A charity founded in 2006 by legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers has collected more than $581,000 in contributions yet failed to fulfill its stated mission to open a state-of-the-art facility offering after-school programs to Chicago children.
Though a fundraising booklet promised that the Gale Sayers Center would open in 2008, the charity has not yet even bought or leased property for the facility, which also was to hold a National Football League film library and a 60-seat theater.
The organization's most recent tax return reported $181,721 in assets, while most of the rest of the funds went to salaries, management and unsuccessful efforts to site the facility, tax records from 2007 to 2009 show.
Meanwhile, the dismissal of the charity's executive director about a year and half ago and a complete turnover of its board of directors — except for Sayers — has led to a sense of turmoil in the organization.
"We were like in quicksand," said Dean Kleinschmidt, the athletic trainer for the Detroit Lions, who resigned from the board this year. "We never really got on track."
Sayers said he still hopes to build the center and that for the last year his charity has paid instructors to teach classes three afternoons a week at a center run by the Better Boys Foundation, a nonprofit whose board includes Sayers and his wife, Ardythe. Tax records show that Sayers' charity spent $46,224 on the classes in 2009.
Current board members say the charity merely has experienced growing pains and vow it will be a success. A celebrity gala dinner is scheduled for Sept. 25 in Niles.
"We are not an extremely large organization at this point but … we are really trying to make sure that we are doing everything that is important to ensuring that the center is successful and that it is providing the best environment to children," said Erric Byrd, who said he joined the board of directors this year and is its current president.
Problems facing Sayers' organization mirror some common complaints about sports charities: that they don't always spend their money efficiently, fulfill a clear mission or assemble an effective leadership team. Sayers is the latest in a list of Chicago sports stars who have had trouble operating their own charities — Chris Zorich, Sammy Sosa and Michael Jordan among them.
Athletes can have difficulty because they aren't experts in nonprofits, said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, an independent industry watchdog.
"Wanting to do good isn't enough," she said. "Just like launching a new business, starting a new charity is complicated and challenging. That's why some celebrities, even (Warren) Buffett, give their money to foundations to manage and distribute, rather than establish new charities."
Miniutti expressed concern about the Sayers charity and what it has accomplished so far.
"We tend to give new charities a lot of leeway. I think it is reasonable that the organization hasn't yet built a massive new facility," Miniutti said. "But at the same time, I think it is also reasonable to expect that it has spent some funds on teaching kids or aggressively building a capital fund to build that facility."
Nicknamed the Kansas Comet for his uncanny speed and elusive running skills at the University of Kansas, Sayers went on to a storied career with the Bears. He still holds records for most touchdowns in an NFL game (six) and in a rookie season (22). Injuries forced him to retire from professional football in 1971 after just six seasons, but in 1977 he was voted into the Hall of Fame at age 34, making him the youngest player ever inducted.
Sayers established a successful business career and formed a computer company, which provides services to a handful of Fortune 500 companies.
His charity, called the Gale Sayers Center, was created nearly four years ago with the stated mission of providing children ages 8 to 12 with a "structured intense environment to better their current education." In his Internal Revenue Service application to become a tax-exempt organization, Sayers outlined plans for a modern facility to house classes taught by interns from top Midwestern universities.
Since then, the charity has reported holding four fundraisers, records show. Donations include $153,056 from the Sayerses, according to a document provided by the organization.
In September 2007, a program booklet for a fundraising event projected the center would open in spring 2008.
Despite falling short of that goal, Sayers was honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps with its Embracing the Legacy Award in June. The news release for the award specifically mentioned Sayers' center and after-school programs. It goes on to state that "by breaking racial barriers and helping children reach their full potential, Gale Sayers represents the ideals and principles of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy."
Byrd said the charity currently leases space from the Better Boys Foundation center on Pulaski Road, a sleek, modern steel and glass building that opened in 2007. Inside, the name of the foundation is spelled out in large letters on a wall. A couple of months ago, the words "Gale Sayers Center" were added underneath.
"We've been using space in their building for the last year," Sayers told the Tribune. "And so far it's been working pretty well."
The classes funded by Sayers' charity would not otherwise be offered at the Better Boys Foundation, said Pamela Blackman, program director for the foundation. But while the classes are open to the public, they are attended mostly by children already enrolled with the foundation. Blackman said they are advertised only through "word of mouth."
At a computer class the Tribune visited one August afternoon, an instructor showed about two dozen 5- and 6-year-olds how to turn on laptops, how to use a program to paint a picture and how to turn the computers off.
Sayers spoke briefly to the Tribune in August and said he would call back, but didn't. He did not respond to multiple subsequent messages. An assistant directed inquiries to Byrd, who couldn't answer a question about how many children benefit from the classes currently offered.
Dave Mann, executive director of Sayers' charity until the board dismissed him in spring 2009, said the organization has not delivered on its original plan submitted to the IRS, which included setting up a stand-alone facility.
"It's not what we envisioned," said Mann, who spent 30 years in marketing. "It falls far short of what the goal was."
Tax returns show that in its first three years the charity spent a combined $116,935 on "development of program supporters and site selection for center." As executive director, Mann met with Chicago aldermen and potential landlords in Chicago and nearby suburbs.
"A lot of work was put into finding the proper site and making sure the facility was a full-service learning center for children," said Mann, who worked with NFL teams in the 1970s before entering corporate marketing.
One site he and Sayers visited was a vacant convent at the Pilsen parish of St. Adalbert. "It's a disappointment," said Maureen O'Brien, property manager for the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. "It probably could be good for the community."
Byrd was unable to explain why none of the sites was chosen.
Several former board members said the charity's progress was dogged by tension between the Sayerses and Mann. Ardythe Sayers, a co-founder of the organization, was originally on the board of directors but later left, records show.
"For the three to meet, that was not going to happen," said Chris Cavallari, a former board member who resigned in spring 2009 and works at a Chicago sporting goods company.
Jim Ballmer, a board member who was the charity's treasurer, said he left in late 2008 because Sayers' wife was trying to influence the charity's operations. "She just seemed to want to get people who she knew to be on the board," Ballmer said.
The current board doesn't include anyone with experience in nonprofits, but that gap is balanced by extensive experience in business, said John Karagiannis, a board member since 2007 who has been Sayers' friend for years. "When you get the right board members, everybody has something good to contribute."
Still, the turnover continues. Betsy Shepherd, a public relations consultant who said she joined the board in February, contacted the Tribune a day after participating in an interview with the newspaper to say she had resigned.
Karagiannis said Mann was dismissed as executive director because he didn't raise enough money and operated at a slow pace. "It just wasn't a good fit," he said.
Jim Vruggink, who resigned from the board in July, praised Mann — whom he met in the 1980s when both were in college media relations — and said he didn't understand why other board members voted to dismiss Mann.
Vruggink, now a marketing official at Purdue University and manager of a chapter of the nonprofit National Football Foundation, said Gale Sayers told the board that the charity could no longer afford Mann's salary.
The charity still does not have an executive director; Byrd and others said the charity lacks money to hire one.
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