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NFL’s Russell Wilson faces criticism over charitable foundation’s spending

Feb 17, 2023


The NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award was established to recognize players who have had a “significant positive impact” on their community. In 2020, the league honored then-Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson with the award, citing the work his charity, the Why Not You Foundation, had been doing to empower disadvantaged children.

A six month investigation by the USA TODAY Network into past WPMOY winners has raised questions about the financial records of Wilson’s organization.

The Better Business Bureau normally expects efficient nonprofits to spend at least 65 to 75 cents of every dollar on charitable activities, with the best spending far more. USA Today reported the Why Not You Foundation spent less than 25 cents of every dollar it raised on charitable activities from 2020 through 2021. During the 2020 NFL season in which Wilson was named Walter Payton Man of the Year, his Why Not You Foundation reported $838,000 in revenue and $1.2 million in expenses, including $257,000 on program services, meaning just 21.3 cents of every dollar spent went to philanthropic initiatives.

Over that same time span, the nonprofit was putting nearly twice as much money toward salaries and employee benefits, including a more than $200,000 annual paycheck for one executive who has also worked for other business ventures of Wilson and his wife, Ciara. In total, during the first eight years of the foundation’s existence, just $2.8 million, or a little over 39 cents of every dollar spent, has gone to charitable activities — all as grants to other organizations.

Nonprofit oversight attorney Andrew Morton believes the Why Not You Foundation could be at risk of facing substantial IRS penalties, saying that there is a “high probability” the agency could conclude some of the nonprofit’s salaries constitute excess benefit transactions. Morton also added that the risk of penalties from government entities is exacerbated because “it is absolutely, categorically illegal to have a nonprofit pay you to do work outside of supporting its charitable purposes, let alone furthering private interests.”

Executives at the charity contend they are actually giving more than what is being reported. Shayla Tait, the executive director of the Why Not You Foundation, has said that because their organization works with various groups who donate directly to causes, that money does not show up on their tax records.

“Like many charitable organizations, a significant amount of our philanthropic impact is not reflected on our 990 form, including more than $10 million raised in collaboration with our partners, who granted these funds directly to nonprofit organizations serving immediate needs,” Tait said. “Russell, Ciara and the WNYF have always cared more about impact than credit. Our teamwork approach has proven successful, especially in critical times.”

Wilson, now with the Denver Broncos, has echoed this explanation in his own statement following the investigation into his nonprofit. The Super Bowl XLVIII champion said that his organization has been able to deliver results because it “will always care more about impact than credit.”

“For our Why Not You Foundation over the past eight years we’ve been so freaking blessed to meet so many amazing people, so many amazing kids along the way and to be able to also partner with some amazing brands,” Wilson said. “With those partnerships we’ve been fortunate to be able to drive over 10 plus millions of dollars for pediatric cancer, for education and for hunger prevention and so much more. Those are the things that haven’t really been highlighted and talked about, but I just want to highlight those things.”

The nonprofits of two other former WPMOY honorees, Charles Tillman and Anquan Boldin, were also found to be giving less than 26 cents of every dollar made to charity work. Tillman’s group had 26 cents of every dollar spent on charities, while Boldin’s foundation directed 25.5 cents of every dollar, raising more questions about the extent of this issue.

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