Mark Brown, Getty Images (August 08, 2019)
Mark Brown, Getty Images (August 08, 2019)

Over the past few years, some of the NBA’s top earners have emerged as philanthropists, including stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. That stands to reason—of the four major American sports leagues, NBA players earn more on average than MLB, NHL and NFL players. The average NBA salary is nearly $7 million, for instance, compared to $2.7 million on average in the NFL.

Still, there’s some serious cash being earned in these other leagues, and athletes getting involved in the civic arena in their 30s, or even their 20s, are prime candidates for greater philanthropic involvement down the line.

Consider NFL veteran Adrian Clayborn, 32, who started from humble beginnings growing up in St. Louis. He was a football star at University of Iowa, earning consensus All-American honors, and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first round of the 2011 draft. After a few years in Florida, he moved on to the Atlanta Falcons, the New England Patriots, and recently signed with the Cleveland Browns.

Over the years, defensive specialist Clayborn has earned more than $27.5 million from his NFL contracts alone, and is already getting his feet wet as a philanthropist. Clayborn recently signed on to a $125,000 collaboration with youth organization A Better Chicago and José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to serve more than 11,000 meals per week to students of Chicago Public Schools this summer. Clayborn is matching donations up to $15,000 to support this effort.

Though Clayborn will be suiting up for a five-hour drive due west, he’s lived in Chicago for the last decade, and it’s a region that’s important to him. But how did A Better Chicago connect with Clayborn? What does the collaboration tell us about this young giver? And more generally, what can we learn about courting star athletes as donors?

An NFLer’s Personal Focus on Youth

“I pretty much started on social media asking questions, and looking up organizations in Chicago, where I live, and Cleveland, where I play. My agent helped, and found A Better Chicago. He liked what he saw and after doing some research, I liked what they were doing, too,” Clayborn told me in a recent conversation.

Clayborn’s reference to his agent is something nonprofit leaders should keep in mind regarding athlete donors and the influence of their representatives. That said, in Clayborn’s case, after that initial introduction, it was the defensive lineman himself who really dug in and got on board. He connected with A Better Chicago CEO Beth Swanson, who once served under Mayor Rahm Emanuel as deputy for education, and was the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation. The two kicked around strategies, and one thing that really resonated with Clayborn was the immediate impact of providing meals for kids during the summer.

Part of this connection comes from Clayborn’s early philanthropic interest in helping at-risk youth. “In every city I play, I try to do something for children, the homeless, or fathers who are trying to find their way back after drug addiction. These are my main focuses right now,” he says.

Clayborn himself overcame his share of challenges early on in life. He was born with Erb’s palsy, a paralysis of the arm caused by injury to the upper group of the arm’s main nerves. And when he was 10, he lost his older brother Anthony to gun violence. Growing up with a single parent (his father was incarcerated), Clayborn credits his mother for instilling in him the value of hard work. He earned a scholarship to attend high school and then set his sights on professional football.

Clayborn and his wife Shannon are heavily involved with Hesed House, a homeless shelter near Chicago. In one instance, Clayborn brought a brand new pair of shoes for every child living at the shelter. And even back when he was drafted by Tampa, he and other teammates on the defensive line bought bikes and other items for kids on Christmas. “We were putting a smile on their faces, which goes a long way with kids and their family. We continued it every year,” he says.

Collective Impact for a Better Chicago

Since its founding about a decade ago, A Better Chicago has remained laser-focused on supporting young people, particularly young people living in poverty. “We want to help children and youth get onto a pathway out of poverty so that they can thrive in schools and in life,” Swanson tells me. “And we’re thrilled to partner with Adrian.”

As many organizations adjust their strategies in the wake of a viral pandemic and the nation’s most recent reckoning with institutional racism, A Better Chicago launched its Emergency Relief Fund, which has already granted more than $1.5 million to local nonprofits.

There are some 350,000 students in Chicago Public Schools; 76% of them depend on free or subsidized meals and 16,400 are homeless. Food security was already an issue for many Chicago public school students, and now that’s being amplified in the wake of COVID-19. A Better Chicago’s Emergency Relief Fund works to bring direct financial support, essential goods and innovative educational programming to these hardest-hit communities.

The fund’s grantmaking has touched organizations like Bernie’s Book Bank, KIPP Chicago, iMentor, and the BARR Center, a “a strengths-based model that provides schools with a comprehensive approach to meeting the academic, social and emotional needs of all students.”

A Better Chicago also recently partnered with World Central Kitchen, the decade-old NGO founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, which has refined its global food delivery work during the pandemic. Drawing upon its own institutional capacity, A Better Chicago helped facilitate World Central Kitchen’s expansion to Chicago. “They did not have a Chicago donor base yet and that’s another important factor in our work. We have over 2,000 donors that we raise money and pool funds from, and we were sort of able to ignite that network,” Swanson says, adding, “Adrian’s gift only amplifies this work.”

Central to Swanson’s work with A Better Chicago is the idea of collective impact and the pooling of resources to solve problems. This is why Swanson is particularly keen on Clayborn’s matching gift, which recently exceeded its goal of drawing in more than 100 donors. Overall, Swanson sees this successful philanthropic collaboration as an important model going forward. “There’s only so much philanthropy can do. But it can catalyze efforts like this, and use them to push for systems change,” she says.

As for this rising class of young athlete givers like Adrian Clayborn, Swanson is hopeful here, too. She makes a good comparison to the tremendous influence young celebrities and athletes have in civic participation, galvanizing efforts like Rock the Vote. “I’m not sure they fully understand their full power in catalyzing others to give. Collective action is where the power is.”

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