The NFL trumpets its players’ philanthropy and community service with the full force of its extraordinary marketing might and has built the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award into a monument to excellence. But the NFL and NFL Players Association, which bestows a similar annual award, don’t adequately vet the nonprofits founded by the men they honor or educate players on the nonprofit sector with equal vigor. The encouragement to give back, coupled with the lack of nonprofit knowledge and bravado, lead ultra-competitive players to found nonprofits that often struggle with inefficiency for years, award winners and nominees said.


Comments: 246 • Responses: 30  • Date: 

Supergamera201 karma

Did you contact any of the players with your findings? Was there anything in their responses that surprised you?

By-Jason-Wolf486 karma

All of them!

What surprised me most was that so many NFL players start nonprofits without having the slightest idea what they're doing. They put well-meaning friends, family or business associates in charge, and they may not be qualified to run an efficient nonprofit. Or they hire for-profit companies that run everything, but take a huge chunk of the donations, leaving little for actual charity.

There are so many Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winners who want to share their knowledge about nonprofit best practices and pitfalls to help young guys avoid the same issues that routinely occur -- like putting on fundraising events that lose money.

These players say the NFL, NFLPA, themselves and their peers could and should do more to educate themselves on the front end, especially since the league and union bestow their most prestigious awards for community service and philanthropy.

bml20002146 karma

What appears to be the most egregious example done by any of the listed players? I’m sure they dodge taxes but what seems to be the most blatant, gotcha?

By-Jason-Wolf526 karma

Russell Wilson's Why Not You Foundation.

The nonprofit has directed less than 40 cents of every dollar spent toward charity over its first eight years of existence, according to its federal tax records, and less than 25 cents of every dollar since Wilson was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2020.

The reason why? The nonprofit has paid two executives exorbitant salaries compared to similarly-sized nonprofits in the Seattle area, including more than $200,000 a year for a chief strategy officer who also worked for the Wilson family office, which was not reported on tax records as required.

Nonprofit experts said this situation raises serious questions about the potential for excess benefit transactions and private inurement -- a criminal abuse of power resulting in private gain from a nonprofit's resources.

The Why Not You Foundation claims credit for money raised by "partner" organizations -- it points to $10 million raised for pediatric cancer research by Safeway/Albertsons from customers in grocery store checkout lines. But experts say this type of third-party fundraising does not justify the nonprofit's expenses.

Here is a free article we published as a follow-up, after Wilson posted a video on social media:

burnshimself146 karma

So he’s using the nonprofit to pay his family office staff (whose job is to invest his money and build his wealth in a very for-profit manner) on the side via a tax exempt vehicle while collecting tax deductions on his personal income tax for the money he funnels there + getting good PR from his non-profit. Do I have that right?

Sounds like the kind of shit a sanctimonious social media Christian would do.

By-Jason-Wolf181 karma

Directly from the story:

The Russell Wilson Foundation, which does business as the Why Not You Foundation, reported it spent almost $600,000 — or just 24.3 cents of every dollar — on charitable activities in 2020 and 2021 combined and nearly twice as much, $1.1 million, on salaries and employee benefits in that span, according to federal tax records.

These expenses included $342,000 for an executive director and more than $430,000 for a second executive who also worked for the Wilson family office, the nonprofit confirmed, a relationship not disclosed on federal tax records, as required by law.

Additional insight:

It is not clear whether Ciara and Russell Wilson have donated their own money to the Why Not You Foundation, or if so, how much.

Wilson's agent and attorney, Mark Rodgers, who is one of the nonprofit's directors, declined to tell me because that "would be bragging."

TriGurl27 karma

Don’t these non profits have to publish their 990-T every year and since they are in fact a 501(c)(3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 19)?? Is their an annual auditing mandate for them? I work as an accountant at a non-profit that has to complete an annual audit with an external auditor because we utilize federal grants for our programs, so EVERYTHING is scrutinized for integrity sake and accountability! I would be very curious to read your findings! When will you publish?

