Shaun Alexander went though money, managers and misery after setting up a foundation to give back to the community. Learning from the experience, he's now following a new game plan.

Shaun Alexander started his foundation while still in college at Alabama, raising money before he started rolling in it. He believed his impact eventually would stretch beyond the NFL, beyond sports. His foundation would change the world.

That’s Alexander. Broad smile, even bigger vision.

The Seahawks star pumped $121,000 of his own cash into the foundation after signing his first contract in 2000. He paid $1.8 million to buy the community center in his hometown of Florence, Ky., in 2005, promising to renovate and reopen the gym he once couldn’t afford to join.

Big vision, even bigger overhaul.

    Most Read Stories

Alexander’s charity switched names, moved headquarters twice and employed four executive directors. His mother, brother, ex-coaches and a man who runs a Web site for Alabama fans served on his board, hardly the independent monitors experts recommend.

And that community center? More than two years after Alexander purchased it, the building sits vacant, outdoor pool empty and littered with leaves. A “for sale” sign hangs out front.

That is the difference between expectations and execution.

Alexander’s charitable challenges embody those faced by many of his peers. His is the story of an athlete who feels blessed, makes millions, decides to give back and finds the process more difficult than expected.

He’s one of at least 35 athletes with Seattle ties who created their own charity. Their common thread: Most were started by young millionaires with a vague desire to help people but little experience running a nonprofit.

“Everybody tells you, since you’re an athlete with money, ‘Hey, just start your own foundation,’ ” Alexander says.

Most are public charities, meaning the athlete also raises money from the public. Seven are private foundations, where the money mostly comes from just the athlete.

Three have more than $1 million in assets or revenues on their most recent tax return, but typically they are much smaller. Fourteen charities filed tax returns, and only seven gave away as much money as experts recommend. Two showed they donated nothing.

“I believe that every athlete has their heart in the right place. I really do,” Alexander says. “They just don’t know how to do it.”

Part of an

athlete’s brand

Today’s superstar athlete is his own corporation. He has someone to negotiate his salary, someone to arrange his schedule and someone to park his car.

And like many big businesses, athletes benefit from setting up a charitable arm, a giant blinking neon sign that vouches for their character. That says: I’m a good guy! I give back! It’s good business.

“A foundation,” says Karen Bryant, chief operating officer of the WNBA’s Storm, “is part of your brand as an athlete.”

In the Sonics’ locker room last season, three players already had charities, one claimed to (there were no tax records) and at least two more were looking into starting one.

Superstars don’t hold exclusive rights to charity. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has his own, but so does first-round bust Rick Mirer. NBA All-Star Ray Allen has one. So does Benoit Benjamin, a former Sonic for whom the term “journeyman” is charitable.

Athletes also have opportunities to do community work every day outside their own nonprofits, Hasselbeck says.

The quarterback recently set up a college fund for the child of a Fort Lewis soldier who died in Iraq. Ex-Sonics Allen and Rashard Lewis replaced stolen basketball jerseys at Cleveland High School. Seahawks executives dropped off an NFC Championship ring for a Woodinville High School student who was paralyzed.

Starting an individual charity is the next step. In theory, that sounds like a good idea. Take an athlete’s fame and status and expanding bank account. Marry to specific cause. Change world.

In practice, these charities generally perform below industry standards, operate inefficiently and often produce more acclaim than impact. For instance, The Sporting News gave Allen its “Good Guy” Award in 2005, a year his foundation spent $21,502 on charitable programs, its lowest amount ever.

“They get a lot of publicity and recognition because of the celebrity of the athlete,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors charities. “There’s very little activity. There’s very little money, which is a shame.”

Alexander: “I just

figured we’d help”

The Alexander brothers were playing Santa Claus in 2000. No beards, though; just thousands of dollars worth of toys. They donated them to kids across the country, from Seattle to Kentucky to Alabama, following the road map of Shaun Alexander’s life.

