SEATTLE - Shaun Alexander started his foundation while still in college at Alabama, raising money before he started rolling in it. He believed his impact eventually would stretch beyond the NFL, beyond sports. His foundation would change the world.
That's Alexander. Broad smile, even bigger vision.
The Seahawks star pumped $121,000 of his own cash into the foundation after signing his first contract in 2000. He paid $1.8 million to buy the community center in his hometown of Florence, Ky., in 2005, promising to renovate and reopen the gym he once couldn't afford to join.
Big vision, even bigger overhaul.
Alexander's charity switched names, moved headquarters twice and employed four executive directors. His mother, brother, ex-coaches and a man who runs a Web site for Alabama fans served on his board, hardly the independent monitors experts recommend.
And that community center? More than two years after Alexander purchased it, the building sits vacant, outdoor pool empty and littered with leaves. A "for sale" sign hangs out front.
That is the difference between expectations and execution.
Alexander's charitable challenges embody those faced by many of his peers. His is the story of an athlete who feels blessed, makes millions, decides to give back and finds the process more difficult than expected.
He's one of at least 35 athletes with Seattle ties who created their own charity. Their common thread: Most were started by young millionaires with a vague desire to help people but little experience running a nonprofit.
"Everybody tells you, since you're an athlete with money, 'Hey, just start your own foundation,' " Alexander says.
Most are public charities, meaning the athlete also raises money from the public. Seven are private foundations, where the money mostly comes from just the athlete.
Three have more than $1 million in assets or revenues on their most recent tax return, but typically they are much smaller. Fourteen charities filed tax returns, and only seven gave away as much money as experts recommend. Two showed they donated nothing.
"I believe that every athlete has their heart in the right place. I really do," Alexander says. "They just don't know how to do it."
Part of an athlete's brand
Today's superstar athlete is his own corporation. He has someone to negotiate his salary, someone to arrange his schedule and someone to park his car.
And like many big businesses, athletes benefit from setting up a charitable arm, a giant blinking neon sign that vouches for their character. That says: I'm a good guy! I give back! It's good business.
"A foundation," says Karen Bryant, chief operating officer of the WNBA's Storm, "is part of your brand as an athlete."
In the Sonics' locker room last season, three players already had charities, one claimed to (there were no tax records) and at least two more were looking into starting one.
Superstars don't hold exclusive rights to charity. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck has his own, but so does first-round bust Rick Mirer. NBA All-Star Ray Allen has one. So does Benoit Benjamin, a former Sonic for whom the term "journeyman" is charitable.
Athletes also have opportunities to do community work every day outside their own nonprofits, Hasselbeck says.
The quarterback recently set up a college fund for the child of a Fort Lewis soldier who died in Iraq. Ex-Sonics Allen and Rashard Lewis replaced stolen basketball jerseys at Cleveland High School. Seahawks executives dropped off an NFC Championship ring for a Woodinville High School student who was paralyzed.
Starting an individual charity is the next step. In theory, that sounds like a good idea. Take an athlete's fame and status and expanding bank account. Marry to specific cause. Change world.
In practice, these charities generally perform below industry standards, operate inefficiently and often produce more acclaim than impact. For instance, The Sporting News gave Allen its "Good Guy" Award in 2005, a year his foundation spent $21,502 on charitable programs, its lowest amount ever.
"They get a lot of publicity and recognition because of the celebrity of the athlete," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, which monitors charities. "There's very little activity. There's very little money, which is a shame."
Alexander: "I just figured we'd help"
The Alexander brothers were playing Santa Claus in 2000. No beards, though; just thousands of dollars worth of toys. They donated them to kids across the country, from Seattle to Kentucky to Alabama, following the road map of Shaun Alexander's life.
The marketing major came to the Seahawks as a 22-year-old rookie with a toothy grin. His brother, Durran, also a marketing major, served as executive director of the charity. Durran was older and wiser -- all of 23.
"We have no idea how we did it," Shaun Alexander says. "I just figured that we would help people."
It seemed so easy then. The brothers ran the Shaun Alexander Family Foundation together. Mom served as treasurer. Durran made a small salary -- $25,500 that first year.
They held their first event in Alabama in March 2000. The combo dinner-auction raised $47,515. Then came the toy drive. To cap off the year, the foundation paid for the Christmas party at the family church in their hometown.
In 2001, they moved the foundation's offices from Alabama to their hometown in Kentucky. In 2003, they relocated to Shaun Alexander's home in Kirkland.
Two years later, Alexander's company, Main Street LLC, purchased the community center for $1.8 million, $700,000 less than the county had paid for it. The Alexander brothers couldn't afford to join the community center when they were kids. Some 20 years later, Durran took a Seattle Times reporter on a tour in December 2005.
He stood in the entrance, next to a plastic model of their plans, and spoke proudly about how this would affect their legacy. He promised $500,000 in renovations and called the center "a more tangible way to show what the foundation does and where its heart is."
The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote an editorial titled "Football hero helps his hometown."
Easy to veer off course
Starting the foundation is the easy part. But running a successful nonprofit requires more than good intentions and a healthy bank account. Too often, athletes fall into the usual traps -- hiring relatives or friends to run foundations, losing track of operations or drifting out of touch. It's easy to veer off course.
Follow-through and commitment are important. Former Sonic Lewis couldn't name who served on his board of directors when asked. Former Seahawk Warren Moon's charity reported $727 in contributions in 2004 and spent $1,027 to prepare its tax return.
Charities aren't like other business investments. Their value won't grow if left unattended.
"It's not enough to just hang out a nonprofit shingle, say that they are committed to the community, write a check and walk away," says Larry Maneely, president of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Athletes need to be there, be involved, be invested.
"Sometimes you're used to everyone doing stuff for you," Hasselbeck says. "Guys don't realize how much hard work it is."
--The Associated Press