By-Jason-Wolf37 karma

Form 990 tax returns for the nonprofits founded by the last 10 WPMOY award winners, for every year dating to their inception, formed the bedrock of this investigation. The review was supplemented by analysis from nonprofit legal and accounting experts and extensive interviews with the players, their family members and representatives.

Annual independent audits are NOT mandated for these nonprofits.

Wade_W_Wilson-39 karma

Yes they do have annual audits. Another interesting piece this author leaves out is nonprofit staffs are constantly complaining about the lack* of pay for high quality leadership as well as the lack of collaborative opportunities to partner with organizations that have unique skills in a specific space. When the Why Not You Foundation clearly hits both of those goals, the author pillories them for it.

By-Jason-Wolf35 karma

Your first sentence is demonstrably false. Your second is supposition. Are you arguing that the public should judge a nonprofit favorably because it pays high salaries and provides “collaborative opportunities” to its staff? Because that sure seems like prioritizing a nonprofit’s employees over its mission.

ViolentAmbassador124 karma

Which player you looked at had the "best" charity?

By-Jason-Wolf546 karma

I'm glad you asked this question.

There are Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winners who "do it right," and sometimes that means not starting a charity at all!

Eli Manning partnered directly with Hackensack Meridian Health and raised $22 million for the children's hospital.

Larry Fitzgerald has a fiscal sponsorship with the Minneapolis Foundation, which means he does not have an independent 501(c)(3), but uses that established nonprofit's tax exempt status and legal framework as the backbone for his charitable efforts.

J.J. Watt has an independent nonprofit run by his mom. The JJ Watt Foundation reported $51 million in revenue and $49.7 million in expenses through 2020, including $48.3 million — or 97 cents of every dollar spent — on charitable activities.

These athletes and their nonprofits are highlighted in Part 5 of the story, which focuses on nonprofit successes and solutions to the ongoing issues players face in the nonprofit sector.

I hope this project helps to make a positive impact. It was never my goal to embarrass people who mean well.

hnglmkrnglbrry210 karma

It seems that an athlete using their name and likeness to raise awareness and direct funds to a proven, responsible charity is a better vehicle for success than slapping their name on a foundation and handing out grants as they see fit.

By-Jason-Wolf152 karma

Precisely. It's easier and more efficient!

blbd117 karma

I think you're doing a solid job here. Telling the truth with well researched technical details and actual recommendations and examples of how to find, remediate / prosecute, or avoid the pitfalls in the first place. Taking questions from the public and trying to give useful real world answers so we can understand. This is what having a strong press is all about.

By-Jason-Wolf83 karma

Thank you so much. For real. You just made my day.

__backspace__13 karma

What about Dak’s?

By-Jason-Wolf92 karma

Dak Prescott’s Faith Fight Finish Foundation is not an independent 501(c)(3) but has a fiscal sponsorship from Edward Charles Foundation.

The collective spent 93¢ of every $1 on charity the last 3 years, per tax records.

DocPeacock58 karma

What do you think about the whole Brett Favre scandal? It seems at least tangentially related to the topic.

By-Jason-Wolf136 karma

The Brett Favre situation is different because his nonprofit allegedly took public money meant to support social service programs and used it to fund construction of a volleyball arena at his alma mater.

I found no instances of WPMOY award winners' nonprofits spending money outside the scope of their mission, with the possible exception of Russell Wilson's nonprofit paying an executive who also worked for the family office. But that's up to the IRS or other government agencies to investigate and determine.

Wilson's attorney said the executive in question spent the "vast majority" of his time working for the nonprofit and was paid separately for his work for the family office.

By-Jason-Wolf50 karma

Thank you everyone for joining the conversation and for all your time and interest! We've gone more than three hours!

Please follow me on Twitter at @JasonWolf.

Email questions, comments, story ideas or tips to jwolf (at) gannett (dot) com.

And please continue to support my sports investigative journalism for The Arizona Republic and USA TODAY!

Here's a link to my bio and latest stories:

I’ll continue to check in here from time to time!

