A Year After Launching, The NBA Foundation Continues To Grow With Humility

August 2021 marked a year since the NBA Board of Governors launched the NBA Foundation, a charitable foundation aimed at creating greater, and sustainable, economic empowerment within the Black community, specifically focused on Black youth. Within that year the Foundation, in partnership with the NBPA, awarded 40 grants to non-profit organizations totalling $11 million, utilizing the collective $30 million NBA team owners have committed to donating annually, over the next ten years.

From its inception, the NBA Foundation aimed to focus on what the NBA’s former SVP of Player Development, and now the Foundation’s inaugural Executive Director, Greg Taylor, and his team considered three critical employment transition points: getting a first job, securing a job post-high school or college, and career advancement. Some of the ways the Foundation planned to actualize those goals was through investing in youth employment and internship programs, job shadows and apprenticeships, career placement, professional mentorships, support of STEM fields, and partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Involving each NBA team also meant that grants could be awarded that focused on specific concerns within the communities of each franchise’s home markets, rather than designating from the top-down.

Taylor has often referred to the NBA Foundation as a labor of love and that much is clear when talking with him about its progress over the past year, but the fact that it sits so closely with Taylor and his staff is also what’s driven its success. Launching a new, multi-tiered, highly ambitious and necessarily self-aware philanthropic organization would require heavy lifting even under the best conditions, but Taylor and his team did it during some of the most fraught stretches of the Covid pandemic.

On a call with Dime, Taylor reflected on the last year and its challenges, the process behind identifying candidates and awarding grants, the insight that board members Tobias Harris and Harrison Barnes bring to the table as athletes, and how to strike a balance between realistic expectations and maintaining the natural momentum within the work he and his team are doing.

What has the response been like in the first year of launching the NBA Foundation, and in what ways has it surprised you?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’m really very, very pleased with the feedback we’ve gotten from grantees, from other foundations with a much longer track record that we have, from the teams, players, all of our stakeholders. I think there’s an overwhelming sense of pride with regards to the NBA responding in such a significant way to many of the social justice issues that were facing the country, that this is a long standing commitment over time. As you know it’s a 10-year, $300 million commitment from our governors, funding the NBA Foundation’s mission around economic opportunity for Black youth. And while it’s a 10-year commitment on paper, there’s every expectation that the Foundation will operate in perpetuity going forward. I also say there’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come, and I think in many ways, our work at the NBA Foundation, really trying to pour into resources and opportunities — in this case for Black youth — I think it’s an important moment in time and glad to be a part of it.

I think what’s been surprising from my standpoint really has been the degree to which we’ve had really great success in working with organizations that work with a broad spectrum of young people. So we have organizations that work with homeless youth, that work with court-involved youth, that work with the valedictorian from their high school and college, and everything in between. And I think what’s really been surprising and heartening is the importance of providing equitable opportunities across the spectrum of young people towards really meaningful employment. And I think the tightening of our commitment around economic opportunity has just been a really, and how well it’s been embraced, has been really surprising for me.

You and your team delivered 40 grants in the past year to non-profits, can you tell me a bit about the decision-making process that goes into ultimately narrowing down the organizations grants are awarded to?

We have a pretty rigorous process. We know that our financial resources are limited. We know that the need is great across the country to help provide meaningful employment opportunities for Black youth. And so we have a really thoughtful decision-making process. It certainly starts with wanting to understand performance and track record of the nonprofit partners that we partner with, around generating positive outcomes for young people. So longstanding or widely recognized as effective organizations working with our population is one. Two, we look at the innovative nature of their programs, right? And we know that really beginning to involve young people in the design of the curriculum, really working with and partnering with corporations and nonprofits that will hire our young people differently, all requires a focus on innovation. And so there’s an innovation component that we look at. We’re very interested, as I said, the organizations that are operating in our 28 markets, so there’s a geographic focus. And while in many cases we have also worked with national organizations, those national organizations are looking to replicate or share their programming in our 28 markets. So there’s a little bit of a geographic focus if you will.

