Ohio-born Russell Wilson joined the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as quarterback earlier in the decade. He was named Rookie of the Year and followed that up with a decisive Super Bowl win over the Denver Broncos, leading the Seahawks to their first-ever championship. After modest earnings during his early years, in the summer of 2015, Wilson signed a four-year contract extension worth $87.6 million, including a $31 million signing bonus. Now, at 30 years old and in a contract year, Wilson stands to make even more down the line, with one former sports agent asking if he’ll be the NFL’s first player to make $35 million per year.
Russell’s high earnings speak to the kind of cash that top athletes and entertainers can earn these days. And while Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods loom large in a previous generation of wealthy athletes, sports stars like Lebron James already have a net worth of around $450 million.
Off the field, Wilson married Grammy Award-winning singer Ciara in 2016. And like other Glitzy Givers we profile, the young celebrity couple is starting to put some of their money and time toward philanthropy. In 2014, Wilson launched the Why Not You Foundation, which is “dedicated to creating real and lasting change in the world by motivating, empowering and preparing today’s youth to be tomorrow’s leaders.”
I recently spoke with Why Not You Foundation Executive Director Carly Young about the couple’s nascent philanthropy and the grantmaking priorities of their foundation.
What’s in a name? Young explains to me that the mantra “Why Not You?” goes back to the relationship Wilson had with his late father Harrison B. Wilson III, a two-sport athlete at Dartmouth who had a stint with the San Diego Chargers preseason team. Whenever self-doubt crept in, Harrison always asked Wilson “Why not you?” Young says that this was “really motivating and powerful, and so Russell really wanted to be that voice for kids in the community, knowing that not everyone has the luxury of having a mom or a dad in their life, or even anyone to have that ‘why not you’ attitude.”
The foundation’s main focus is on creating access and opportunity for kids to instill that “why not you” attitude from an early age. Young tells me that Wilson started visiting Seattle Children’s Hospital only a few weeks after he was drafted to the Seattle Seahawks in 2012. “It’s really been important to him. Whenever he enters a room, he’s not asking kids about the story of their sickness, it’s ‘What are your dreams?’ ‘What are your goals?’ And ‘What do you need to get there?’”
Wilson himself has dealt with doubt (and doubters) through the years, and is now just one of 32 NFL starting quarterbacks. He’s also the “shortest” Super Bowl-winning quarterback, standing at 5’11’’. (Maybe there’s still hope for this writer.)
Why Not You Foundation has made grants in the past to places like Islandwood, a nonprofit outdoor learning center located on Bainbridge Island in Washington; Bellevue Lifespring; Rainier Scholars; and Rwanda Girls Initiative. It’s worth noting that Ciara joined the board of directors of the foundation in 2017 and brings a passion for empowering girls and young women around the world. This may be an area to keep an eye on down the line as the foundation deepens its interest areas.
Young also tells me about a golf tournament in the summer that raises money for pediatric cancer research. “Safeway is our main sponsor and partner, and they’ve been phenomenal. Last year, we presented a check to Seattle Children’s for $2.4 million to forward the pediatric cancer research program, which is doing amazing work. This year, the event will be held in June just outside of Seattle.”
Why Not You also just launched the DREAM BIG: Anything is Possible campaign in partnership with King County Library System and JPMorgan Chase. Students will receive a unique library card, and will have access to resources for STEM education, coding classes and more. When the campaign launched, Ciara said, “Libraries offer you a wide range of opportunities to explore and gain knowledge, which is your power. Knowledge will lead you on your way in life and help you succeed in whatever you choose to do.”
In conjunction with the campaign, the foundation also launched its inaugural $100,000 Why Not You Scholarship program in partnership with the College Success Foundation to help students achieve their post-secondary educational dreams at a trade school, community college or four-year university. The application deadline is March 31. Young explains that the foundation “wants to make sure that kids know that we’re with them for the long haul so that they can complete their studies. Education is a way they can change their lives and their family’s lives.”
While many of the foundation’s partners have so far been local, Young also tells me about another partner, Friends of the Children, which works around the country and pairs children with a mentor for 12 years to ensure they graduate high school. “It’s an amazing organization that both Russell and Ciara are jazzed about. It started in Portland and now has chapters across the country. And it’s great that these mentors are in these kids’ lives for so many years.”
Young makes it clear that Why Not You is both a grantmaker and a grantseeker. Indeed, the foundation is not fully funded by Wilson and Ciara. Wilson’s clothing line Good Man Brand directs 3 percent of its sales to the foundation and provides one source of funding. Young adds that they’re a “community organization, and people give to us for a variety of reasons. Because of who Russell is on the field, who he is off the field, who he is in the community, and same with Ciara. They have a brand that spreads all over the country and, indeed, all over the world.”
Why Not You runs a small operation; Young is the only full-time employee. Because of this, the foundation is not open to unsolicited proposals at the moment. “We’re still a very young organization. We’re creating who we are and our infrastructure with the hopes of being able to scale some of the programs and models that we have.”
Young emphasized the considerable ambition behind the couple’s philanthropy. “Russell and Ciara are both such big thinkers and they want to impact every single child’s life. Sure, you have to start somewhere, but to have that lofty goal is something that’s pretty amazing, and shows how genuine they are in truly wanting to make a difference in the lives of kids and spread that ‘why not you’ message.”