With Block foundation, differing visions

The Baltimore Sun

This should be the best time of year for the Ed Block Courage Award Foundation. A pack of NFL stars are on their way to Baltimore to be honored by the foundation tomorrow and to spend time with abused children. Thousands of eyes will turn to Ed Block and its cause.

But the foundation is under fire from former board members and sponsors who say it gives little money to the 17 children's shelters it's affiliated with. In December, the foundation asked one dissatisfied board member to step down, and three others with ties to him resigned shortly after. Several significant sponsors have also pulled support, and one, the Ravens Roost 50 fan club, says funds earmarked for the 17 "courage houses" never made it to them.

Foundation officials say they're more focused on raising awareness of child abuse and on building relationships between shelters and NFL teams than on fundraising and donations. Their heavy focus on the annual March banquet is rewarded, they say, by the attention it receives.

The last available financial information - from a required 990 tax form filed last year - shows between June 2006 and May 2007, the foundation raised $346,771 in revenue but dispensed only $43,125 in grants. Of the 17 "courage houses" affiliated with Ed Block, only St. Vincent's Center in Timonium received any money ($15,000). That's a substantial change from the 2002 tax year, when Ed Block raised $305,174 in revenue but gave away $121,195 in grants. Eleven courage houses received at least $5,000, and St. Vincent's received $55,000.

Those numbers have ex-supporters and charity experts questioning the foundation.

"The event raises a lot of money, and it's a great thing," former board member John Valentini said. "But if we don't raise a lot of money for the kids, why are we having it?"

The American Institute of Philanthropy says a good charity should spend at least 60 percent of its revenue on programs. Between salary and grants, Ed Block spent about 29 percent of its 2006-2007 revenue on programs.

"It leaves you wondering why this is being done?" Daniel Borochoff of AIP said. "Why are they spending so much on management in general? They say it's all for abused children, but it looks like a lot of it is about putting on the event."

He wondered why NFL players couldn't pay for their own travel costs to attend the banquet. "In these economic times, people have to be concerned about a charity paying for star treatment," he said.

Ed Block staff and board members said these questions are unfair, and they portrayed Valentini as an embittered figure who was dissatisfied the board would not act on his whims. They argued Ed Block performs a unique service by forging ties between charities and their local NFL teams.

"We pair them with the greatest partner in the world," Ed Block president Sam Lamantia said. "Who wouldn't want to be associated with the NFL?"

Ed Block officials said with an unpaid board, one full-time staffer and two part-timers (no one makes more than $45,000 a year), the foundation can't put on more than a few events per year.

"The problem is that we're a unique charity," board member and treasurer Anna Lybrook said. "Most charities focus on donations. We don't. Most charities spend most of their effort giving money away. We don't. Our main purpose is to raise awareness of child abuse."

Ed Block accomplishes that mission, said some representatives of the charities and sponsors that work with the foundation.

"For us, the relationship is a positive because it provides us with a pipeline to the Cowboys," said Edward Shipman, director of the Dallas courage house. "In terms of their concept and their commitment to the foundation's long-range goals, I think their motives are good and pure."

Despite such support, Lamantia said the public criticism has made it more difficult for the foundation to raise money and maintain sponsorships at its most crucial time of year.

"There's a cloud over Ed Block, and that should not happen," he said. "The timing of this is a disaster for us. That's my concern."

Several sponsors have left since a report on Fox 45 News last month raised questions about the foundation's spending habits.

Don Miller, president of Ravens Roost 50, said he recently stopped payment on a $25,000 check to Ed Block. He said he specifically asked that each courage house receive $200 from last year's donation of $28,400. Foundation officials said they have used that money to bring representatives from the courage houses to the banquet in Baltimore.

But that's not good enough for Miller, who said the foundation ignored his wishes.

"I'm thinking that this whole thing started as a great concept," said Miller, whose club had worked with Ed Block since 1999. "But it's become nothing more than a show."

He said Ravens Roost will instead give money directly to St. Vincent's.

Ex-Colts concerned

The foundation began in the 1970s as a way to raise money for abused children through the Baltimore Colts. Then-trainer Ed Block worked exhaustively on behalf of children, so the foundation took his name as its own. Former Colts defensive end Joe Ehrmann received the first courage award in 1978, and in 1984, the foundation began honoring one player from each team. The award goes to the player who "best exemplifies courage" in the eyes of his teammates. More than 700 players, including Jerry Rice, Brett Favre and Ed Reed, have received the honor.

The criticisms have distressed former Colts. None of the players felt he had enough information to criticize the foundation, but they're worried about its reputation.

"Ed Block has nothing to do with the downfall of whatever's going on," said Hall of Famer Lenny Moore, who served as the foundation's president in 1997. "You don't want to kick that name around. ... That's not good to have his name tied up with whatever's happening or happened behind the scenes."

