Special Olympics International: A Global Non-Profit Stays True To Its Roots

Tuesday, March 31, 2009 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Drake Turrentine, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary, Special Olympics International.

Editor: Please tell us about your professional background and how you joined Special Olympics International.

Turrentine: I have spent most of my career as an international corporate lawyer. Prior to graduating from college, I spent four years in Air Force intelligence, where I learned to focus on facts, and which I later found to be helpful experience for understanding people in international contexts. After graduating from Yale Law School in 1972, I spent a few years as a Washington, D.C. lawyer, which came in handy when I joined the Connecticut law firm of Wiggin and Dana and later headed its international business law practice. In 1992, the Special Olympics World Summer Games Organizing Committee was looking for outside counsel for the 1995 Games to be held in New Haven, Connecticut, and Wiggin and Dana offered to represent the Games pro bono. I took on the role of outside general counsel for the Games both because of its international focus and because the mission itself sounded very interesting to me. So for several years I supervised negotiation of the many contracts and agreements associated with the Games - sponsorships, sports facilities, licenses - and all of the legal work connected with any major sports or entertainment event. Tim Shriver was President of those Games; at the time, he was living in New Haven while working on his Ph.D. in education. I worked closely with Tim during those years, and following the 1995 games the Shriver family convinced him to come to Washington and take over as president of Special Olympics International (SOI).

In 1997, SOI, which had previously relied on outside lawyers, asked me to become SOI's first general counsel (and now chief legal officer). I love it. Taking this position reminded me of why I had gone to law school in the first place: to make the world a slightly better place. My job is certainly rewarding on levels that are much more important than money. Today the legal department has three lawyers (one from South Africa and one who works from Israel) who are all very busy. We couldn't do it all without help from our outside counsel partners, which provide their services either pro bono or at reduced fees.

Editor: Where was the Special Olympics at the time you joined the organization?

Turrentine: In a way the organization had plateaued. There were roughly a million athletes scattered around the world. Over the previous 10 to 15 years, Sargent Shriver had made a huge push to add programs outside the U.S., but although he had successfully planted the seeds, many of those programs were not yet mature from an organizational standpoint. Special Olympics International might have one person in this country and another in that, and they would act as traveling salespeople through the region encouraging local leaders to build Special Olympics Programs.

When Tim took over, he commissioned a study of the organization, which led to our adoption of a regionalized structure around 2001. We set up and staffed offices, mostly with local people, in seven different regions around the world, and set as a goal doubling the number of athletes from one to two million by 2005. This marked a real sea change in the organization.

Tim's energy, imagination and incredible passion really drove the movement beyond what people thought possible. We reached the goal of two million athletes in 2005, and today we are on the verge of three million. Our 2003 World Summer Games in Dublin caused a deep transformation of Ireland's attitudes towards people with intellectual disabilities. Likewise, our 2005 World Winter Games in Japan had a huge transformative impact on Japan, and in 2007, our World Summer Games in Shanghai sort of blew the top off everything. The President of China himself came and refereed a tug-of-war by Special Olympics athletes. That is the sort of symbolic act that can really change attitudes in a country like China.

Editor: With so many Special Olympics programs throughout the world, how are you able to manage the integrity of the organization and the brand?

Turrentine: Protecting the brand and the mission, which are deeply interconnected, are two of the most important responsibilities under my wing. The brand itself, with high public awareness and public trust for Special Olympics, is probably our most valuable asset. Our name recognition in the U.S. ranks with McDonald's and Coca Cola. Market surveys reveal that people have a very positive perception of us, even among those who don't know exactly what we do. Positive perceptions may not automatically generate donations or volunteers, but they are critical to our attracting both.

Editor: What keeps you up at night?

Turrentine: We have a potentially vulnerable population we work with, and we have always been conscious of that. Our focus is first and foremost on the well-being of the athletes, and that means providing a safe environment. We have volunteer screening requirements against any sexual abuse or criminal background issues. We have banned the use of 15 passenger vans to carry athletes because there are safety roll-over issues with them. We conduct a lot of training with our volunteers and our coaches, and teach volunteers what we call protective behaviors to ensure, for instance, that when the athletes are at an event they don't go off on their own. Also, we have to be careful about housing our athletes at events, about which we have an excellent record. One of the great things about Special Olympics is that it is a volunteer-run movement with people - particularly our coaches - who volunteer for the best of reasons. They either have relatives with intellectual disabilities or are just extremely committed people. For most of them, SOI becomes an important and meaningful part of their lives.