And then probably lastly, I would just say, we look at the leadership of the organization. We want to make sure that we’re investing in diverse leadership, particularly African-American leadership, as we know that sustaining those organizations over time for long standing outcomes, all matter. So that gives you a sense. Obviously, we look at their financial health, we review their 990 [forms]. We look at their tax status, all of that stuff, which is consistent with best practices in philanthropy — we do all of the above. But all of that goes into the decision-making where we decide who we’re going to award the grants to. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say we work also in partnership with our local teams to identify organizations in their markets. While we maintain the final decision, their voice is important too.

How do you think launching the NBA Foundation during the pandemic affected, or magnified, goals for the Foundation overall?

Without question. There’s no question that the backdrop of the Foundation happening or being instituted during the pandemic played a role. I would say programmatically, one of the things we’re committed to is giving grants for both capacity building goals, as well as program goals. And I would say that that capacity building goals, meaning helping the nonprofit organizations strengthen their operations, hire staff or solidify their institution, that really comes out of the pandemic, where we know so many organizations have struggled to stabilize, grant dollars are harder to find on the capacity building side. So we wanted to really respond to some of those institutional needs that we heard from our grantee partners. There’s no question that programming, in person, as it historically has been. So many of our organizations have really brilliantly moved to online program delivery and everybody’s using Zoom and other software, as you know.

And so we wanted to help them by providing resources to help that program transition in terms of how they’re delivering services and supports to their young people. And maybe selfishly, I would just say establishing the Foundation during the pandemic, I have yet to be in the same managerial room as my small, but mighty team. We are too operating on Zoom and manage and lead this organization almost completely virtually. Because we have not yet been in the same office either. So building and establishing a startup foundation in the middle of a pandemic has affected us all.

Do you think getting underway during the pandemic helped to create a sense of urgency for team owners to engage with and invest meaningfully in the communities within their markets?

I think it added to the larger mission of trying to be really responsive coming out of the social unrest in the country. I would argue that the NBA has a longstanding history of being a leader in social justice and civil rights. I would argue that the creation of the NBA Foundation really expands on that legacy. I would say one of the inflection points to the decision to create the Foundation was the moment the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to play in Orlando. And I think in many ways, what we were thinking about as a league is, what is our response? What is the sustained response we could have over time to really help change some of the social justice issues that we’re facing as a country. And I think that was the creation of the NBA Foundation. I think the pandemic has also exacerbated some of those issues too, because folks were more isolated. They were more challenged, different things happening in the community. But I think the larger genesis of the Foundation was the social justice unrest in the country, and the pandemic was an extenuating circumstance on top of that.

The Board of the NBA Foundation is made up of team executives, as well as current and former players like Tobias Harris, Harrison Barnes and Michael Jordan. Could you share with me some of the unique perspective Tobias and Harrison have brought to the team, and why it was crucial to include players when establishing the Foundation’s Board?

Both have been highly engaged board members, really pleased with both their voice and their recommended direction. I think about Tobias utilizing his interviews during his post game news conferences coming out of the Bubble, where he was highlighting the fact that there wasn’t that much media attention on Breonna Taylor. I think that commitment to social justice spills over in his leadership on the board at the Foundation. He’s really has been instrumental in identifying potential nonprofits that are working and mirroring the mission that it’s about economic opportunity for Black youth. He is an absolute proponent of education. And so education is one of the pillars of the Foundation. I think he brings a lot of knowledge and thought process to our education grant making. Same goes for Harrison. I think Harrison has a real interest in philanthropy and has come in and asked a lot of questions about the creation of the Foundation and our back office operations. We’ve done a number of grants where he has actually recommended organizations that we took long and hard looks at. He’s very big proponent of City Year, and City Year was one of our initial grantees and his recommendation and familiarity with the organization, coupled with our due diligence of who that organization is, shows his active nature around the work. So both the Tobias and Harrison have been tremendous board members. We talk regularly and I feel like they’re highly engaged, and we appreciate their perspective.

You’ve talked before about the awareness of being a new philanthropy and working to build awareness through partnerships, and aside from the internal knowledge and experience of the NBA’s own community-focused initiatives, are there any established philanthropic organizations you and your team have looked to as you build?