When asked about the allegations around Ed Block, an NFL spokesman stopped short of endorsing the foundation.

"We're aware of the [Fox 45] report and that our teams have worked with the organization for many years to honor players and support a good cause," spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail. "Some teams give directly to the designated 'Courage House.' We have no other comment at this time."

The foundation's goal is to establish a courage house in every NFL city. The charter says Ed Block will help courage houses to develop media contacts and sponsorships and to plan annual fundraisers. It also says Ed Block will "provide future assistance through grants as determined by [the] Foundation."

The courage houses, many of which were well-established charities before any affiliation with Ed Block, hold fundraisers with their local teams.

Despite a lack of donations in recent years, Ed Block drew praise from some representatives of the 17 houses.

"I want it to be clear that we receive strong benefits from the association," said Jon Bennett, executive vice president for the Indianapolis house. "I have a sign in front of my office that says we're the Indianapolis Colts courage house. As a marketing tool, that's invaluable."

The Indianapolis house has not received any direct donations from the foundation since 2002, but Bennett noted such donations are not required by the organization's charter and said they are not essential to his charity. Instead, he listed numerous events in which Colts players participate and said those events might never have evolved without connections made through Ed Block.

Other courage house representatives were more critical.

Natalie Leek-Nelson, director of the Cleveland courage house, said her charity maintains a good relationship with the Cleveland Browns but hears from Ed Block only when it's time for a Brown to receive the foundation's annual award.

"They position themselves as providing resources and providing deeper relationships with the team, but in my [eight] years, they have not played that role," Leek-Nelson said.

She's concerned that when Ed Block hands out donation envelopes at its banquet, the foundation implies money will go to all or most of the courage houses (when, in fact, the Cleveland house hasn't received a grant since 2003).

"That puts us all at risk," she said. "It puts us all at question."

Ed Block officials said they're careful not to say money donated at the banquet, which draws 1,000 to 1,500 people a year and cleared $249,589 in revenue in 2007, will go directly to courage houses.

Shipman, the Dallas courage house director, said he has attended the banquet numerous times and "I didn't have the impression they were exploiting us in any way."

The relationship between Ed Block and St. Vincent's also remains strong.

"The Ed Block Foundation has been a great supporter of St. Vincent's Center over the years," St. Vincent's administrator Mary Rode said. "They have provided funds and have helped us to develop relationships with volunteers and donors from organizations and corporations that have been very generous in helping us to improve the lives of the children and families we serve.

Opening the records

Lybrook said Ed Block has never tried to mislead sponsors (which include The Baltimore Sun) about its operations and has opened its audited financial records to anyone interested. Staff members also noted that the foundation raised $450,000 for three charities with its December celebration of the 1958 Colts-New York Giants championship game.

Expenses, such as rent (for several years in a Towson office, since departed) and travel costs for players coming to the banquet (the foundation lost an airline sponsorship that helped on that front), have soared and diverted money away from grants.

The grant funds also declined because Ed Block stopped running the Ravens Rally for Kids after Steve Bisciotti took ownership of the team and established a more direct relationship with St. Vincent's.

Despite such explanations, departed board members said they were frustrated with the culture at the foundation's office.

Former board member Jennifer Naylor said when she asked questions about courage houses, she often received vague answers from the office staff. Naylor and other former board members Andy Eisner and Carl Delmont said new fundraising ideas seldom went anywhere.

"I found it strange that I would hear all these excuses," Naylor said.

Eisner's company, flooring wholesaler ProSource, dropped its sponsorship arrangement with Ed Block after a fundraising event failed to meet expectations.

The sides disagreed over who was to blame. Foundation officials said they don't have enough people to follow through on every idea and some of the plans had been tried in previous years but failed.

The final fracture happened in December, when Valentini said he found evidence of what he believed to be mismanagement. He submitted the evidence to the board and said he was asked to leave a few days later.

Ed Block officials said they couldn't be specific about Valentini's departure but they took his accusations seriously.

"I brought it to the board, it was investigated and we found no evidence," Lybrook said.

"It's the hands of our lawyers now," Lamantia said. "We did everything legally and legitimately. We did what we thought we had to do."

Eisner, Delmont and Naylor had ties to Valentini, and all departed shortly after he did.


Namesake: Former Colts trainer Ed Block

Purpose: To raise awareness and funds to combat child abuse

Awards: Presented annually to the member of each NFL team who best exemplifies courage according to his teammates

First Award: 1978 to former Colts defensive end Joe Ehrmann

Famous recipients: Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, Tiki Barber, Ed Reed, Junior Seau, Reggie White

Beneficiaries: Children's centers in 17 NFL cities, known as courage houses

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