Parrotheads in Paradise: 'A Social Club With a Charity Habit'


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The term "Parrot Head" evokes a certain image: Shorts. Sandals. Loud, beachy prints. A cold beer or frozen margarita in hand. But ask any official Parrot Head--that is, any one of the 30,000 dues-paying members of Parrot Heads in Paradise Inc.--and they'll tell you that the familiar beach bum stereotype leaves out one major, defining factor of their persona: do-gooder.

Thanks to the hugely successful "Margaritaville" brand, Jimmy Buffett has amassed a for-profit empire that any entrepreneur might envy. More quietly, however, his trademark "escapist" mentality has fostered the parallel growth of PHIP, a nonprofit organization that has raised nearly $30 million and logged more than 3 million volunteer hours in just over a decade.

"As we like to say, we're a social club with a charity habit," says Andy Harrell, PHIP national vice president. "It's not all about the party. It's about the party and how we can use that party to help benefit someone else."

With popular "Trop Rock" songs like Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" or "Fins" playing in the background, weekend-long drinking festivals, sports tournaments, and even international travel opportunities drive its fundraising efforts. And with 233 Parrot Head clubs worldwide -- including a few in Puerto Rico, Canada and Australia -- local charities are most often the beneficiaries.

An annual event hosted by the Parrot Head Club of Tidewater, Virginia, raises between $32,000 and $33,000 for the Alzheimer's Association of Southeastern Virginia each year, for instance. In Oklahoma City, another local chapter sponsored a weeklong all-inclusive trip to the Dominican Republic, for which travelers pooled around $5,000 extra to support their community's Habitat for Humanity branch.

"It's a love of the music and the lifestyle," says Harrell. "People know they're going to be with likeminded folks who are looking to have a good time and all the while leave the world a little better place than they found it."

The PHIP's annual "Meeting of the Minds" in Key West epitomizes the group's "party with a purpose" mantra. With an entertainment budget of over $100,000, the music and concerts bring the crowds each year. But while closing down the island's famous Duval Street, Parrot Heads also make a point to give back. Convention-goers sponsor a blood drive with the American Red Cross that's consistently one of the largest in the region. (They're assured that alcohol consumption won't affect their ability to donate.) They've raised thousands of dollars for South Florida nonprofits, such as the SPCA or hospice.

Harrell recalls that the PHIP was the only big group allowed onto Key West when the annual convention fell just a week after Hurricane Wilma swept through the island in October 2005. "They knew that we would be able to give back and help where they needed us," he said. "Everyone just rolled up their sleeves and did what they had to do. The city was thrilled about the work we were able to accomplish cleaning up."

The nonprofit's ability to mobilize has indeed proven to be one of its most impressive strengths. After a series of tornados left devastation in the city of Moore, Oklahoma, this May, PHIP President Chris Zuest received more than $25,000 in deductible cash donations within one month-all in response to just one email blast from Zuest to other local chapters across the country. Many clubs hosted last-minute happy hours on behalf of the tornado relief efforts.

So what inspires this spirit of generosity? Buffett himself, Harrell says. "He's pretty philanthropic himself, and I think that's where the idea of giving back came from."

The "Head Parrot," as his followers call him, has helped raise thousands for disaster victims through his charity concerts and tours over the years. He's also the co-founder of Florida's Save the Manatee Club.

And surely the Parrot Heads' party-loving nature helps too. "At the end of the day, you've had a good time. You've been with good people. You've danced like nobody's watching, and you've done something good for the community," Zuest says. "That makes you feel good. If you feel good, that's what brings you back."

For a tour of the latest outpost in the Margaritaville empire, head over to AOL Travel.

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