to help children’s charities, and do we like the direction the charity is taking with its future development or vision? All these pragmatic factors and learning curves are necessary components in the process but we also looked very deeply into the human element of our decisions.
With both the Cancer Fund for Children and Mencap Northern Ireland, the Foundation’s support was to help with building projects the charities deemed as absolutely necessary to increase and enhance the care of young people and their families. And they produced utterly convincing arguments. From an initial visit to the old sites and then returning to the newly completed facilities was nothing short of overwhelming. Speaking with some of the young people, their families and staff whose lives revolve around these facilities gave me an even deeper insight and understanding of the positive and sometimes life-changing impact donations can have. It was, and remains, completely
How has your strategy evolved over time?
The Rory Foundation is still, really, in its infancy. I think this is a healthy position to be in and one that allows us the flexibility, going forward, to explore different philanthropic avenues.
And while I sometimes feel that I have been on the golfing circuit for a lifetime, I’m still young, recently married and I can foresee inevitable changes in direction for my Foundation in the years to come. Indeed, one of our latest projects has seen the Foundation begin to expand its work beyond the UK and Ireland by becoming involved with
I would love to think that, in the not too distant future, once my golfing career is a little less intense, I will happily spend more of my time on the Foundation’s projects and continue to grow it in as many ways as possible. And what’s to stop us dedicating some of our future energies supporting research into illness or disease, or considering a dedicated facility for children’s health and wellbeing? The possibilities are literally endless. With Barry Funston at the helm and family members on the Foundation’s board, I am confident that it will continue to be a force for good, involved in as many projects and countries as possible and (although I’m getting a little ahead of myself) become a legacy beyond my years.
Have you ever been particularly pleased with a donation?
It may sound a little old-fashioned these days, but I really still feel very humbled and
My relatively recent association with Mencap Northern Ireland is a donation that really does stand out for me, as I was as active as my schedule would allow from the beginning of the build through to the opening of the centre. Once we had agreed that match-funding was the best way to proceed with Mencap for their new build, I stayed very much on top of how the ideas evolved and progressed into actual physical structures that would enhance the lives of the young people most in need of a modern facility. I felt that the more I knew about processes, budgets and timescales, the greater my understanding when I undertook further projects.
I definitely feel that the greater my engagement and energy in any of the projects, the more emotionally attached I become, deriving a real sense of having done something that will change and enhance many lives.
Is philanthropy something you hope future generations will develop?
Oh, I certainly hope that individuals and institutions continue to give and, in doing so, pass on that precedent and momentum to the generations coming after. As for me, I think the future generation’s philanthropy will depend on the legacy of those of us presently involved and the philanthropic example we set for others to follow. I know I’d like to be remembered for my talents as a golfer but I also intend to leave my mark through the Rory Foundation and the projects we undertake.
I am also uniquely placed to utilise my global reach and recognition to highlight the work of my Foundation and hopefully influence as many people as possible to engage with the giving process. So, for those of us with enormous social media presence, there exists such a great opportunity to bring the next generation along on our philanthropic path.
What advice would you give to others thinking of starting their philanthropy journey?
For those with the capacity to give, I would say this: embrace it and reap the really positive rewards. There are so many ways in which to give and an absolute abundance of great reasons to do so – and I don’t mind feeling pretty good about myself having given to a project that’s close to me.
As I touched on briefly earlier, I didn’t jump in and set up my Foundation on a whim. Once I had the idea in my mind that I would become a donor, I began to consider the causes I cared about most and how to give in a way that best suited my hectic schedule. My Haitian visit in 2011 was an excellent learning and research exercise, a forerunner almost, for my philanthropic journey. I even seriously considered, as time was always such a factor, making anonymous donations to various causes and remaining below the radar. I don’t see anything wrong with anonymity but, for me, I felt that using my golfing profile and social media reach was the best way to highlight the work of my Foundation. Indeed, if the charities and causes we support can derive some additional media exposure or funding benefit by association, it’s really a win-win for all involved.
What do you think will be the most significant challenges and opportunities for philanthropy?
I think there will be enormous challenges for philanthropy in the years ahead – just as there were challenges in the past. Essentially, I believe that today’s philanthropists are almost duty-bound, by engagement and proactivity, to bring along the next wave of donors.
There are many people and institutions able and ready to donate, and the challenge for those of us with a little influence is to highlight philanthropy’s relevance and necessary place in today’s society. Forgetting for a moment the causes I’m passionate about, I look at the great work Prince Harry does in Lesotho, his support of mental health issues and how he really throws his lot in with the Invictus Games. I think this is such a positive, modern example of somebody with Harry’s profile showing what can be done and what opportunities exist in the philanthropy world to make an incredible difference.
Discover more about the Rory Foundation here
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