This is the first ever NBA foundation. And I think while the NBA brand is certainly established and well known, we didn’t have in our building the track record in terms of philanthropy, right? And so this is our first time working in the philanthropic space. I’m really blessed that I have 20 plus years in philanthropy, formally at the Kellogg Foundation, and the Foundation for Newark’s Future. One of my initial hires has been a young woman from the Ford Foundation, Adela Ruiz, who’s our Program and Grants Manager. Lauren Sills used to work with the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, she’s our Operations Director. So wanted to bring expertise to the board, but without question we’ve all tapped into our network.

We’ve had lots of conversations with ranges of different philanthropy, including Ford and Kellogg and others that have really been very helpful. The Knight Foundation in Miami, Hispanics in Philanthropy, and others, have really provided back office guidance and recommendations, because we don’t want to recreate the wheel and we really do want to add value in the space. We know that means we should be partnering with folks who have been at this longer than us. We should leverage our own knowledge, lead with humility, listen our way into leadership and really try to add value to what has been ongoing work in the field. And so lots of philanthropic partners have been absolutely helpful and essential and certainly, we want to thank all of them for their willingness to support what we’re trying to do.

On that same note, you’ve also talked about wanting to get clarity on what success looks like for the Foundation. Even in this first year of operation, the Foundation is incredibly far reaching, how do you measure success now, and how will that differ going forward?

As a startup, we want to get the organization’s brand up. And so a lot of our early success, at least at the organization level, is to get the word out, is to be an efficient grant-maker, is to really be effective in our decision-making. So having strong internal operations that are very effective, an experienced team, and really getting that brand out. We certainly have made, I think, 40 wonderful grants to organizations. I think we touched with those for those 40 grants about 11,000 young people. And so we realized that we’re accelerating outcomes for young people in our non-profit partnerships. Certainly we want to track what those young people are doing, it’s just too early to be able to tie progress that those young people are experiencing to the Foundation. You have to have some time to do that over time, but strengths and quality of the partnerships and the number of partnerships we create between the NBA, non-profits and companies that are really thinking differently about hiring young people differently.

We will certainly track our partnerships and their effectiveness in terms of achieving concrete and meaningful outcomes for young people. One of the things we want to do is to create storylines, we want to get the word out about what the tremendous work that so many nonprofits are doing around economic opportunity for Black youth. And so we certainly want to track the number of stories, the content that is created, the ways in which we can highlight the work of our nonprofit partners, all of those are metrics towards, or maybe indicators towards success. But I think given our year long roadmap, I think those are good markers that are realistic at this point, but we certainly will evolve our measurements to be about job creation, to be about, are those young people that we’re working with above the racial wealth gap or transcending the racial wealth gap in their particular market? Are there companies that are changing policies and practices as to how they hire and prepare and retain Black youth for meaningful employment? All of those will be markers of success moving forward. It’s just early in our tenure at this point.

You’ve stressed keeping realistic expectations to your team. How do you balance realistic expectations, while continuing to nurture the kind of momentum the Foundation has seen in its first year?

I think I already used the quote about nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come [laughs], but the momentum has been amazing. And I want to shout out both Lauren Sills and Adela Ruiz on my team in terms of just amazing work. Our board, our partners. I think the momentum has been amazing and I’m really glad to be a part of it. I think when I say managing our expectations, it’s really more around recognizing that we’re building our organization and that we can’t, to your earlier question, lead to outcome, at this point, because it’s just too early in the process. Listen, we’re open for business. We want to grow our numbers and strengthen our partnerships. We want to work with organizations that have longstanding track records in preparing young people in the world of work. We want to work with companies that want to hire and prepare young people for meaningful employment differently. Our momentum, it’s really incredible. And we want to promote that. We just want to move in a thoughtful way, move with humility and really build a sustainable entity as we move forward. And I think that’s the balance, it’s momentum, not versus, but complemented with sustainability. And I think we’re looking at all of that in a realistic and thoughtful manner.