Vakco48 karma

Why and how are they inefficient and what are the purposes of the non-profits?

Where is the 5-part series? The only link you posted was behind a paywall. It would be super helpful for the AMA to actually read about this (Not behind a paywall!), because at this point I read your post and think "Wow, rich people making non-profits to evade taxation and to keep wealth hidden."

By-Jason-Wolf104 karma

Most NFL players' nonprofits simply collect money to give to other organizations. They're essentially fundraising vehicles. But in many cases, according to tax records and interviews with players and their representatives, less than half of the money their organizations raise end up going to the causes they were established to support.

Nonprofit watchdog groups expect efficient nonprofits to spend at least 65-75 cents of every dollar on charity.

The full five-part, 12,000-word story is behind a paywall. It only costs $1 to subscribe and you can cancel at any time.

The first two parts were published for free by Yahoo, through a partnership with USA Today.

Here is a free link to Part 1:

Part 2, which is a close look at Russell Wilson's Why Not You Foundation, went viral and is easily found on Google.

The full project is well worth your time and money. Promise!

tacknosaddle42 karma

It only costs $1 to subscribe and you can cancel at any time.

A bit of a tangent question here, but you're in the business so may have an answer.

In the dead tree newspaper era you could go to a newsstand and buy a single copy of any newspaper or magazine that they had. After buying it once or a few times you might decide to subscribe or you might not.

Why don't newspapers and periodicals follow this model with their online versions? The words "cancel anytime" would have seemed ludicrous in that past era. Can you imagine being a customer there who wanted to pick up a single edition and the man behind the counter said that you could only take it if you subscribed, but could cancel at anytime?

Today I wouldn't have a problem dropping a small amount of money in a one time payment to get access to a few days or a week's worth of a daily newspaper or a single edition's worth of magazine access tied to an emailed link or a specific device. I don't want to subscribe though.

It seems to me that from a revenue standpoint and for potential subscriber growth that it would be a better model to replicate that old way of doing things. Has the industry tried this to your knowledge?

By-Jason-Wolf26 karma

I really appreciate this tangent!

Essentially, you would gladly pay $1 to read the project, but don't want to subscribe and then have to cancel. I get it!

It's my understanding that these so-called "microtransactions" are expensive and difficult to streamline with so many companies and the fractured nature of mass media. And of course, media companies want to keep your business.

From my standpoint, it's a marketing issue. If you'd pay $1 to read this five-part series, why not enjoy the full month of coverage that comes with it? The subscription also provides access to USA Today and all the other newspapers the company owns.

tacknosaddle25 karma

If you'd pay $1 to read this five-part series, why not enjoy the full month of coverage that comes with it?

First off thanks for the response.

That could still be part of what I describe in a single transaction model though. Why can't I just pay a flat fee and get that one month access without the responsibility on my end to later cancel it? In my vision of a virtual newsstand there can be a multi-pack of different editions or publications available like that, but I still just put my cash on the counter to pay and walk away with what is agreed to (with the advantage that it's getting future access which was not available in the physical version).

I can't say that I know a lot about microtransactions, but given that there is already a complicated payment system set up for subscriptions there's something about those reasons that just don't pass the smell test. Here's a third party model that's trying to get started in this sphere too.

I think there's a general reluctance out there for people when it comes to subscriptions because there are so many stories about "teaser" rates gone bad. Situations where people later find that they're either locked in somehow or that it is intentionally difficult to cancel. That's part of why I think a single transaction option could lead to increased revenue as well as potential new subscribers based on that type of access.

By-Jason-Wolf19 karma

I agree with all of this.

Vakco7 karma

Can you post your full 5-part series behind the paywall then?

By-Jason-Wolf20 karma

The link in the AMA intro takes you to the full five-part series. Just keep scrolling from Part 1 to Part 2 to Part 3, etc!

The Yahoo link above is a free version of Part 1, with a link at the end to the full series.

The full five-part story is behind the paywall. That's not my call. But it's only $1 and helps support our important work!