The marketing major came to the Seahawks as a 22-year-old rookie with a toothy grin. His brother, Durran, also a marketing major, served as executive director of the charity. Durran was older and wiser — all of 23.

“We have no idea how we did it,” Shaun Alexander says. “I just figured that we would help people.”

It seemed so easy then. The brothers ran the Shaun Alexander Family Foundation together. Mom served as treasurer. Durran made a small salary — $25,500 that first year.

They held their first event in Alabama in March 2000. The combo dinner-auction raised $47,515. Then came the toy drive. To cap off the year, the foundation paid for the Christmas party at the family church in their hometown.

In 2001, they moved the foundation’s offices from Alabama to their hometown in Kentucky. In 2003, they relocated to Shaun Alexander’s home in Kirkland.

Two years later, Alexander’s company, Main Street LLC, purchased the community center for $1.8 million, $700,000 less than the county had paid for it. The Alexander brothers couldn’t afford to join the community center when they were kids. Some 20 years later, Durran took a Seattle Times reporter on a tour in December 2005.

He stood in the entrance, next to a plastic model of their plans, and spoke proudly about how this would affect their legacy. He promised $500,000 in renovations and called the center “a more tangible way to show what the foundation does and where its heart is.”

The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote an editorial titled “Football hero helps his hometown.”

Easy to veer

off course

Starting the foundation is the easy part. But running a successful nonprofit requires more than good intentions and a healthy bank account. Too often, athletes fall into the usual traps — hiring relatives or friends to run foundations, losing track of operations or drifting out of touch. It’s easy to veer off course.

Follow-through and commitment are important. Former Sonic Lewis couldn’t name who served on his board of directors when asked. Former Seahawk Warren Moon’s charity reported $727 in contributions in 2004 and spent $1,027 to prepare its tax return.

Charities aren’t like other business investments. Their value won’t grow if left unattended.

“It’s not enough to just hang out a nonprofit shingle, say that they are committed to the community, write a check and walk away,” says Larry Maneely, president of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Athletes need to be there, be involved, be invested.

“Sometimes you’re used to everyone doing stuff for you,” Hasselbeck says. “Guys don’t realize how much hard work it is.”

Other issues arise when athletes leave town via trade or free agency or simply stop playing altogether.

The Gary Payton Foundation raised $2.4 million from 1997 to 2003, cementing its charitable legacy in Seattle. The former Sonics star once rented a bus and took 40 kids from the Ronald McDonald House holiday shopping at FAO Schwarz.

When Payton walked into Children’s Hospital & Regional Medical Center, says Matt Wade, former Sonics community-relations manager, “you would have thought everyone was cured.”

Now, Payton is a cautionary tale. After he left Seattle in 2003, his charity stagnated. In 2005, it paid its executive director $60,000 while spending only $10,000 for charitable programs and services, according to its tax return.

The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe and The Miami Herald all reported the charity’s spending.

No athlete wants bad publicity for charity work.

“It tarnishes your image,” says Marc Pollick, director of The Giving Back Fund. “You might as well take drugs.”

The Gary Payton Foundation is now in the process of closing.

“Usually what happens is most guys get frustrated, and then they just don’t do anything,” Alexander says. “Or somebody will write a terrible story about them, and now, all of a sudden, they’re bruised. So they don’t want to help anybody.

“I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Alexander:

“It’s just brutal”

The 2005 NFL Most Valuable Player is known for avoiding hits on the field. But Alexander took one in his hometown in July 2006, just two months after receiving Kentucky’s Unbridled Spirit Award for charity work.

The same paper that once lauded his community center published an editorial calling it “Florence’s least valuable eyesore.”

“It’s admirable that Shaun Alexander wanted to give something back to his boyhood community and entrusted management to his brother,” it read, “but the neglect that followed amply proves that operating a youth recreation center isn’t just fun and games. It demands a pro in charge, which is something Shaun Alexander should understand.”

