Russell Wilson's Why Not You Foundation raises millions. Less than half goes to charity

They are the NFL's most honored players. Why did their nonprofits often spend so little on charity?
They are the NFL's most honored players. Why did their nonprofits often spend so little on charity?

Russell Wilson made regular visits to Seattle Children’s Hospital while he was the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. He and his wife, Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter Ciara, have used their considerable celebrity and fortune to battle food insecurity, expand educational opportunities and promote social justice and racial equality.

All of which are worthy of recognition and praise.

None of which required Wilson to start a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization.

“Doing good deeds and showing care and compassion for other people is something we should all do,” said Laurie Styron, the executive director of CharityWatch, the only independent charity watchdog group in the U.S. “It doesn’t require founding a charity. An important part of how a nonprofit justifies its existence is by quantifying what it is accomplishing relative to the resources it receives.”

The Russell Wilson Foundation, doing business as the Why Not You Foundation, was established in 2014 with a mission to “empower change in the world, one individual at a time and one child at a time.” The nonprofit’s work was cited by the NFL when Wilson received the 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, the league’s most prestigious honor, which is presented for excellence on and off the field, with an emphasis on community service and philanthropy.

In this Feb. 5, 2021, file photo, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson poses for a photo at the NFL Honors ceremony as part of Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, Fla.
In this Feb. 5, 2021, file photo, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson poses for a photo at the NFL Honors ceremony as part of Super Bowl 55 in Tampa, Fla.

Twenty-three of the past 26 NFL Man of the Year award winners have founded a nonprofit organization since the accolade was named in honor of Payton, the 1977 recipient, shortly after his death in 1999.

A six-month investigation by The USA TODAY Network into nonprofits founded by Payton award winners found that Wilson’s organization reported it 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.

This includes more than $200,000 a year for an executive who also worked for Ciara and Russell Wilson’s family office, the nonprofit confirmed, which raises questions about excess benefit transactions, private inurement and the organization’s “free-for-all” governance structure, nonprofit experts said.

The Why Not You Foundation also touts the entire impact of partnerships, not its proportional contribution to an endeavor, The USA TODAY Network found, inflating its achievements with “marketing fluff,” experts said.

Scott Pickett, the Why Not You Foundation’s chief financial officer and president of West2East Empire, Wilson’s brand management and production company, declined multiple interview requests for himself and the Wilsons, but told The USA TODAY Network in an email that the nonprofit’s model is “built on working with third parties to raise money” and claimed a far greater impact than its tax records reveal.

“Millions of dollars in funds raised by the Why Not You Foundation go through our partners who can deliver that money where it is needed more directly,” Pickett wrote. “Those funds were raised, in large part, through the work of the foundation, but you would not see all of those dollars in the foundation’s tax documents.”

Form 990 federal tax returns from the nonprofit’s inception through 2021 show it reported $7.5 million in revenue and $7 million in expenses during its first eight years of existence.

Less than half of the 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.

Nonprofit experts who reviewed the Why Not You Foundation’s tax returns for The USA TODAY Network, including Styron, a certified public accountant, and Andrew Morton, a partner at Handler Thayer LLP and chair of the firm’s sports and entertainment philanthropy group, said third-party fundraising by “partners” is not justification for the nonprofit’s expenses.

Nonprofit employees overpaid relative to expenses

In 2020, the NFL season in which Wilson was named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year, the 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 charitable activities.

The nonprofit spent more than twice as much — $548,000 — on salaries and employee benefits.

Three of its employees were paid $441,000 combined.

Ryan Tarpley was paid $209,000 to serve as chief strategy officer and Carly Young made $166,000 as executive director, both full-time positions. Pickett received $66,000 for 15 hours of work per week, according to the nonprofit’s 2020 federal tax return.

In 2021, the most recent year for which federal tax records are available, The Why Not You Foundation reported $1.2 million in revenue and $1.2 million in expenses, including $340,000 spent on program services, meaning just 27.2 cents of every dollar went to charitable activities.

The nonprofit spent $555,000 on salaries, other compensation and benefits — 44.4% of its expenses.

Tarpley’s and Young’s annual pay increased to $222,500 and $176,000, respectively.

Pickett’s part-time pay was reduced to $60,000.

Both six-figure salaries were exorbitant for top leadership positions at Seattle-based human services nonprofits with $1 million to $5 million in annual expenses, according to empirical data collected by the charity watchdog group Candid, formerly known as Guidestar, in its 2021 nonprofit compensation report.

Tarpley was paid more than double the median for a CEO or executive director ($107,000) and both Tarpley and Young exceeded the 90th percentile ($139,000) by tens of thousands of dollars.

“I think that they were paid appropriately based on their talent, experience and the knowledge they were bringing to us,” said Mark Rodgers, Wilson’s attorney and sports agent, who negotiated the contracts.

But Morton, the nonprofit oversight attorney, said the level of compensation was startling, considering the Why Not You Foundation’s annual expenses fall in the lower end of the $1 million to $5 million range.