Seattle201726 karma

This is terrible, to learn that so much donated charity money is wasted. Do you think it makes sense to not give money to "personal, maybe vanity charities" and instead give money to charities separate from vanity ones? I have always avoided vanity ones for that reason. I was surprised that my cynical view was only partially supported, because I figured players would also be basically stealing from their charities. Putting an unprepared relative in charge of a charity and wasting a bunch of money is maybe potentially a grift, but I like they way you put it as mostly careless and wasteful instead of mal-intentioned.

By-Jason-Wolf53 karma

Right!? That was my thought. And the more I learned about the situation, the more it became clear that these players aren't villains looking to take advantage of tax loopholes and their fans' generosity. They're largely good people who mean well and just need -- and want -- more guidance on efficient ways to give back.

Personally, I would not give my money to most athletes' nonprofits because most of these organizations are simple intermediaries.

They collect donations to give to another nonprofit, like a hospital or a food bank, and a portion of the money gets chewed up by their own salaries and overhead.

But I would be happy to support those causes directly.

FedorDosGracies24 karma

Did you go into the investigation suspecting that these 'foundations' were much more than tax shields, payola for friends and family, and PR hedges?

By-Jason-Wolf82 karma

I can trace the roots of this investigation back seven or eight years.

In fact, there are links in the full 12,000 word story to articles I wrote in 2021 for The Buffalo News and in 2016, when I was the Titans beat reporter for The Tennessean.

In 2021, I wrote an investigative story about the Andy and JJ Dalton Foundation, which set me on the path to tackle this larger project.

Long story short, in the 2017 regular season finale, Andy Dalton threw a late TD to help the Bengals beat the Ravens. This put the Bills in the playoffs for the first time in 17 years.

Bills fans responded by donating $442,000 to his nonprofit through an unsolicited, viral social media campaign.

But the Daltons' nonprofit, established to help sick kids and their families, was run by a for-profit management company called Prolanthropy that charged 22.5% of gross revenue, regardless of whether it had a hand in raising the money.

This means that when Bills fans donated $442,000, unsolicited, to show their appreciation and help sick kids, the company received nearly $100,000 off the top.

This management company has had two clients win the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, including Peanut Tillman, who left the company after it took a cut of his prize money for winning the 2013 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, and then spent just 26 cents of every dollar on charity in 2014, despite reporting record revenue and expenses. I spoke with Tillman and his wife at length of this story.

Part 3 of this series is about Prolanthropy. Here is a free link:

Emacado2223 karma

how about fitz and/or watt? what were their situations like? (cards fan obviously hoping for the best and that they weren’t shady intentionally haha)

By-Jason-Wolf94 karma

There are FIVE players with ties to the Arizona Cardinals who have been named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year -- J.J. Watt, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Calais Campbell and Kurt Warner -- and all five of them participated in this project.

Watt's nonprofit, like many players' nonprofits, got off to a bit of a rocky start but has since been exceptionally efficient.

Fitzgerald has a fiscal sponsorship with the Minneapolis Foundation, which means he does not have an independent 501(c)(3), but uses that established nonprofit's tax exempt status and legal framework as the backbone for his charitable efforts.

Boldin and Campbell both lost tens of thousands of dollars on fundraising events before figuring out their nonprofits were terribly inefficient and taking steps to correct the issues. Boldin and his wife later donated $1 million of their own money to create a scholarship fund.

Warner has donated large amounts of his own money and paid for his nonprofit employees' salaries out of his own pocket from the start.

mmhm__16 karma

How much of the fault is on player ignorance and the people they hire's malfeasance, versus outright player negligence and disregard for the effectiveness of the non profit?

By-Jason-Wolf35 karma

Much of the inefficiency appears to stem from players' ignorance and negligence. Players get to the NFL and they're encouraged to give back to their communities, but they're not sure how.

The mother of three players told me it's a cliche -- you get to the NFL and you start a nonprofit. But there is little guidance from the NFL and NFLPA on nonprofit best practices and pitfalls.

