When male athletes start nonprofits, a team of women make them thrive

Judy Holland experienced the devastation of the 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado firsthand. The tornado — an EF4, the second-worst category — ripped through the town, leveling houses and killing 64 people.

“My uncle died in the tornado in Tuscaloosa,” Holland told Yahoo Sports. "My best friend lost her home. My brother was a police man at the time so he was pulling families out [of the rubble].”

Seeing all that, Holland, who is from Northport, a neighboring town in Tuscaloosa County, knew she needed to help. Using skills she developed as a costumer at a local theater, Holland put together boxes of clothes for children who lost everything.

New York Yankees reliever David Robertson, a Tuscaloosa native, could only watch as the disaster unfolded 1,000 miles away. So, Robertson and his wife, Erin, created High Socks for Hope, a nonprofit aimed at helping communities rebuild after a disaster. Holland joined them two months later.

Holland, now the managing director, has helped High Socks for Hope furnish or partially furnish more than 1,500 homes and provide aid to more than 15 different states that experienced a natural disaster.

Roughly 75 percent of jobs in the nonprofit sector are filled by women, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Despite that, a small handful of women hold significant leadership positions in nonprofits, including athlete nonprofits. Holland is among those who have broken that mold, proof leadership in the industry needs to better reflect its workforce.

Holland did not have a background in working at nonprofits, just a desire to help and a connection to the cause. Doing so requires time, resources and passionate individuals.

‘Women will do anything to help’

Mollie Busby got involved with Riding On Insulin after meeting her husband, professional snowboarder Sean Busby, who has Type 1 diabetes, at a funeral. Sean gave a eulogy for Jesse, a 13-year-old boy who died due to complications from Type 1 diabetes. Sean previously held snowboarding camps for kids with Type 1 diabetes that Jesse attended.

Mollie and Sean brought back the camps, Riding On Insulin, and turned them into a nonprofit. For the first seven years, Mollie served as the executive director. The foundation started with four camps and expanded to hosting skiing and snowboarding camps in six states, surfing camps in two states and an adventure camp in Utah.

“There is a drive that means that … women will do anything to help,” Mollie Busby said. “They will do anything. And I think when you start a nonprofit, you have to be willing to do anything.”

Those around Busby discouraged her from making Riding On Insulin a nonprofit at first. They cautioned how difficult it would be to keep it sustainable.

“You look at anyone else in your life and you’re like, ‘We can do this.’ They are like, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” Busby said. “Don’t think that you can survive and start a nonprofit and actually see it through. Most nonprofits … don’t survive.”

Undeterred, Busby kept going. She was told to expect pulling all-nighters, but she was up to the task. Even then, sustaining Riding On Insulin was incredibly difficult and time consuming.

“There were a couple points where we had to make a choice,” Busby said. “If the money is not coming in, there’s not enough money to pay the bills. You need to either push and say, ‘No, this is good, we need to keep doing this.’ Or you just throw up your hands because, as the founder, if you don’t do it, no one will … But if you don’t continue down this road and create something and make sure that it will withstand the test of time, then no one will create it.”

It’s not just passion that drives women to get involved with nonprofits. Some athlete organizations also affect real change in their communities.

“Women have lived experiences with the many challenges that nonprofits are trying to solve for,” said Marissa Trambley, the vice president of philanthropy and advocacy at Eat. Learn. Play., a nonprofit founded by Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha.

“Poverty and economic disparities are because of poor policy, and so nonprofits are trying to fill gaps that exist in our society and solve really meaningful challenges. I think women, as natural caregivers in the world, understand children’s issues and women’s issues.”

Marissa Trambley of Eat. Learn. Play.
Marissa Trambley (right) speaks to a donor at an Eat. Learn. Play. event in Oakland. (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Eat. Learn. Play.)

Trambley started in politics and worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. She decided to shift to nonprofits to work more closely and directly with communities to affect change.

One of the tenets of Eat. Learn. Play. involves making sure kids in the Oakland, California, community have access to food and groceries. The organization also makes books available to kids and renovates playgrounds in the Oakland area. Eat. Learn. Play. has delivered more than 17 million meals to families in the Oakland area. In 2021, Ayesha Curry testified in front of Congress on the importance of combating childhood hunger.

“I was once in the shoes of these kids that were starving,” Trambley said. “I know how hard it is when there is no food on the table or you don’t have access to basic and fundamental needs. I really resonate with the whole child approach that Eat. Learn. Play. takes.”

While many women work in nonprofit, the industry is vulnerable to the same issues that plague many workplaces. Only 22 percent of nonprofits that bring in profits of $50 million or more have women CEOs, per the AAUW.

“It’s great that the nonprofit world is dominated by women,” Trambley said. “I would say that more areas need to be dominated by women, too, whether it’s more women in sports, more women in politics, more women in boardrooms, just across the whole spectrum.”

How athletes put nonprofits in spotlight

The athletes involved in these specific nonprofits are highly active with the organizations. Curry and Robertson regularly attend events when their seasons allow. Busby took over as Riding On Insulin’s executive director in 2017.

When Robertson is unable to attend events due to the rigors of a 162-game baseball season, he still plays an important role for his nonprofit.

“He’s bringing so much attention to it,” Holland said. "David has spent the last 11 years making sure that people know what we were doing. I need him on the field playing so that he can talk about High Socks For Hope.”

Having a big platform is a significant help to athlete nonprofits. High Socks for Hope has provided assistance in nearly every city Robertson has played. That an athlete is involved in a nonprofit might be enough to convince some donors to contribute to the cause.

Nonprofits exist to fill societal gaps, and that can weigh heavily on those who confront those realities every day. Holland is often asked how she handles the stress of trying to make sure people have housing and necessities following natural disasters. Busby spoke about her frustration with high health-care costs for patients with diabetes, who sometimes pay $300 to $400 a month for insulin. Trambley focused on the numbers. Thirty-seven percent of kids in the Oakland area grow up in homes that are food insecure.

For Busby, Holland and Trambley those are not frustrations, but motivations. Those challenges are the driving force behind their work. It’s what they are trying to solve.

They also are furthering another cause and believe a brighter future is ahead.

“Women are constantly undertrained [and] undervalued for these leadership positions, and I think it’s a bummer,” Busby said. “But my hope is that women will keep busting glass ceilings and figuring out ways to do amazing things.”

The nonprofit industry should have plenty of candidates from which to choose.