Analysis of Commanders charity raises questions from watchdog groups

The Washington Commanders Charitable Foundation, which receives upward of 75% of its donations from fans and the public, is operating in a manner that calls into question whether it is upholding its charitable mission responsibly, according to two independent watchdog groups and an ESPN analysis of financial documents.

The nonprofit watchdog groups, CharityWatch and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, examined the charity's tax filings and said there are enough apparent red flags to warrant attention from attorneys general in the two states where it operates, Maryland and Virginia. Attorneys general regulate nonprofits on the state level and have authority to levy civil penalties.

The Commanders' charity, whose stated mission is to help needy children in the D.C. area, raised $2.1 million in contributions and grants in fiscal 2020, giving away more than $697,000. In fiscal year 2021, during the height of the pandemic, it raised $927,992 and gave away more than $471,000.

ESPN began examining the foundation's finances after it cut a bad $14,822 check to a recent winner of its 50/50 raffle. The Commanders cited a "bank error" and said the team wired the ticket holder his winnings. The foundation had a little less than $1.7 million cash on hand as of March 31, 2021, according to its most recent filings, with an average of $2.1 million in the bank in five previous years.

In a statement to ESPN, Commanders spokesperson Jean Medina said, "The Washington Commander owners, players, donors, alumni, and staff have dedicated time and resources to helping others and we are very proud of the work that has been accomplished, while becoming even more integrated as a community partner in the Washington region."

A review of the tax filings by ESPN and the two independent groups found the Commanders' charity:

  • Lacks sufficient independent oversight. Commanders co-CEO Tanya Snyder was the foundation's sole voting board member beginning in the fiscal year ended March 31, 2021, through April of this year. She assumed a more active role in the team in July 2021 after her husband, Dan Snyder, was suspended following an NFL investigation into the team's toxic work culture.

  • Failed to disclose that a company it regularly lists on governmental filings as one it owes money to is owned by team owner Dan Snyder.

  • Included in its financial filings unusual transactions, including how it accounts for ticket donations and the labeling of a $6,000 payment to a for-profit company that provided marketing services to the foundation as a "donation."

  • Made grants to organizations that are not in line with its stated mission.

"There are so many red flags here, it's hard to keep score," said CharityWatch's executive director Laurie Styron. "Taxpayers who subsidize the existence of public charities also have a stake in knowing that nonprofits aren't being used to forward the personal interests of the people running it."

Both watchdog organizations recommend that public charities have at least five voting members with a "diversity of perspectives," and their names should be public.

"This protects the charity or foundation by making sure that people aren't making nefarious, self-interested deals and that they are getting multiple perspectives on the thorny societal problems that they claim they are trying to solve," said Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. Tanya Snyder is the only board member listed on the foundation's most recent public filing. Before the fiscal year ended in March 2021, she had been one of three board members named in filings. The two other board members served as co-executive directors of the foundation.

"It is a violation of all the best practices in philanthropy," Dorfman said.

"This is a big problem," Styron agreed. "One person can't govern themselves. There is no board. There is no independence. There are no checks and balances against conflict or competing interests."

Weeks after ESPN started asking why the charity didn't have the recommended five trustees, Medina on Wednesday released a written statement saying that Tanya Snyder was the charity's sole board member for a time before selecting four additional voting members for the board in April. All four work or worked for the team: team president Jason Wright; senior vice president of corporate affairs and strategy Amina Bulman; the foundation's executive director, Valeri Biberaj; and chief operating officer Greg Resh, who resigned from the team and the foundation board in September. Medina declined multiple requests to review conflict-of-interest statements and other paperwork the foundation told government agencies it would provide for public inspection "on request."

Dorfman said that the charity's practice of filling the board with team employees was problematic. "The potential for abuse is really, really high."

As part of her statement, Medina provided a 12-page document compiled in response to ESPN's questions. The document listed nonprofits associated with other NFL teams that also have fewer than five voting members.

In its independent research, ESPN found that seven public charities associated with NFL teams have fewer than five members, while others, including foundations for the Ravens, Eagles and 49ers, have at least a dozen voting board members, according to the most recent government filings. Washington's is the only charity with just one voting member listed.

"The better practice would be to have some people on the board who are not beholden to the Snyders or to the team," Dorfman said. "People who have the best interests of vulnerable children, because the foundation says that is what it's working toward. And that would help guarantee that the foundation is used for its intended purpose of really benefiting the community.

