Is this really all that bad?

All your questions about the USA Today investigation of Russell Wilson's foundation and its implications spelled out in one easy-to-read place.

Q: Is it really this big of a deal?

A: Well, this isn’t an investment scam and there’s no accusation of fraud here, but it certainly does look like the Why Not You Foundation raised a fair amount of money and not nearly enough of it went to programs and activities that fall within its mission.

Q: But aren’t most athlete charities like this?

A: Well, there are plenty of examples of non-profit organizations founded by athletes that have exhibited similar inefficiency and even worse dysfunction. However, even against that history, Wilson’s non-profit stands out in terms of how much it spent on employee salaries and how little went to charity.

Q: How would you know?

A: In 2007, I spent the summer looking into the financials of athlete charities along with Greg Bishop in a project that ran in The Seattle Times.

Q: What’s the biggest issue here?

A: The salary and role of Ryan Tarpley. He was hired as chief strategy officer in 2020, paid a salary of $209,000, which boosted to $222,900 the following year. That’s a really big salary compared to his peers at other non-profits of similar size. He also worked for the family office, though, meaning he did work for Wilson and his wife, Ciara, on issues that were outside the foundation. He says they were different positions, that he essentially had two full-time jobs with no crossover.

Q: So what’s the problem?

A: Well, you absolutely can’t be paid by a non-profit for work that doesn’t contribute to the foundation’s mission and the more he says he did for the private business interests of Russ and Ciara the less believable it becomes that he was spending 40 hours per week working strictly for the foundation.

Q: Why is that seen as a problem?

A: Because the money in the foundation doesn’t belong to Wilson and Ciara. It belongs to the foundation as the result of donations, which can be tax deductible, with the understanding the money would be used to further the non-profit organization’s mission. If the foundation paid him for work he did for the family it would be illegal.

Q: Seems like people are out to get Russ.

A: Yes, he was clearly targeted because of who he is: 2020 winner of the Walter Payton Award. The USA Today investigation looked into the non-profit foundations of all the players who’ve won the Payton Award as Man of the Year. The story on Wilson’s foundation is one in a five-part series that shows how the good intentions and honorable ambition of famous football players aren’t enough to create an effective, efficient non-profit organization.

Q: OK, so Russ could have been better. He’s still helping people so what’s the problem?

A: Well, the problem is that people donated to the Why Not You Foundation, and they did so believing that it would help causes aligned with the foundation’s mission. However, the records indicate that of ever dollar donated, only about a quarter was spent on things that corresponded with the mission.

Q: What should Wilson do now?

A: You want my advice on what he should do or my prediction on what he will do?

Q: How about both?

A: What he should do: Start with a statement that explains he built his foundation out of an earnest desire to help his community. Looking back now, he can see he was very ambitious but also inexperienced and naive and that led to some mistakes. It’s very clear his foundation isn’t functioning as efficiently and effectively as he imagined. He should promise to take immediate steps to reconcile this gap between his vision for the foundation and the current reality.

Then he has to decide if he’s going to keep operating the foundation. If the plan is to shutter it, announce that going forward he will work with existing charities that already have the infrastructure and fund-raising mechanisms in place to maximize the impact his charitable work can have while eliminating overhead.

If the plan is to keep operating the foundation, he should announce that the first step in the overhaul is that he and Ciara will make a personal contribution that equals the total salary that has been paid to executive officers since the foundation opened and that this money will be earmarked to be donated within the next 6 months to organizations that fall within the foundation’s mission statement.

Q: Man, you just put your hands in that man’s pockets.

Q: Kind of like he put his hands in the pockets of the people he asked to donate to a non-profit foundation that over the past few years has spent twice as much money on employee salaries as it has given to charitable causes? If Russ really wants to keep the foundation going, he should want everyone who has donated and will donate to the Why Not You Foundation to know that as much of their money as possible will go to help the causes specified by the mission.

Q: What do you think he will do?

A: Well, by the looks of it the people who run Wilson’s foundation are going to insist that the details in the USA Today report don’t reflect the full breadth of the impact the foundation has had. Specifically, they’ve pointed to the fact that the foundation has sought to partner with other organizations, lending Wilson’s time and name to their fund-raising efforts. A statement posted on the foundation’s Web site by the new executive director takes this approach as well, stating “We’ve successfully partnered to deliver over $13,000,000 benefiting education, pediatric cancer research and hunger prevention.”

Q: That doesn’t sound … bad?

Here’s the problem, though. The Why Not You Foundation didn’t raise that money, the partner organizations did. And I’m not sure why you need to pay multiple executives six-figure salaries to work with other organizations when you could, you know, just volunteer.

And that brings me to the deeper conclusion here. You don’t need a foundation to do charitable work. In fact, sometimes having a foundation gets in the way of the charitable work because you need to build and monitor the organization. And while it is possible to do that well and use your status to create a bigger impact, it’s also really easy to go off track by hiring people who don’t know as much as they think they do.

Q: So Russ just got bad advice?

Well, if he got good advice, he didn’t heed it. But he also wanted a foundation and while that certainly reflects his ambition for charity work it is also something that helps further a public image. And if it does go off track, then people like myself might end up wondering if the visibility of your charity efforts are as important to you as the impact. And if someone were to take this cynical viewpoint about Wilson, they would point to details like the two-day golf invitational held annually from 2016 to 2019. Billed as a fundraiser, the event never generated more in donations than it cost to put on. In 2019, the Why Not You Foundation publicized that the invitational “raises $2.6 million to benefit Children’s Hospital.” The Why Not You Foundation actually donated to $78,000 to Children’s Hospital in 2019. The bulk of the money described in the foundation’s press release came from the Albertsons Companies Foundation, which Wilson’s organization had partnered with.

Q: Still, Children’s Hospital got the $2.6 million, right?

A: Yes, it did. And that’s a good thing, but I would ask whether you really need two non-profit executives making salaries of that size so Wilson can work with Albertsons Companies Foundation. Why not just volunteer time? Because if you are going to have your own big-budget foundation you should be able to point to the fund-raising totals that justify the infrastructure costs otherwise people will rightly wonder whether the money that was donated to your foundation was ultimately used for.

Join the conversation

or to participate.