Billy Hassett Jersey Signed

Brian Hassett is looking for the Capital Region’s Jerry Colangelo.

The Phoenix philanthropist and former owner of the Phoenix Suns and the Arizona Diamondbacks gave the first-ever $1 million gift to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona.

That donation brought awareness to the nonprofit and helped Hassett, then the organization’s CEO, double the annual fundraising campaign to $48 million.

OK, $1 million donors may not be a dime a dozen here, but Hassett is on the hunt for new and bigger funding streams for the United Way of the Greater Capital Region. “I’ve always loved separating people from their money for a good cause.”

You were quite a handful in your younger years.

It wasn’t my background—my parents were upper middle class. I was hanging around with the wrong people. We were “borrowing” cars when I was 11 or 12. I think I’m the only one from the original neighborhood who’s living, or on the outside.

“Outside” meaning not in jail?

Yes. Here’s a Christmas story I remember: I was out of high school six months and my best friend was sent to jail. I couldn’t raise enough money for his bail, so I went to a Brother—I graduated from a Catholic school—and he put up the rest of the money. That friend wound up dying of liver cancer at a young age.

My attraction to nonprofits is, in part, because I grew up in places like the Boys & Girls Club. They were a big influence on me. I became a Big Brother in college and never really looked back.

Plus, philanthropy runs in your family.

I had two fairly famous uncles. The first, Buddy Hassett, played pro ball as a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boston Braves and eventually the Yankees. One of his coaches was Babe Ruth.

The other, Billy Hassett, played for the first NBA championship team, the Minneapolis Lakers.

Both were very active in their communities. They’d raise money for their church, the Boy Scouts, whomever needed money.

Your LinkedIn profile shows you standing beside shock-rocker Alice Cooper. What’s the story there?

When I took over as CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona, the organization was in big financial trouble, and I knew we really needed to do something off the wall. I took ideas from two other places that had used similar techniques to raise money, and came up with “Guitar Mania.”

We got backing from [guitar maker] Fender, had a boat company build the guitars and enlisted all these celebrities to paint 10-foot Stratocaster guitars for a public art project. We auctioned the guitars and raised $1 million.

Alice Cooper, who lives in Phoenix and is nothing like his public persona, by the way, wound up chairing the project. He has his own Phoenix foundation, Solid Rock, for at-risk youths. He’s very spiritual, actually.

A lot of celebrities painted one of the Stratocasters: Eddie Van Halen and his son, Wolfgang; Nickelback; Wayne Gretzky; Sen. John McCain; Stevie Nicks, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns.

Dennis Leary actually drove his guitar up the hill to his house because the delivery driver wouldn’t do it.

Things were so bad when you took over that you were willing to put your own home on the line.

Let’s just say that I had a conversation with the bank that I would consider taking out a second mortgage. I’d just come on, and I wanted the bank to know I was committed to the organization.

The bank gave us a line of credit and became one of our biggest supporters.

What are your plans to grow the local United Way?

We raise $7.9 million through our annual campaign. I really believe we can raise that to $15 million in the next five years or so.

It all comes down to asking people. You can’t keep going back to Mr. and Mrs. Golub (owners of the Price Chopper grocery chain).

Only three or four local law firms contribute to the United Way. Only 300 local companies give to the United Way. I don’t want to paint a picture that people here aren’t generous. I don’t think that’s the case. They just have to be asked.

We also have to start thinking more regionally. People in Saratoga may not be so inclined to support a homeless center in Albany because the donor doesn’t understand what’s needed in the community.

The United Way spends the entire year looking at this. I’m working to increase our percentage of “unrestricted” funds, which would give us more ability to direct money where it’s needed locally.

How are things going in the three months you’ve had the job?

It’s a little tough in these economic times, but we’re making progress. For example, someone pointed me to a local individual who flies under the radar, but is very generous. I asked him to donate, and to please not designate the funds to a specific cause. He gave $75,000, which can be used at the discretion of the United Way.

We have only 15 $10,000 donors in this community. I think there are at least 200 to 300 people in the area that could contribute that much a year. My goal is to do better.

Really, though, Albany isn’t Phoenix.

We might not have the same celebrity contingent, but there’s plenty of potential.

I was told that the Saratoga Performing Arts Center was organized by a couple of families that wanted a world-class entertainment center. Look what happened.

Agencies really need us now. Everybody wanted less government. We’re getting it. And along with that comes casualties. This is America and hunger is a big issue in America. There’s something wrong with that.

There are 400 to 500 female war veterans in the Capital Region who are homeless. What’s going to happen when we pull out of Afghanistan?

About 80 percent of our donors are people who give $50 to $100 a year through payroll deductions. They get it because they’re often the people closest to the need.

One of the reasons you moved to Albany was to be closer to your son, Kevin. You’re also a cancer survivor who should stay out of the hot Phoenix sun.

It was diagnosed 15 years ago during a routine physical. There were big spots on my back that were taken care of, then they started showing up on my face and head.

I’ve had topical chemo where they burn off a layer of skin. I shave my head to keep an eye on things.

People in Scottsdale pay lots of money for what I’ve had done because it makes you look younger. I’m just trying to stay healthy. But if younger is a benefit, I’ll take it.

Quick info:

Brian Hassett
Age: 57
Title: CEO, United Way of the Greater Capital Region
Born: The Bronx, grew up in Utica
Resides: Clifton Park
Educated: Niagara University, bachelor’s in political science; University of Rhode Island, master’s in public administration

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