In the face of mounting public pressure to change the name of his NFL team, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder wrote in a 2014 letter that it was time to focus on actions, not words.
That's why, he wrote, he was announcing the creation of the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, a nonprofit organization that would "provide meaningful and measurable resources that provide genuine opportunities for Tribal communities."
"I believe the Washington Redskins community should commit to making a real, lasting, positive impact on Native American quality of life — one tribe and one person at a time," Snyder wrote.
Now, more than six years later, the team is undergoing a "thorough review" of its name amid a new wave of criticism and public statements from key sponsors.
And after a splashy start, Snyder's once-trumpeted foundation has effectively gone dark.
According to an audited financial statement obtained by USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation (WROAF) distributed $0 in grants or donations to Native American causes during the fiscal year ending Feb. 28, 2019 — the most recent year for which records are publicly available.
The absence of financial giving in the 2019 fiscal year is part of a steep decline since the foundation's inaugural year.
Tax records show the WROAF donated nearly $3.7 million to Native American causes in that first year, but less than half that amount ($1.6 million) in Year 2. The foundation subsequently donated about $650,000 in the 2017 fiscal year, $303,000 in the 2018 fiscal year and $0 in the 2019 fiscal year, according to tax records.
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As a result of that decline, the WROAF has spent more money maintaining its own staff than it has directed to Native American causes in each of the two most recent years for which records are publicly available.
Brian Mittendorf, an expert in non-profit accounting, said the organization's finances paint the picture of a private foundation that is "just kind of hovering out there."
"They’ve shifted away from providing grants to charities that are engaged in these areas. They’ve, in fact, shifted to a level of zero," said Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State.
"I guess the big question you would say is: What is it they’re doing instead? And it’s largely paying salaries. How that translates to the charitable outcomes is unclear."
In response to a series of questions about the WROAF, team spokesperson Sean DeBarbieri said the foundation has directed more money to Native American causes than any other professional sports team since its creation in 2014, citing a figure of nearly $10 million. (He later clarified that only $6.25 million has been directly distributed to Native American communities, and that the $10 million figure includes the foundation's operational and overhead costs.)
DeBarbieri also wrote in an email that the WROAF conducted two football camps, facilitated the donation of 160 pairs of glasses and delivered food and supplies to various tribes in South Dakota during the 2019 fiscal year, which covers the period from Feb. 28, 2018 to Feb. 28, 2019.
Boyd Gourneau, a leader with the Lower Brule Sioux, confirmed that his tribe benefited from all three activities, but he said the glasses were donated in the fall of 2019 and the other activities occurred roughly three or more years ago. He said his tribe nevertheless has a "great" relationship with the foundation.
"We haven't had a lot of interaction lately," Gourneau said Wednesday morning. "But you know, every tribe is kind of in a fight for survival right now. And when it comes, we'll take it. We can sure use it."
While the WROAF is still registered as an active charitable organization in Virginia, according to state records, there have been few public traces of its activity since 2018.
The foundation does not have active social media accounts, and the domain name for its web site has expired, though the site itself is still accessible. Promotional materials distributed by the team focus on the efforts of The Redskins Charitable Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity.
The lapse of the WROAF stands in stark contrast to the bombast with which Snyder, who has owned the Redskins since 1999, announced its creation.
In his four-page letter to fans in 2014, Snyder wrote that he had visited 26 reservations across 20 states in an effort to learn about the hardships faced by Native American communities. He also outlined charitable efforts that were already underway to address them.
"Because I’m so serious about the importance of this cause, I began our efforts quietly and respectfully, away from the spotlight, to learn and take direction from the Tribal leaders themselves," Snyder wrote.
In subsequent years, however, the WROAF quickly became a source of tension in some Native American communities, with multiple tribes or reservations declining to accept grants or donations from the foundation out of fear that they would become props in the ongoing fight over the NFL team's name.
The Quechan Tribe in Yuma, Arizona, for example, said it turned down a "blank check" from the WROAF that would have constructed a skate park on the Fort Yuma Reservation.
"We know bribe money when we see it," the Quechans said in a statement at the time.
Others were more open to the foundation's offers. The Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana, for example, allowed the WROAF to finance the construction of a burgundy-and-gold playground on the Rocky Boy's Reservation. According to tax records, the tribe received more than $960,000 from the foundation in a three-year span beginning with the 2015 fiscal year.
Like other tribes, though, the Chippewa Cree saw that money dry up during the 2018 fiscal year. It did not receive any grants or contributions in that time period, according to the WROAF's tax filing. (A message left with the tribe's finance department Tuesday was not immediately returned.)
Mittendorf said he found the WROAF's recent financial records to be both bleak and unusual. He noted that the foundation had just $1,000 in cash on hand in February 2018, for example, and that its spending on staff relative to grants and donations was "pretty skewed" — especially in the 2019 fiscal year, when it did not issue any grants or donations at all.
"It’s certainly rare for a private foundation to not engage in grant-making, and not engage in direct charitable activity, either," Mittendorf said.
DeBarbieri said the foundation plans to focus on future programming that will have a larger reach than its past efforts. According to the WROAF's tax filing for the 2018 fiscal year, the majority of its most recent donations have been directed to schools. The median gift or grant distributed that year was $3,600.
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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