If challenged, he said, there is a “high probability” the IRS could conclude the salaries constitute excess benefit transactions and levy substantial penalties.

“The nonprofit space is governed by fair market value,” Morton said. “You can say, ‘Oh, they’re super talented.’ That’s fine. In the for-profit space, the sky is the limit. Pay them whatever you want. But in the nonprofit space, no matter how talented you are, no matter how qualified you are, you are subject to those limits for comparable compensation.”

Governance structure 'virtual free-for-all’

The risk of penalties from government entities is exacerbated, Morton said, because the Why Not You Foundation reported on its federal returns that it has no written conflict of interest, whistleblower or document retention and destruction policies, and its compensation approval process did not include the use of comparability data or a review and approval by independent board members.

The charity’s federal tax returns list only three voting members of its governing body, including Wilson, the president, who is unpaid. Zero are independent of family or outside financial ties to Wilson.

A majority vote of independent directors is required to legally approve director compensation in some states — Washington is not one of them — and is a “universally accepted best practice everywhere else,” Morton said.

“The function of a charity’s board is to provide governance and oversight, including the checks and balances necessary for ensuring that decisions are being made in the best interest of the charity and not private individuals,” Styron said.

“A board can’t do its job if it’s not independent. If someone is being paid too much relative to the value they are bringing to the organization, there is no independent governing body at this charity to stop this from happening. It’s a virtual free-for-all.”

Rodgers, the sports agent, said the Why Not You Foundation actually has nine directors, including himself and Pickett.

All nine are listed on its “doing business as” registration with the Washington state Department of Revenue. But five of the nine are related to Wilson or have outside business interests with the family, leaving less than a majority eligible to vote on director compensation.

Tarpley and Young, who were listed as directors on the federal but not state documents, are no longer with the nonprofit because of personal reasons, Rodgers said.

Neither responded to requests for comment.

Rodgers attributed the recurring mistakes and omission of directors on federal tax forms to human error.

“I never saw a (Form) 990 until this investigation started,” Rodgers said. “Had I seen that, I would have been horrified.”

Tarpley also worked for Wilson family office

Entertainment executive Ryan Tarpley attends the Lambda Legal 2018 National Liberty Awards at Pier 60 on April 30, 2018, in New York City.
Entertainment executive Ryan Tarpley attends the Lambda Legal 2018 National Liberty Awards at Pier 60 on April 30, 2018, in New York City.

Tarpley was hired as chief strategy officer of the Why Not You Foundation in 2020 based on his varied experience. He had been dean of a prestigious prep school in Los Angeles, spent a decade as a senior foundation executive and chief diversity officer at Creative Artists Agency and was president of his own talent management company in New York.

“I negotiated his contract,” Rodgers said, “and I will tell you that he took a pay cut to come to work for the foundation.”

Tarpley’s job for the nonprofit required 40 hours of work per week, according to its federal tax returns.

But Tarpley also served as chief strategy officer for the Wilson family office, a business relationship divulged on his LinkedIn page and biography on the website for the Why Not You Academy, a nonprofit charter school he helped develop, but omitted from the Why Not You Foundation’s federal tax returns.

“If he’s with the family office,” Morton said, “then that relationship must be disclosed.”

The Why Not You Foundation’s federal tax returns reveal an outside business relationship between Wilson and Pickett, whose salary as a director may raise ethical questions, but Tarpley’s arrangement raises questions about the potential for private inurement, experts said.

Chief among them: Was Tarpley compensated by the Why Not You Foundation to provide services for the personal benefit of Ciara and Russell Wilson?

“It is absolutely, categorically illegal to have a nonprofit pay you to do work outside of supporting its charitable purposes,” Morton said, “let alone furthering private interests.”

Tarpley distinguished between his responsibilities for each position on LinkedIn.

“In my capacity as Chief Strategy Officer for WNYF,” Tarpley wrote, “I acquired corporate partnerships beyond the Pacific Northwest. I established partnerships with philanthropic organizations, as well as non-governmental entities, including United Way Worldwide Ride United Campaign and Why Not You Academy. I also facilitated the development of the marketing, branding, and communication strategy, and promoted the WNYF brand on a national level.”

His key achievements in the role included leading “fundraising initiatives for Why Not You supported programs, raising $5 (million) within two years.”

The Why Not You Foundation reported $2 million in total revenue over Tarpley’s two years with the nonprofit, according to tax records.

For the Wilson family office, Tarpley wrote he helped “establish a growth strategy and objectives” for Ciara and Russell Wilson.

“I directed development of the brand marketing strategy to substantiate the overarching brand identity,” Tarpley wrote. “I also advised the Co-CEOs on the procurement of new business opportunities, and guided individual businesses with integration of equity and inclusion and recruitment process and strategy. Businesses include Evolution Advisors, House of LRC, West2East and Why Not You Productions, and Dare To Roam.”

