July 31, 2014; USA Today
When Daniel Snyder created his Original Americans Foundation in the wake of vigorous national controversy over the racial slur that his Washington NFL franchise uses as its name and brand, many observers saw the foundation as an obvious attempt to buy support from Native Americans. The foundation was roundly criticized by a number of Native American leaders, but institutional philanthropy was quiet. As confirmed by email yesterday, no statement of criticism or concern came from major foundation trade associations like the Council on Foundations or the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.
Yesterday, Diana Aviv, the president and CEO of Independent Sector, the leadership organization representing nonprofits, foundations, and corporate grantmakers, sent Nonprofit Quarterly the first such statement from a national philanthropic infrastructure organization raising questions about Snyder’s strategy. “Creating a new foundation using the language found in the Washington NFL team’s name is offensive not only to Native communities, but to all people of goodwill who believe it is important to treat others with respect and dignity,” Aviv said. “Helping others through philanthropy is welcome. It is equally important to treat those we serve as they would like to be treated and call them as they wish to be called.”
“If us accepting the money makes (the team and its owner) sleep better at night, then fine, I wish them a good night’s sleep,” counters Mike Sangrey, director of the Chippewa Cree Wellness Center in Rocky Boy, Montana, discussing the $200,000 grant from Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation for a new rodeo-themed playground. "What matters is our kids get to enjoy a new playground. And how can that be bad?"
Others within the Native American community see the foundation’s new grantmaking as a transparent effort to whitewash the team’s name and reputation. In turning down a grant from the foundation for a skate park adorned in the burgundy-and-gold colors of the Washington NFL team, Kenrick Escalanti, a member of the Fort Yuman Quechan (Kwatsan) Tribe, observed, “We know bribe money when we see it.”
This article by Erik Brady of USA Today describes the openness of some communities, such as the Chippewa Cree, to the philanthropic distributions of Snyder’s foundation even if the quid pro quo for the grants includes not just accepting the money, but adorning the foundation-supported creations with the Washington team’s logo that many inside and outside of Native American communities consider to be racially disparaging.
In many communities of high need, money talks, even if the grantmaking comes with agendas not totally philanthropic, as with Snyder’s foundation. “I have no problem with the name,” Chippewa Cree tribal chairman Rick Morsette told USA Today Sports. “And if they’re willing to help our youth, that's good too.” Brady reports that the foundation “said it has 145 projects in the works with 40 tribes, though it declined to name them.”
How did the Chippewa Cree end up on the philanthropic agenda of Snyder’s foundation? According to Brady, Dustin White, the Chippewa Cree drinking water coordinator and the construction coordinator on the playground, “filled out a blind survey sent last year asking about needs…[but] the tribe didn’t find out until later that the Washington NFL team was behind the survey.” Snyder’s foundation director, Gary Edwards, controversial in his own right, followed up with a site visit and began to generate responses to the team’s wishlist. Among the foundation’s activities have been 300 iPads, trips to Washington for Chippewa Cree schoolchildren, plans for a walking path near the Wellness Center, and consideration of more projects such as a sawmill, a roller skating rink, and more playgrounds.
The Snyder philanthropy hasn’t gotten many other people to buy off on the NFL team’s racially disparaging name. “Native Americans cannot be bought,” NCAI executive director Jacqueline Pata is quoted as having said in the USA Today article. “While we appreciate billionaire Dan Snyder’s belated and sudden interest in the centuries-old plight of Native Americans, no amount of money makes it acceptable to promote a derogatory racial slur.” In light of the low incomes of the inhabitants of the Chippewa Cree’s Rocky Boy’s Reservation (where median household income is approximately $27,000), Pata commented on the marketing and PR use of the team’s colors and logo at the playground: “People need to take resources where they can get them,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean people should be publicly pressured to defend a slur.”
The line between Snyder’s team and his Original Americans Foundation is more than a bit porous. Brady notes that three former players for the Washington NFL team—Mark Moseley, Gary Clark and Chris Cooley—showed up in the Chippewa Cree council chambers with Edwards. There, Edwards announced that “the team name stands for pride, courage and intelligence.” Cooley, the recently retired tight end for the team, said he and his colleagues were there “to talk to people and start to understand how they feel and what their life’s like.” Since retiring from the team, Cooley has been an employee of WTEM, the Washington, D.C. sports radio station owned by Snyder’s Red Zebra Broadcasting.
Other than Independent Sector’s Aviv, institutional philanthropy has kept mum about the Washington NFL franchise and its transparent philanthropic venture. Perhaps raising questions about the Original Americans Foundation might lead to questions about the ethics and substance of other grantmakers whose activities may also have agendas that are as much PR and reputation-burnishing as Snyder’s, albeit without covering up for using a racial slur as an NFL team brand.
One foundation leader actually has spoken out about the Washington NFL team’s name. Likely presidential candidate and board member of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, Hillary Clinton, last week, declared in an interview, “I think it’s insensitive and I think that there’s no reason for it to continue as the name of a team in our nation’s capital.” We’re waiting to hear more public statements from philanthropic leaders, long concerned about issues of racial equity, about the racially troubling name of the Washington NFL team and the less than persuasive philanthropy of its new Original Americans Foundation.—Rick Cohen