Financial relationships with the Commanders' holding company

Another potential problem identified by Dorfman and Styron is how the foundation regularly lists liabilities owed to WFI Group, the for-profit holding company for the Commanders, without disclosing that the company is registered to Dan Snyder at the team's corporate address in Ashburn, Virginia. Tax documents show the foundation owed WFI Group $217,073 in fiscal year 2021, $61,405 in FY 2019, $53,000 in FY 2018 and $242,168 in FY 2017.

"It's a very big deal," Dorfman said. "This is what a good attorney general investigation could really help uncover. Are they using dollars that were meant for charity instead for private gain?"

While ESPN's investigation raised multiple questions about the charity's operations, it found no evidence that the Snyders or the Commanders profited from the foundation. In her statement to ESPN, Medina said the liability is for the repayment of "transactions paid by the Commanders on behalf of the Foundation," including payroll, postage, insurance and other expenses.

"While the Foundation is a standalone entity, the Washington Commanders (inclusive of WFIG & Pro-Football Inc.) are considered a related party to the Foundation," Medina said.

But ESPN found the charity did not identify this "related party" relationship -- or that WFI Group is owned by Tanya Snyder's husband -- in its government filings. Medina, in a follow-up statement, said the foundation was not required to file additional disclosures under IRS rules. Both watchdog organizations said that as the wife of WFI's owner, and co-CEO of the team, Tanya Snyder could potentially benefit from transactions between the foundation, WFI Group and other organizations owned by the Snyders, such as Pro-Football Inc., the limited liability group that operates the team.

The charity did submit an independent audit as required under Maryland state law, as it solicits donations at FedEx Field in Landover. Through a public records request, ESPN obtained a copy of the charity's audit for the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2020. Accounting firm BDO noted in the audit that there were "related party transactions" that included "amounts paid on behalf of the Foundation" by the football team and that the foundation "periodically reimburses" the team. The audit stated that, in BDO's opinion, the foundation's financial statements "present fairly, in all material respects the financial position" of the charity and that "its net assets and its cash flows" were "in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States."

Medina also forwarded a letter signed by Lawrence P. Katzenstein, a charities and nonprofit attorney with Thompson Coburn LLP, that says he did not have "any substantive concern" about the "overall federal tax compliance, relationship between the Foundation and Pro-Football, Inc. or the other WFI group entities, or the fundamental integrity of the Foundation."

Medina said reimbursements like those from the charity to WFI Group are "common amongst teams where all staff are employed by a team entity and services performed are expensed to the Foundation."

According to ESPN's review, of the 20 NFL teams with an associated public charity, only the 49ers Foundation reimbursed the team for similar services, and that foundation filed additional paperwork that discloses its relationship with the team. The 49ers also donated nearly double that amount back to the foundation, leaving the Commanders' foundation as the only one that owes money to its team, according to most recent 990 filings available during ESPN's review.

"The reporting guidance is both rules-based and principles-based, and in some cases requires the governing body of a charity to make judgment calls in good faith with respect to whether or not the charity truly has the ability to make decisions independently of for-profit interests -- particularly when a charity has a small board and there is shared governance between the nonprofit and the for-profit," Styron said.

One NFL team -- the Bengals -- does not have an official team charity, according to ESPN's review. Eleven other teams are connected to private foundations, which do not primarily rely on contributions from the public but rather on concentrated support from a single individual, a family or a small group of donors. Some of the private foundations, such as the Packers' and the Patriots', share a name with the team, while others, such as the Chiefs' and the Falcons', operate under the name of team owners.

ESPN reviewed publicly available financial statements published since fiscal 2019 for each of the public charities and private foundations connected to NFL teams, and found the Washington foundation and at least four other public charities have reported receiving game tickets from their affiliated team.

Some of those public charities filed additional disclosure detailing their charity's financial relationship to its affiliated for-profit team, while others reconciled the value of the tickets they received with the value of the tickets they gave away.

In fiscal years 2016-20, the Washington charity received tickets valued anywhere from $246,000 to $708,000, according to filings. (There were no ticket contributions reported for fiscal 2021, during the pandemic.) Unlike the others, Washington did not file disclosures detailing the affiliation between team and charity and, for fiscal 2019 and 2020, reported a greater value of tickets given away than received.

In a statement, Medina said, "The value of the tickets listed is inclusive of other in-kind items that were donated as part of a community relations programming, in addition to the value of the tickets." Those "expenses included bears from Build-A-Bear" as well as vision exams and cookies, she said. In a different statement, Medina noted that the tickets "are given out to youth groups and various organizations like veteran, first responders and frontline workers" to sit in the lower bowl and club sections of the stadium.

"If the team wants to donate tickets, the team should just donate the tickets," Dorfman said. "They don't need to first donate them to the charitable foundation, inflating the income of the foundation."