We do realize that a vulnerable population can attract people who want to take advantage (including pedophiles) but we have been very fortunate. We have to be 99.99 percent sure of our volunteers, and while there's still room for error, given our hundreds of thousands of volunteers, that level of success is something we strive for.

Editor: Have you had any trouble with translating the mission into other cultures?

Turrentine: The mission, which hasn't changed since 1968 when Eunice Kennedy Shriver started the organization, is more or less engraved in stone. When it comes to regional and international programs, we remain very true to the basic mission but we have to be adaptable on the details. My background has helped me to appreciate that people around the world may have very different thought patterns about some of the basic things we take for granted.

Nonetheless, we must preserve what is really important and get the core values down while being flexible around the logistics. For instance, one of the most crucial rules is that every board of directors for every program in the world must have a person with an intellectual disability (ID) serving as a member so that he or she may serve as the voice of our athletes. It is one of our core principles, and I had several programs outside the U.S. say it could not be done, even that it was not legal in their country. I would ask them to show me the law and tell them we would work with them on changing the law. (No one ever has ever shown me such a law.)

Editor: Please tell us about the range of your legal practice: what areas of the law are you engaged in on a day-to-day basis?

Turrentine: We do everything from contracts regarding sponsorship and major purchases to World Games agreements to international employment law. We do trademark registration and enforcement; we are involved in entertainment law. For example, we own the master recording of the "A Very Special Christmas" series of CDs, which has been produced over the last 20 years by artists who perform for free and produced and distributed by record companies at cost.

Compliance with local law is obviously essential, with all the countries and states where we have programs. Then, of course, come the tax-exempt organization taxation issues that for-profit general counsel don't have to worry about. The Legal Department is also responsible for risk management, including management of a major insurance program for all the U.S. programs.Finally, I do a lot of work with our Board, particularly with the executive, nominating and compensation committees.

Editor: Tell us about the structure of Special Olympics and its boards.

Turrentine: Special Olympics International has a global board of about 45 people. Many of our board members are quite famous - one of them is a head of state, one is a first lady, and one is a member of a royal family - and overall it is a very diverse, talented, and excellent group of people, including three Special Olympics athletes, world class Olympic athletes, CEOs, intellectual disability experts, and program leaders. Under Special Olympics International are about 220 independent accredited programs, one in each U.S. state and one in 170 or so countries, each of which must be accredited by our legal department. Each of these self-sufficient programs has its own board and finances, and we follow up with them to ensure they are meeting basic requirements. We get involved in helping them and we do distribute funds and grants to individual programs, but the goal is that each must make it on its own. On top of this we have a world games every two years (alternating summer every four, winter every four), so at any one time we are dealing with two or three independent games organizing committees with their own boards and fundraisers. This adds up to overlapping fundraising and jurisdictional issues for us to manage at headquarters. Each board has a pretty big job, but the governance of the entire movement is even more complex.

Editor: Have you had trademark violations?

Turrentine: Not many, and when we do, we find ourselves working with the IOC. Other than that, we have infringement issues particularly in the U.S. around fundraising marks, for instance with our Law Enforcement Torch Run, in which police officers raise funds for a local program by running a torch relay for the opening of the state games or organizing other events and raising money by pledges.

Recently we have had infringements of our Law Enforcement Torch Run Polar Plunge mark, which is our registered trademark. (For these fundraisers, people take pledges to jump in the lake or the ocean during the winter; they've had a lot of grassroots success with these.) Plane Pull is another; Special Olympics Virginia has registered that as a trademark. We do monitor these trademarks, andwhen a charity infringes we will write and ask them very politely to cease and desist using the term "Polar Plunge" or other Special Olympics mark.

Editor: Where do you see Special Olympics in, say, five years?

Turrentine: The Shriver family generally - and Tim specifically - is creative and passionate, and is constantly coming up with new ideas. The impact of Special Olympics goes far beyond sports into much broader issues of personal and community development; of respect, tolerance and understanding of people with disabilities; and of integration into the community. These are spin-off benefits that we have discovered through our research. We believe the transformative power of Special Olympics can be felt and seen on a much broader scale than any of us ever envisioned at the outset.

The human rights side of Special Olympics International has grown and continues to grow. We have become involved with the UN Convention on Human Rights, and I have also helped to write briefs for the Supreme Court, most notably when the Court declared that capital punishment was cruel and unusual punishment for people with intellectual disabilities.

Although I am now reluctantly preparing to retire, and we are starting a search for my successor, my job continues to provide great satisfaction to me and the rewards are amazing.

Please email the interviewee at dturrentine@specialolympics.org with questions about this interview.