Of course, players should be focused on football. But a player is often the president of his nonprofit, and there are legal responsibilities that come with the role, including a fiduciary duty to the nonprofit and the public. Guys often abdicate this responsibility.

PrancesWithWools11 karma

The mother of three players told me it's a cliche

Mrs. Watt?

Tronvillain2 karma

That's too obvious. Let's call her "Connie W."

By-Jason-Wolf16 karma

It was Felecia Edmunds. She’s quoted in the story. Connie Watt is, too!

stickymeowmeow16 karma

I'm interested if you have any insight into Damar Hamiln's GoFundMe that raised $8M+ and how that money will be used. Not quite a nonprofit or foundation as far as I know but you said in another comment the Andy Dalton viral donation campaign was what got you down this rabbit hole so maybe this is on your radar.

What happens with that money for a GoFundMe that was clearly not prepared to handle such an insane amount of donations? Are there rules, laws, or limitations to what can be done with GoFundMe money? What accountability is there for whoever set up the GoFundMe to actually use the money for charity?

By-Jason-Wolf28 karma

Damar Hamlin won the NFLPA's Alan Page Community Award after nearly $9 million poured into a two-year-old GoFundMe he set up in college.

None of those donations are tax deductible, because he did not have 501(c)(3) status, contrary to public claims.

This information is included in the story -- not to slam Hamlin, but to further illustrate that the league and union celebrate guys who mean well but often don't know what they're doing in the nonprofit sector.

Hamlin's Chasing Ms Foundation now has a fiscal sponsorship through the nonprofit Giving Back Fund, which means he can use its established 501(c)(3) status to raise future tax-exempt donations. But that fiscal sponsorship wasn't set up until after the $9 million was already in his GoFundMe, and it isn't retroactive.

When you donate to a GoFundMe, you are assuming the person who set it up will use the money for the stated purpose.

andrew_david13 karma

Did you consider expanding your research beyond just WPMOY recipients? Seems almost every NFL athlete has their own non profit and the WPMOY are probably the best run of them all. I bet if you dug deeper you could find far worse run charitable outfits and probably even ones who are borderline frauds.

Just curious if you considered digging deeper nd blowing the lid off things (so to speak) ?

By-Jason-Wolf29 karma

I bet you're right.

If the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winners -- the men recognized as being among the best on and off the field and honored for their community service and philanthropy -- have experienced these issues, what do you think that says about the rest of the players in the league? And across pro sports?

Players need better nonprofit education on the front end, before they find themselves in these terrible situations. And the NFL and NFLPA could provide it, if they wanted to make this a priority.

There were a few players who were nominated for the WPMOY award, but didn't win, whose nonprofits were managed by Prolanthropy that I included in Part 3.

And I also touched on Damar Hamlin, who won the NFLPA's Alan Page Community Award after nearly $9 million poured into a two-year-old GoFundMe he set up in college.

But none of those donations are tax deductible, because he did not have 501(c)(3) status, contrary to public claims.

This was not to slam Hamlin, but to further illustrate that the league and union celebrate guys who mean well but often don't know what they're doing in the nonprofit sector.

I intend to continue writing about the issue, beyond the nonprofits founded by WPMOY award winners.

upstateduck7 karma

Have you compared the charities you examined to the average charity in the US?

Even in 1980 there was a majority? of "charities" that were thinly veiled grifts, donating something less than 50% of their contributions

Taking the opportunity to push Charity Navigator as a "fact check" for "charities"

By-Jason-Wolf19 karma

Charity watchdog groups including CharityWatch, Charity Navigator and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance expect efficient nonprofits to spend at least 65-75 cents of every dollar on charitable activities. That was the benchmark we used for this project.

upstateduck6 karma

I have to admit that 65-75% still sounds grifty, especially when many charities are just pass-throughs to folks that actually perform services

By-Jason-Wolf15 karma

And that's exactly the setup for many players' nonprofits. They basically collect money to give to other nonprofits that actually perform services, which makes the % of donations they pass on extremely relevant when judging their efficiency and justifying their existence.

ragtime_sam6 karma

About how many hours per week did you work on this over the six months? Great story!

