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There’s no more iconic figure in the skateboarding world than Tony Hawk, the superstar athlete whose name has become virtually synonymous with the sport.

The 53-year-old “Birdman” launched his philanthropic organization, the Tony Hawk Foundation, in 2002. Renamed as the Skatepark Project in 2019 (to better recognize the work it actually does), the charity will next year celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Since its inception, the org has funded the growth and creation of nearly 700 skate parks across the U.S., issuing grants totaling more than $10 million. And through its international program, it has provided technical and financial support to assist youth in countries such as Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa.

Hawk saw the need to lend his name to a charity in his early 30s, as his popularity was peaking. He began to notice “the exponential growth of and interest in skateboarding, and the severe lack of facilities to do it,” he says. “I saw that the only cities that were being proactive in getting facilities built were mostly affluent ones. And the parks they were building were not great for skating.

“They were they were relying mostly on sidewalk contractors to tell them how to build a skatepark, but they didn’t actually know how to design one. So that was a catalyst for me: seeing these parks with city councils being so proud of them, but the skaters themselves disliking them.”

Beyond the poor design of the parks that were being built, Hawk also saw a need to help build parks in poorer areas, “where kids often have no other outlets.” Beyond direct financing, one of the key tools the organization provides is in empowering communities to organize and petition local councils themselves to undertake the construction of a local skatepark.

Such work can often prove to be a two- or three-year process, which for the average young adult can be intimidating. It can be very discouraging, especially for someone who has no prior experience of city councils or government work,” Hawk says. “So, we figured out how to be most effective and basically wrote a guidebook on that.”

Now retired from professional sport, Hawk balances his time supporting the charity alongside his entertainment projects. He remains the figurehead for the massively popular Activision videogame series that carries his name, and is the star of a forthcoming feature doc on his life and work, directed by photographer Sam Jones.

On the philanthropic front, “I try to be available for any sort of fundraiser or for VIP, meet-and-greet type stuff,” he says, “but at the core, I still love doing the central work of designing skateparks; how can we be more effective, how could this park suit more skill levels, things like that. That’s the more exciting part to me, because that is my expertise, obviously, growing up and seeing so many parks come and go.”

The corporate nature of modern-day fundraising may seem an awkward fit for a pioneer of counterculture, but looking back over the past two decades, some of the projects that Hawks has been most proud of have been ones that started “in a renegade fashion.”

San Diego’s Washington Street Skatepark is an example. “These guys just started pouring concrete under this bridge in a mostly abandoned area,” he says. “The same goes for a few other cities where that happened. And the city eventually comes to embrace the project and support it.”

Like most philanthropic organizations, however, the Skatepark Project has been shaken by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Fundraising became much more challenging, obviously because of everyone’s financial instability and challenges,” he says. “The irony is that skating went through a huge boom in popularity through those months and more people got interested in skating than ever before. And with that, the need for skateparks grew.”

The chaos of COVID-19 has meant having to find creative ways to bring in coin. One of the most successful has been an initiative that saw Hawk and “Jackass” star Steve-O signing 8”x10” photos for sale online. The duo staged a unique recreation of an iconic skateboarding shot, and sat in a room for days on end, signing more than 12,000 copies. A massive slog, but one that paid off.

“Through that initiative we raised half a million dollars, which was the biggest single fundraiser to date,” Hawk says. “And it wasn’t like we were just asking for money; we were giving [people] this this little piece of history.”

Looking ahead, the Skatepark Project has several initiatives in the works, including a skatepark finder app that will help connect skaters to their nearest parks and provide educational resources.

“We’re also working on an indigenous skatepark program and have almost funded a few parks already on sovereign lands,” Hawk says. “There’s a huge interest in skating there, so I’m excited to finally support that in a meaningful way.

“We have learned a lot through these almost 20 years, so we’re able to give advice for almost any situation. And regardless of how unique the challenge might be, we probably have been able to figure out a way around it in the past.”