Charities and Opinion and Editorials

EDITORIAL: Athletes could make charity last by giving instead of creating

July 30, 2011

Charity is no small business in the United States.

The country’s not-for-profit sector includes more than 1.5 million organizations, according to the most recent data available from the National Center for Charitable Statistics. And the annual Giving USA study estimated Americans gave nearly $291 billion to charity last year.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise that professional athletes are flexing their philanthropic muscles with increasing frequency, leveraging their wealth and fame to start tax-exempt entities of their own.

But as IBJ’s Kathleen McLaughlin reported last week, those efforts rarely last much longer than players’ often-abbreviated careers.

The difference the charities make during their limited life spans varies.

Some—like Indianapolis Colt Peyton Manning’s PeyBack Foundation, which gave nearly $800,000 to youth-serving organizations in three states this year—burn as brightly as the sports stars themselves.

Far more barely cast shadows, bringing in so little revenue that they’re not required to file federal tax returns. As the University of Michigan’s Kathy Babiak put it in the story, “How do you really make an impact that way?”

Good question—and one that makes us wonder whether such philanthropic gestures would be more effective if they were directed at existing charities instead of startups.

Many not-for-profits already are scrambling for funding, working not just to make a difference in their communities but to make a case for support. Most would welcome a helping hand from a local celebrity.

Passion for a cause is important, but charities don’t run themselves. They require human capital as much as financial resources, and both are in short supply. Why build an infrastructure that is all but doomed from the start?

Colts linebacker Gary Brackett’s Impact Foundation is managed by a Cincinnati-area company called Prolanthropy that specializes in helping professional athletes run their charities. Brackett’s organization is well-intentioned, supporting the families of sick children. But imagine the good it and other Prolanthropy clients could do if the money now spent on administration went to charity instead.

We agree wholeheartedly with former sports agent Milt Thompson, who advises athletes to support existing charities instead of forming their own. With more than a million agencies already in place—including 60,000 or so in Indiana—it’s hard to believe that many, if any, athlete-driven not-for-profits are addressing unmet needs.

Indeed, retired Pro Bowl tackle Tarik Glenn’s D.R.E.A.M. Alive has struggled to define its mission. Despite finding a niche offering service learning to middle school students, the not-for-profit has ended the last four years with a deficit. That’s a giant red flag.

While we applaud Glenn and the others for their philanthropic instincts, we implore them to rethink the decision to blaze their own trail. There are plenty of other paths to follow.•

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To comment on this editorial, write to edit@ibj.com.

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