In the wake of a USA Today Network investigation published Wednesday questioning how much money it gives to charity and other aspects of how it is operated, Russell Wilson’s Why Not You Foundation released a statement defending its practices.
USA Today reported that the foundation of the former Seahawks quarterback “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.”
That included more than $200,000 a year for an executive who also worked for Ciara and Russell Wilson’s family office, USA Today reported, noting that “raises questions about excess benefit transactions, private inurement and the organization’s ‘free-for-all’ governance structure.”
USA Today further reported that in 2020, “three of its employees were paid $441,000 combined” and quoted Andrew Morton, a nonprofit oversight attorney, as saying that if the foundation is challenged “there is ‘high probability’ the IRS could conclude the salaries constitute excess benefit transactions and levy substantial penalties.”
Morton also called the salaries “startling” for a nonprofit whose expenses are in the $1 million to $5 million range annually.
In a lengthy statement that appeared on the Why Not You Foundation’s various social media outlets Wednesday afternoon, executive director Shayla Tait touted the foundation’s work with charities in the Seattle area during Wilson’s 10-year career with the Seahawks, during which he was honored by the team and the league for his off-field charitable activities.
“Since founding the Why Not You Foundation in 2014, we’ve been blessed and fortunate to partner with incredible organizations to maximize our impact,” the statement began. “We’ve successfully partnered to deliver over $13,000,000 benefiting education, pediatric cancer research and hunger prevention. One of the most rewarding parts over the years is seeing the smiling faces of the children and families we meet as they overcome life’s obstacles.
“While the foundation raises funds and provides grants and gifts, our partnerships have allowed for more direct delivery and impact. Our dynamic partnerships allow for Russell and Ciara to give their time, passion, and ideas and raise awareness for causes in intimate and hands-on settings and events.”
Wilson was named the Seahawks Man of the Year in 2014 and 2020 for his charitable works and won the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year award in 2020, the only Seahawk so honored other than receiver Steve Largent in 1988.
At the time, the team touted the birth of his foundation in 2014 — named after one of his most-often stated motivational phrases, “Why not us?” — and its efforts “dedicated to fighting poverty through education, empowering youth to lead with a why not you attitude” as well as his weekly visits to Seattle Children’s hospital, which began during his rookie season in 2012.
Wilson at that time was lauded for his foundation’s partnership with Safeway and Albertsons that a team story at the time stated “has donated more than $9 million to Strong Against Cancer, money that funds lifesaving immunotherapy treatment.”
The USA Today report questioned the salaries of some working for the foundation and its overall percentage of money given to charity, and the foundation, stating that its model is “built on third parties to raise money” and not its direct contributions.
USA Today quoted an expert saying such a statement is “marketing fluff” to rationalize that less than half of the $7.5 million the foundation reported it raised in its first eight years through 2021 had gone directly to charity.
USA Today reported that of that money, $2.8 million, or 39.6 cents of every dollar spent, “has gone to charitable activities, all as grants to other nonprofits.” The remaining $4.2 million “has paid for fundraising, administrative and management expenses, including the salaries of three employees, who have received $1.9 million combined.”
The story quoted Morton, who said touting third-party fundraising by partners does not justify a nonprofit’s expenses.
USA Today called its report the result of a six-month investigation that included an extensive review of federal tax records.
The story questioned whether one employee of the foundation, Ryan Tarpley, also served a dual role working for the Wilson family office.
Tarpley was reported to have been hired as the foundation’s chief strategy officer in 2020 working 40 hours a week at a salary of $209,000 while also holding the same title for the Wilson family office, in which his stated goal was to “establish a growth strategy and objectives” for Ciara and Russell Wilson in private ventures.
“If he’s not spending 40 hours a week for the foundation and he’s doing work for the family office, then the foundation is paying for him to work for the family office,” Morton told USA Today.
The story questioned Wilson’s highly visible partnership with Safeway and Albertsons and his celebrity golf invitational fundraiser.
The story also reported that Wilson’s foundation was touted in 2019 to have raised $2.6 million to benefit Seattle Children’s hospital, but tax records showed the foundation had actually donated $78,000 and noted that the golf tournament had “never generated positive income” with “direct expenses soaring past $860,000 in 2019.”
But Tait’s statement referenced a letter the foundation said it received from Seattle Children’s at the end of 2022 expressing “their sincere gratitude to Safeway, Albertsons and the Why Not You Foundation for the incredible impact that your partnership has made at Seattle Children’s” and cited that the partnership has “already led to over $10,000,000 in donations and impacted countless lives.”
USA Today’s report included a statement from an Albertsons spokesperson: “Our collaboration with Russell Wilson’s Why Not You Foundation from 2017-2021 enabled our support of Seattle Children’s hospital to grow significantly since his endorsement and celebrity recognition brought valuable visibility to this important cause.”
USA Today’s report brought into question the structure of the leadership of Wilson’s foundation. It noted that tax returns listed only three voting members of its governing body — including Wilson, who is the president and unpaid — and that none is independent of family or outside financial ties to Wilson.
Wilson was traded by the Seahawks to Denver on March 8 and recently completed his first season with the Broncos.
Tait’s statement said that the Why Not You Foundation “is extremely excited to begin this new journey for the Why Not You Foundation in Denver and the surrounding areas and continue working to impact youth across the world.”
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