Key achievements included helping the Wilsons establish “two new businesses, Evolution Advisors (Insurance/Financial Products) and House of LRC (Fashion).”

Tarpley listed both jobs as full-time positions.

“The vast majority of the work that Ryan Tarpley did was for the foundation,” Rodgers said, adding that Tarpley was paid separately for his work for the Wilson family office.

Morton said the purported division of labor is difficult to believe.

“Tarpley spends 40 hours a week supporting the foundation and did all these other things with his time?” Morton said. “No way. The more he said he did for the family office, the less credible this becomes. Those are significant undertakings that would be in addition to his full-time commitment to the foundation, which I don’t buy, and I don’t think anyone with a full-time job would buy.

“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.”

Wilson touts partnerships, not nonprofit's contribution

The Why Not You Foundation claims credit for helping to raise more than $10 million for pediatric cancer research at Seattle Children’s Hospital, more than 70 million meals donated to Feeding America during the pandemic and for helping to create the United Way’s Ride United “Last Mile” home delivery campaign, a partnership between the United Way, 211 and DoorDash.

Rodgers, Wilson’s attorney, said Tarpley’s involvement in the project on behalf of the Why Not You Foundation contributed to nine million meals and 700,000 deliveries across 38 communities in 17 states.

Wilson was named the 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in part based on these achievements, and the league’s news release announcing the honor credited the “Last Mile” program for bringing food and supplies to 175 communities in the U.S.

“Russell Wilson has always prioritized serving his community, but this year, he met the challenge and more when it was needed most,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at the time. “He has shown continued excellence on the field for nine seasons, but the work he has done to help youth and fight food insecurity through his Why Not You Foundation bolsters his lasting legacy.”

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and wife Ciara pose for a photo with a charitable donation check during a ceremony before a game against the Detroit Lions at Lumen Field in Seattle on Jan. 2, 2022.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and wife Ciara pose for a photo with a charitable donation check during a ceremony before a game against the Detroit Lions at Lumen Field in Seattle on Jan. 2, 2022.

A close examination, however, reveals Wilson and the Why Not You Foundation often tout the entire impact of joint efforts, rather than their proportional contribution to a cause.

For example: The Why Not You Foundation website claims the annual Wilson Celebrity Invitational, a two-day golf tournament, concert and auction — along with the nonprofit’s partnership with Safeway/Albertsons grocery stores — has raised more than $10 million to benefit pediatric cancer research at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

In each of the last three years the event occurred, from 2017-19, Wilson and a representative from Safeway/Albertsons stood together on the field before a Seahawks game in Seattle and presented an oversized check in the low seven figures to a representative from Seattle Children’s Hospital.

The Why Not You Foundation website prominently displays a photo of the 2019 ceremony and includes a post with the headline: “The Wilson Celebrity Invitational raises $2.6 million to benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital.”

In the post, the nonprofit expresses gratitude for “our team of friends, family, supporters and partners who joined us at the Wilson Celebrity Invitational Golf Tournament in June and ‘pressed yes’ at Safeway and Albertsons stores across the state to donate money and collectively raise more than $2.6 million to benefit Seattle Children’s Hospital and its Strong Against Cancer initiative.”

The Wilson Celebrity Invitational, however, has never generated positive income, with direct expenses soaring past $860,000 in 2019, according to tax records.

The fundraising event has generated contributions, the bulk of the nonprofit’s revenue.

The Why Not You Foundation donated $78,000 to Seattle Children’s Hospital in 2019, according to tax records, a fraction of the $2.6 million check presented.

It has donated $836,000 to Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Seattle Children’s Hospital Foundation since its inception, according to tax records.

The Albertsons Companies Foundation confirmed it has donated nearly $10 million to Seattle Children’s Hospital since its Strong Against Cancer campaign began in 2012 — five years before the company said it partnered with the Why Not You Foundation — and provided documentation to substantiate its payments.

“Our collaboration with Russell Wilson’s Why Not You Foundation from 2017-2021 enabled our support of Seattle Children’s Hospital to grow significantly,” an Albertsons spokesperson wrote in an email to The USA TODAY Network, “since his endorsement and celebrity recognition brought valuable visibility to this important cause.”

Based on Albertsons data that predates the Why Not You Foundation’s collaboration with the grocery store chain, however, Wilson’s involvement in the company’s Strong Against Cancer campaign does not appear to have boosted its historic annual growth rate, underscoring questions concerning the foundation’s possible noncompliance with compensation requirements.

“Nonprofit compensation is based on the nonprofit’s own revenues,” Morton said. “It is categorical nonsense to say, ‘We have funds go to third parties and our foundation exists to pay for the expenses.' That doesn’t justify the salaries. You cannot point to some hypothetical third-party involvement and say, ‘We really raised $2 million, so this salary makes sense.’ No, you didn’t. You raised what your 990 says you raised. That’s the end of the discussion.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russell Wilson nonprofit spends more on salaries than charity

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