PMA Spotlight: Gerard Littlejohn of the Steve Smith Family Foundation
By Katie McDowell
As the recently appointed executive director of the Steve Smith Family Foundation, Gerard Littlejohn is looking forward to continuing his passion for the synthesis of sports and philanthropy in the Charlotte community.
In 2007, Littlejohn graduated from UNC Charlotte with a major in Communication. During his time there, a sports marketing guest speaker spoke in one of his classes about promotions and community relations for the Charlotte Bobcats.
“I knew then that I wanted to work in sports but I didn’t know how exactly,” Littlejohn said. “I wanted to somehow tie in sports and the community together.”
Inspired by the lecture, Littlejohn interned with the Bobcats the summer prior to his junior year, where he gained experience writing press releases and game notes as well as practicing with various aspects of the media. The Bobcats then hired Littlejohn as a senior to work part-time as a game night assistant under the Vice President of Communications, B.J. Evans, who is now with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After graduation, Littlejohn walked into a full-time position in public relations for the Bobcats writing releases, a job for which over 500 applied. This opportunity exposed Littlejohn more fully to the philanthropic side of sports marketing.
“That’s where I gravitated towards community stuff—hospital visits, read to achieve programs, etc.” Littlejohn said.
Littlejohn’s next opportunity in public relations came with Lowe’s, and it expanded his philanthropic experience in the professional world. He maximized the company’s charitable and educational foundations through partnerships with the Boys and Girls Club, the American Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity. Littlejohn also oversaw Lowe’s Heroes, a company-wide volunteer program where each of the 1700 stores had a community project, such as beautification.
“At Lowes I sank my teeth into the community,” Littlejohn said. “My goal there and with anything I do is using whatever job that I’m doing as a catalyst for change.”
Littlejohn worked in public relations for Lowe’s, where he coordinated community events. This community focus led to local sports partnerships that, combined with his background with the Bobcats, transitioned well into sports marketing.
Littlejohn’s next opportunity came with Dick’s Sporting Goods, and involved community relations for the Charlotte region which allowed him to work with nonprofits like Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Cam Newton’s foundation, and Kemba Walker’s basketball camps.
His initial conversation with former Carolina Panther Steve Smith began through a mutual friend.
“I went to Strike Out Domestic Violence in February (Smith’s signature bowling benefit event) and got to see him in action,” Littlejohn said. “I knew then it was something special.”
There, Littlejohn witnessed firsthand Smith’s passion for his joint platform: domestic violence and children’s health and wellness.
“It’s clear he wants to make a change,” Littlejohn said. “Steve has a great heart. Everyone knows how great a player he is and how much he means to the community, but everybody doesn’t see what’s behind the scenes.”
Littlejohn describes Smith’s two initiatives as hot button issues for any community.
“Just being able to empower and strengthen families is the goal, and those [platforms] are two really tangible efforts that are necessary and meaningful regardless of the market,” Littlejohn said.
For Charlotte in particular, Smith serves as a figurehead to combat the issues locally.
“Knowing we’re located in Charlotte and knowing that we can make that kind of impact within our home community is so important,” Littlejohn said.
As a renowned wide receiver for the Panthers from 2001 to 2014, Smith has the influence to spread his personal testimony and his foundation’s mission throughout his Panthers fan base. Littlejohn recognizes the effectiveness of celebrities in the nonprofit sector, which by nature is full of organizations competing to gain funding for their causes.
“I think it’s important because a lot of people naturally gravitate towards athletes and celebrities,” Littlejohn said. “To be honest, though, it’s just the bait. The great thing about it is you can use a celebrity as a platform for social change.”
Beyond celebrity status, Smith has genuine passion for fighting domestic violence and promoting children’s health and wellness. Born and raised in the Compton district of Los Angeles, Smith lived in a single-parent household and witnessed domestic violence firsthand. He also experienced homelessness several times and lived with various relatives throughout his childhood before rising to football fame.
“You look at Steve and see him as the Panthers all-time leading receiver, but when you pull the curtain back, you see what his passions are,” Littlejohn said. “You hear his story of being in a domestic violence household and that meaning something to him—It’s all the platform.”
Littlejohn says a distinctive quality about Smith, and one that is crucial for conveying a nonprofit’s mission to potential donors and supporters, is sincerity.
“[Smith] says the same thing with cameras on and off and it’s personal. He’s really laser-focused when it comes to what he wants to do.”
Littlejohn cites his work with the Steve Smith Family Foundation, and its relationships with Safe Alliance and the YMCA as crucial factors to ingraining the organization in the Charlotte community.
“We cast our net within the Charlotte community and got a sense of their needs,” Littlejohn said. “We want to strengthen the relationships we have with our partners.”
Littlejohn has high hopes for the foundation in the coming year and hopes its mission will continue to expand.
“My goals are really to just highlight Steve and his wife Angie’s good work in the community and not only be a premiere athlete foundation, but one that extends locally, regionally, and eventually nationally,” Littlejohn said. “We’re looking at doing some things in Baltimore, while going forward with the Strike Out event and the Lace Up Son 5K to make those even bigger and better.”
Littlejohn has enjoyed his time at the foundation so far and is looking forward to addressing the needs of the community that are so important to the Smith family.
“I think we have two very good and distinguished platforms,” Littlejohn said. “I want to continue to bring awareness to those, to bring a sense of urgency to domestic violence and child health and wellness. I couldn’t ask to work alongside a better athlete, and I couldn’t ask to be a part of a better organization.”