By-Jason-Wolf27 karma

Thank you so much! While I produced a few other stories, this project was my priority over the last six months. And it was daunting. The review included thousands of pages of public records, multiple interviews with nonprofit legal and accounting experts, and reaching out to about a dozen players, all of whom have various levels of gatekeepers/PR people/etc. This led to hours and hours of interviews.

Writing the 12,000-word story took about three weeks. I spent about 12-16 hours per day -- and lost about 10 pounds -- "stress writing" the thing over the final two weeks.

It published the week of the Super Bowl.

Ok-Feedback56045 karma

During your investigation how much and what odds you and your team faced?

By-Jason-Wolf21 karma

Public records of nonprofits founded by last 10 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winners were scrutinized to inception and reveal systemic issues addressed in the project, which has tons of interviews.

I spoke with nearly a dozen Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award winners and nominees and nonprofit legal and accounting experts.

Every player I reached out to agreed to an interview or submitted answers in writing, with the exception of Russell Wilson. I spoke with his agent/attorney and marketing guy, who are both directors of his nonprofit.

TylerJWhit3 karma

Russell Wilson ain't looking good here. What Non-profit were you the most impressed with?

Which players in your work have been the most down to earth and/or philanthropic?

Are you on Mastodon?

By-Jason-Wolf30 karma

I highlighted Eli Manning (no nonprofit), Larry Fitzgerald (fiscal sponsorship) and J.J. Watt (efficient nonprofit) in an earlier post.

So many of these guys were down-to-earth and cared deeply about charity. It was a real honor to speak with so many of them. Among my favorite quotes:

“It’s not as simple as saying, ‘I want to help people.’ I wish it was. Trust me. I wish it was. But you have to understand the responsibilities that come along with it.” – J.J. Watt

“Everything you said, that was me too. That’s all players. They might not know everything about the foundation business, but they want to give back. They want to use their platform to do something amazing. I tried to tell people, ‘Learn from my mistake.’” – Charles "Peanut" Tillman

“There are better ways of doing things. With the knowledge that a lot of us have accumulated over the years, the older players, we need to figure out a better way of doing things to change the system so that the younger guys can do it easier — and more efficiently — and help the people they really want to help.” – Calais Campbell

“There are a lot of guys that are in that position that they’ve always dreamed of being in, and they finally have the opportunity to give back and be helpful, but a lot of guys don’t know where to turn. Guys don’t know where to start. And a lot of times when you ask people who you trust, they don’t even know. … I think if the NFL or the NFLPA have resources, they can do a better job of making it known to the players. And on the other end, players have to do a better job of reaching out to see if there are those resources.” – Anquan Boldin

“Every year in camp there’s mandatory meetings that have to be had, right? So why isn’t that one of them? I spent 45 minutes watching a video, ‘Why not to beat my wife.’ You know, ‘Don’t do domestic violence.’ ‘Why not to drunk drive,’ for 45 minutes. ‘Why not to carry a gun on you in an airport,’ for 45 minutes. All of these, I call them, ‘covering your ass-type things.’ And every year I have to watch this video because I’m on a team. And I’ve done it for 16 years. Why isn’t there a video or a session on 501(c)(3)?” – Andrew Whitworth

modifiedbears2 karma

Are you going to look into all the money donated to Damar Hamlin?

By-Jason-Wolf4 karma

I did! Details about Damar Hamlin and his GoFundMe are in the story and elsewhere in this AMA. The $9 million donated to his GoFundMe is not tax deductible because the “Chasing Ms Foundation” did not have 501(c)(3) status.

It does now through a fiscal sponsorship. But that doesn’t apply retroactively, according to nonprofit experts.

100pct_Linda1 karma

What do you eat for breakfast?

By-Jason-Wolf19 karma

I wrote about my undying devotion to Josh's Jaqs in a front page story for The Buffalo News in 2021, when, for the sake of JOURNALISM, I tasted 22-year-old Flutie Flakes.

Sometimes I write important stories! :D