Damar Hamlin’s $7M Charity Faces New Challenges Amid Sudden Growth

In May 2020, heading into his fifth-year senior season at Pittsburgh—and a full year before he was taken by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the NFL Draft—Damar Hamlin filed a two-page Articles of Incorporation with the Pennsylvania Department of State to create the Chasing M’s Foundation.

The “M” stood for “millions.”

The entity’s purpose, he wrote: “Providing scholarships and promoting education for High School and College athletes.” But that seemed to be almost an afterthought.

Seven months later, on Dec. 14, 2020, Hamlin launched a GoFundMe campaign for his foundation’s first initiative: a $2,500 toy drive for a daycare facility run by his mother, Nina.

“As I embark on my journey to the NFL, I will never forget where I come from and I am committed to using my platform to positively impact the community that raised me,” Hamlin wrote on the GoFundMe campaign page.

The horror of Hamlin’s medical emergency Monday night at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, when the Bills safety collapsed in a game against the Bengals, triggered a national week of social-media-driven beneficence, ushering millions of dollars into Hamlin’s two-year-old GoFundMe campaign.

Less than 18 hours after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest on the field, the second-year player’s foundation had generated more money ($4 million) in new GoFundMe donations than the entire value of his current four-year contract with the Bills ($3.6 million).

Instead of now chasing millions, the challenge for Hamlin’s charity is in figuring out how to handle them as they flood in.

Literally overnight, Chasing M’s was transformed from a college kid’s modest toy drive to a serious, seven-figure operation, all while its principal lay medically sedated in a hospital room. Thus, Hamlin’s family and management must now figure out, along with GoFundMe, how to handle the unanticipated wave of financial support and bring the foundation into compliance with state and federal regulations.

“We are in touch with representatives for the family, and our Trust & Safety team is working to help ensure funds are safely delivered,” a GoFundMe spokesperson told Sportico in a statement. The crowdfunding platform confirmed that the money raised would flow through Chasing M’s Foundation. Hamlin’s marketing team, Jaster Creative, did not respond to requests for comment, but on Wednesday afternoon posted an update on GoFundMe after the campaign crossed the $6 million threshold. (As of Thursday morning, donations had passed $7 million.)

“We will also work with GoFundMe to email all donors with more specifics regarding the use of funds as those details are available,” the update stated. “The foundation supports toy drives, back-to-school drives, kids camps, and more. We’re hopeful about Damar’s future involvement in disbursing the incredibly generous contributions.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, GoFundMe’s largest campaign was organized by another NFL player, J.J. Watt, who raised over $37 million in 2018 for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. At the time, Watt’s charity was registered as a 501(c)(3).

By contrast, Chasing M’s still bears the organizational sophistication and rigor befitting an unpaid NCAA athlete—as opposed to an NFL starter, let alone one who unexpectedly, and tragically, has been trending worldwide on Twitter. For one thing, Hamlin’s foundation is not registered as a federal nonprofit charity, but rather a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation. (Thus, any donations made to his GoFundMe should not be tax deductible, according to experts.)

The charity lists its official addresses as the home of Hamlin’s parents in McKees Rocks, a town of roughly 6,000 in western Pennsylvania. A for-profit company, Chasing M’s LLC, which Hamlin created in 2017, also shares that same address.

In February 2021, Hamlin’s for-profit Chasing M’s applied for a trademark for his brand’s stylized “CM” logo. However, the application was officially abandoned in April 2022, after Hamlin had failed to respond to requests for additional paperwork.

The nonprofit Chasing M’s original stated purpose—high school and college athlete educational assistance—could become a potential sticking point, according to legal experts who spoke to Sportico. This specific language remains legally relevant under Pennsylvania’s charity laws, which holds organizations accountable to their stated purpose and empowers the state’s attorney general to investigate how the money is being spent. In a statement late Wednesday, the AG’s office confirmed to Sportico that the GoFundMe fell within its jurisdiction.

“Our office’s concern focuses on ensuring that any donations collected are used for the purposes that were represented to the donors,” Deputy Attorney General Mark Pacella said in a statement. “The donations received by GoFundMe obtained on behalf of Damar Hamlin are subject to the Pennsylvania Solicitation of Funds for Charitable Purposes Act as it applies to all Internet fundraising campaigns when the charity and/or the fundraiser is located in Pennsylvania.”

On Tuesday, Jaster Creative posted an initial update to the GoFundMe campaign, in which it continued to solicit contributions for “Damar’s community initiatives and his current fight,” implying that some of the funds could be used by Hamlin. However, that language was later deleted. Given its charitable representations, experts say that Hamlin would be a disqualified person from receiving monies donated to this particular campaign.

Though they are held to less exacting standards than registered charities, nonprofit corporations in Pennsylvania are prohibited from providing any “incidental” income to members, directors or offices.

According to its charter, Hamlin is Chasing M’s lone incorporator, and the entity does not have any members. It is unknown whether the entity has a Board of Directors; that information is not required to be filed with the state, though it can be. If there isn’t a board, that could make for a bigger headache, one that possibly would need to be resolved before a court.

Pennsylvania requires nonprofit corporations to register as charities if they take in over $25,000 in a given year. Given the vast swath of its donors, Chasing M’s will likely now have to register as a charity in most, if not all of the 38 states that currently have such requirements. For example, New York’s charity statute requires out-of-state charities to register if they receive more than $25,000 from New York residents.

(This story has been updated to reflect the increasing amount of donations to Hamlin’s foundation.)

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