Today, the property sits unused, dilapidated and for sale — for $2.5 million. Debris clutters the swimming pool. The walls are covered in graffiti. And the city fined Alexander $125 for code violations, which wasn’t paid until a lien was slapped on the property.

“Without a doubt, it’s a disappointment,” says Diane Whalen, Florence’s mayor. “The community as a whole is disappointed. The promise that was made by Alexander … has not been fulfilled.”

Alexander says the process has “been really, brutally, just disgusting. My heart’s in the right place, but if you don’t have the right structure, it’s just brutal.”

Alexander struggles to explain exactly what happened. He says he expected other local organizations to “jump in and want to help.” Instead, his foundation moved three time zones away while the property decayed. He also blames himself.

He says he would do it all again, just better. He maintains the center still will do great things. He doesn’t mention it’s for sale until asked, then offers this explanation: “Well, it is, but we have to do it that way if we want to sell it to a Salvation Army or a Boys & Girls Club. It’s kind of like I’ve got to look quote-unquote bad so we can do it good.”

Better ways for athletes to give

Charities provide undeniable benefits for athletes — tax breaks and good vibes from giving back, and add the I’m-a-good-guy section to their profile. But that doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way to give.

“Even if you were a genius, you could not administer a foundation playing sports full time,” says Greg Johnson, executive director of the Sports Philanthropy Project, which provides guidance to sports charities.

Harold Reynolds spent his 12-year baseball career wrapped in the community. The longtime Mariner started his foundation with the intention of helping children, won baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award for charity work and now serves on the board of Garth Brooks’ Teammate for Kids, which has given away close to $50 million.

He would do it all again. Except for one thing. Instead of starting his own foundation, Reynolds would rely on his team.

“Because of all the connections,” Reynolds says. “All the contacts.”

Working through the team is one solution. Partnering with a local charity is another. In fact, some of the most charitable local athletes don’t operate their own charities.

Mariners legend Edgar Martinez partners with Children’s Hospital. Current outfielder Raul Ibanez chairs the team’s golf tournament, a clubhouse tradition passed from one generation of players to the next. Seahawks receiver Bobby Engram raises money for sickle-cell anemia, which his daughter suffers from.

“Athletes should do philanthropy,” Johnson says. “There are many ways to do it short of starting your own foundation.”

Another more efficient solution cuts to the heart of the matter — athletes cutting checks without the hoopla. “It’s easier to really be a philanthropist,” says Daniel Asher, past president of Philanthropy Northwest, “than it is to pretend to be a philanthropist. Just give away $100,000.”

Alexander: “This is

what we’re doing”

The epiphany arrived unexpectedly, a phone call late one night in 2005 from Alexander to Mark Willis, the fourth director of the running back’s charity.

“I got it,” Willis remembers Alexander saying. “This is what we’re doing.”

Same vision, even better execution.

Instead of building his own organization, Alexander decided to partner with existing charities — the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, America’s Foundation for Chess and now Communities in Schools. He donated $100,000 to the chess group in the past year. He raised more than $54,000 for CHOICES, an organization that helps middle- and high-school students, with a program that asked donors to pledge money for every yard Alexander gained.

He sounds like a man who has figured it all out, who will use others to leave his imprint on the world. He took on the responsibility of running his charity himself and started using his fame and his platform and his smile to raise the profile of existing organizations.

Alexander sees those organizations as the vehicles for charity. He compares himself to the 24-inch chrome rims found on many athletes’ cars. The kind that spin and shine and draw attention as only a star can.

“Now everybody’s looking at it,” Alexander says.

Finding the formula took years. Sometimes he aimed high. Sometimes he fell short.

“The only thing I measure is: Did I change a generation?” Alexander says. “I call that being ‘kingdom-minded.’ And for that day, the answer could be yes, and the next day, the answer could be no. But every day that’s going to be the shot.”

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or gbishop@seattletimes.com

Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com