When DeAndre Jordan and his Treehouse Giving Foundation started donating meals during the pandemic, his goal was to help frontline workers fight COVID-19 and combat the subsequent food insecurity problem. When retired NBA star Dwyane Wade, Thunder guard Chris Paul and Blazers’ Carmelo Anthony launched the Social Change Fund in late July, they did so to address social and economic justice issues in black communities throughout the country.
Both efforts highlight a pair of issues plaguing American society and the greater global community right now: COVID-19 and the fight for social justice and equality. They’re also examples of the celebrity-driven philanthropic work that has increased over the last six months.
Since March, philanthropy attorneys and funds have seen a steady rise in donations to timely causes from their athlete and celebrity clients or their personal foundations. They’ve also seen what four in the field describe as a “substantial increase” in the formation of those very foundations through which many stars make such donations, as was the case with the aforementioned NBA trio. Nets star Kyrie Irving, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon are among the others who have launched their own foundations in recent months.
While official data from the IRS regarding the number of 501(c)(3) application approvals is still pending—the organization said it is “delayed” in posting determination letters issued March 2020 and later—philanthropy attorney Andrew Morton has seen a “significant uptick in new client inquiries” in the last four months. Morton, a partner at Handler Thayer LLP and chair of the firm’s Sports & Entertainment Law Group, said he has probably taken on “two or three times more clients than I normally would [in that span].” Among them are foundations started by Irving, Elliott, Brogdon, golfer Justin Thomas as well as Ironman World Champion and former Olympian Joanna Zeiger.
“When you include everything going on in the world and all the people who need help, it couldn’t be a more opportune time to start a foundation,” Brogdon said of funneling his philanthropic efforts into his own charity. The Brogdon Family Foundation is focused on increasing access to clean water globally (particularly in East Africa) and educational initiatives domestically in Indianapolis. “For me, it was not only a huge time commitment, it was a financial commitment—really every aspect of starting a foundation is a commitment. You can’t really have one foot in, one foot out, but it’s so fruitful on the other end.”
Irving’s KAI Family Foundation has already incorporated as a non-profit in New Jersey. Elliott is doing the same in Texas. Other organizations—including the Brogdon Family Foundation—that have yet to receive official 501(c)(3) status (which can take several months to obtain), have started operating through alternative means, like fiscal sponsorships through established 501(c)(3) organizations, like the Players Philanthropy Fund.
Co-founded in 2010 by former NFL kicker Matt Stover, PPF is a public charity that sponsors more than 250 charitable organizations and has worked with 95 athletes or sports-related clients. The non-profit organization essentially lends its legal and tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status as a charity to outside philanthropic projects or foundations as the fiscal sponsor by creating dedicated funds for individual initiatives. PPF then operates administratively for the foundation, providing financial oversight and ensuring compliance.
The Brogdon Family Foundation is one of several new funds PPF has taken on over the last few months.
“We have absolutely seen people redirect [funds]. When major things in the world come up, that’s usually what happens. Especially with everything related to COVID and social justice going on, athletes are really switching their focus to helping there because it’s very important—not that their other causes aren’t important, but this is something happening right now,” Brandon Warehime, PPF’s vice president of sales and marketing said. “They want to support [the] causes of today, and they’re able to do it.”
Brogdon also cites this moment in history as particularly incentivizing for both him and his peers.
“There are a lot of athletes with great hearts who want to help people with their money but don’t know how to do it,” Brogdon said. “So it takes an extreme situation—or opportunity, depending on how you look at it—like this to figure out, ‘Okay, I want to start a foundation,’ or ‘Philanthropy could be the route for me,’ to get started. I think that’s definitely something that’s come about from COVID and what the world is going through as a whole.”
Stover said PPF saw an increase in inquiries when COVID-19 first hit. The fund set up nine accounts “very quickly” to support the immediate issues the pandemic was creating throughout the country.
“Those [accountholders] knew they had access and the platform to get the support and funds,” said Stover, who played most of his 19-year NFL career with the Ravens. “Our existing accounts stuck with their mission plans, but there have been several athletes and some of our higher profile people who directed some of their funds to the causes we’re talking about.”
Titans running back Derrick Henry, for example, has used his Two All Foundation to give qualified grants to social justice, equality and diversity and inclusion initiatives, without completely redirecting his organization’s other work with youth. Henry is one of the “several athletes wanting to start something new as it relates to social justice,” Stover said. He likened the responses to those that occur after a natural disaster. But where natural disasters usually hit one particular region, the issues from COVID and ongoing racial injustice aren’t limited by location; they have sparked nationwide support.
Offseasons generally tend to be the time when athletes devote themselves to starting philanthropic initiatives, both Morton and PPF said. In addition to having causes that needed immediate support, athletes now also had the time to think through how they wanted to go about their personal foundation work.
“There were a number of [athletes] who had been looking at the idea of starting a foundation for months or even years, but they just never seemed to have the time to focus on it,” Morton said. “Suddenly, seasons were canceled, training camps were canceled. The other dimension, [which] the last few months have reinforced, is that there are an awful lot of people who need help, and many of these athletes are in a position to give it. Even if you’re not focused on COVID or social justice issues, they were still seeing the message that there are people in this world who need help from those who are privileged enough to give it and were inspired to take action.”
PPF said as they’ve continued to set up funds for new clients, they’ve also seen existing athletes and stars take a more involved role this extended offseason—and not just financially. This summer has been the season where shoes on the court have been replaced by boots on the ground.
“Even if a fund or foundation hasn’t reallocated resources or raised tons of extra money, they’ve spent more time on the street or being a more active part of what they’re doing,” said Warehime. “No one is able to host events or big fundraisers, but they’re still finding more ways to be active and raise money.”