The foundation's changing mission

The stated mission of the Commanders' foundation, according to its government filings, is to help "children that need it most" through "initiatives to elementary through high-school age students in the region."

Before the pandemic, and before Tanya Snyder became the foundation's president, the charity predominantly did just that, giving away most of its grants and donations to local children's schools and charities, many in the form of $10,000 gifts. Some of its largest grants, ranging between $300,000 to $400,000 a year, went to Prince George's County Schools, the local public school system in Maryland.

The most recent financial filing, for the year that ended in March 2021, shows the foundation gave some of its donations to a handful of children's charities, including $10,580 to Sasha Bruce Youthwork and $10,000 to Beacon House Ministry, both located in the District. Its largest donations included $150,000 to the Capital Area Food Bank, which has received donations from the foundation in previous years, and $30,000 to World Food Kitchen.

But some donations have shifted to organizations that lack an obvious connection to children in the region. The foundation lists only two donations to children's schools, both located outside metropolitan Washington. Other donations included $10,000 to Acts Inc., a behavioral health services group in Florida, and $10,000 to the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio, a group geared to creating "opportunities for Appalachian Ohio's citizens and communities by inspiring and supporting philanthropy."

"We believe this was a grant to match a player's personable charitable contribution, which is consistent with prior grants from the Foundation," Medina said of the Ohio grant. She later added, in another statement to ESPN, "Our mission statement does not contain language constraining our geographic focus. While we primarily focus on giving in the DMV [District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia] area, our mission is to support our community, which we define as inclusive of our players and the causes that are meaningful to them."

The charity also gave $12,715 to the American Cancer Society and $11,190 to Brem Foundation, a breast cancer charity.

"In recent years, the foundation has expanded its focus to providing for those in need, addressing social justice and supporting the fight to end cancer, led by Tanya Snyder, a breast cancer survivor," Medina said in a statement.

Styron said donors to the charity deserve to be told where their money will go.

"Fans took this charity at its word when they were told how their donations would be used," she said. "If fans were told that their donations would be used to fund specific programs, it's unethical, not to mention insulting, for the person running the charity to turn around and use those funds for something totally different."

Dorfman said the apparent change of mission is another reason charities need at least five trustees.

"If there were other board members, including disinterested board members, then it couldn't just be at Tanya's whim to change the mission," he said. "There would be people on that board who were really committed to helping poor kids in Prince George's County. And they might not vote in favor of funding cancer research or helping cancer patients. Those are worthy causes, but is it really right that one person gets to make that decision about the change of mission and direction for the charitable foundation? I don't think so."

Donation to a 'for-profit' company

The charity's most recent filing lists a grant of $6,000 to HZDG, a marketing and brand agency located in Rockville, Maryland. According to its website, HZDG lists the Commanders, referred to on the site by their former team name, among its clients.

Asked about the expenditure, Medina said that it was an "error" and "not a gift, but rather payment for a third-party that designed our impact report."

Medina also forwarded a statement from the accounting firm BDO that said: "It was still an expense and had no effect on net assets so would not consider it be a large issue."

Styron said that misstatement means the foundation is "overstating its grants."

"When I pay my electric bill every month, I don't say I am making a charitable grant to the electric company," she said. "It's an expense paid in exchange for a service, not a grant."

On its website, the team states its charity has given away more than $31 million since 2000, but the government filings say the number is $20 million. In her statement, Medina said the website is the more accurate number, and figures reported to the government haven't been updated since 2016.

"It's always a red flag when a charity's marketing doesn't reconcile with its financial reporting," Styron said.

"If they're not accurately reporting their financial information to the government on their 990s, that's a huge problem," Dorfman said. "That is the official financial record of an organization. That's the 'real' number. What they say publicly and what their tax forms say ought to match."

ESPN found other irregularities in the charity's tax filings. Among them, the foundation reported it received unspecified "government grants" of a combined $503,890 in fiscal years 2019 and 2020, and $75,180 in fiscal year 2021.

Medina said some of these grants were for license plate sales. During those years -- before the team dumped its former name -- motorists in Virginia and Maryland could buy a team-logo license plate from their state's department of motor vehicles, and through a revenue-sharing program, part of the purchase price went to the foundation.

After ESPN pressed for more information on the grants, Medina said in a statement that license plate sales made up the entirety of the $75,180 government grant in fiscal year 2021. She said $178,890 of the grants in fiscal 2019 and 2020 came from license plate sales. She did not disclose the source of the remaining $325,000 in government grants.

ESPN researcher John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.