The NFL PR playbook is so obvious at this point that it’s shocking the league’s executives are still impressed by the idea: When people get upset, throw money at the problem.
This being the NFL, that money will have strings attached. Perhaps the money will go to a borderline useless organization that’s barely fighting breast cancer. Or perhaps the NFL will try to use its money to convince researchers that brain injuries caused by playing football aren’t really that bad. Or maybe it will employ a sham “fiscal sponsor” that doesn’t really do anything except tweet and rarely make PSAs.
Now into that inglorious pantheon comes the Hopewell Fund. The name first came up near the bottom of an ESPN report on the latest offer made to the Players Coalition hopes of, in turn, getting players to stop protesting during the national anthem. It’s a deal that, by design, gives the league a lot of control over the “charitable contributions,” which is no surprise given its history.
Per ESPN, the agreement is to give 25 percent of the national fund—which is separate from the money contributed by owners and by players—to the United Negro College Fund, 25 percent to Dream Corps, and the other 50 percent to the Players Coalition. But the Players Coalition isn’t a real charity, and the report goes on to add that it has “filed 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) paperwork for nonprofit status as a fiscally sponsored project.” That project will then be overseen and advised by the Hopewell Fund.
Despite what ESPN wrote, it’s important to start with this—a fiscally sponsored project is not a charity. It’s a project that is overseen by another 501(c)(3) organization—think of it as a project housed within a charity. It’s also what the No More sham was when the NFL signed on with it. One of the most important distinctions is that they do not file public tax returns. They are not charities.
The Hopewell Fund is the charity here. As a nonprofit, it does have public 501(c)(3) tax returns on file, but in this case they won’t tell you much—the organization has existed only since 2015, and so just one set of tax documents is readily available. There are two copies online of the organization’s tax returns for that year—one on its website, another from the document gathered by the Foundation Center. The documents are mostly the same, although in some places the descriptions vary slightly and on a few pages different types of information are available. I will be using the one provided by the Foundation Center, and I’ll note when I’m using the slightly differently formatted one from its website.
Here’s the opening from the public copy, written as if to pack in as many PR-crafted buzzwords as possible. (The description did not have periods, so I’ve added them where they seemed necessary for clarity.)
The Hopewell Fund specializes in helping social/corporate entrepreneurs and other changemakers launch new, innovative social change projects. Hopewell is designed to facilitate rapid & efficient launches of well-resourced projects with diverse revenue & funding models, including charitable contributions and investments. Many of Hopewell’s projects employ bold and ambitious strategies to achieve the impact they seek. Hopewell is managed by a team of experts with experience in starting up innovative organizations. They project streamlined operations and financial support and compliance oversight to minimize administrative burdens for project donors and staff.
I have no clue what any of that means.
The documents say that the fund has more than $6 million in net assets, but it only spent less than $1 million in its first year.
Nowhere in the returns does it say where the money came from; the copy from its own website does include a sheet listing donations but leaves out any names.
As for where the money was spent, two projects are listed under “service accomplishments.”
I have no clue what any of that means either.
As for the fund’s employees, there are three listed, and in 2015 they weren’t paid.
Who did get paid in 2015? Something called Arabella Consulting Services. It got paid $170,953 for “management services.” Let’s go down that rabbit hole.
The name comes up again in a disclosure regarding “business transactions involving interested persons.” The same Eric Kessler also is a part of Arabella Advisors, LLC. Apparently, the Hopewell Fund has an “administrative services agreement” with Arabella Advisors, per its tax return.
Further down, it mentions the arrangement with Arabella, again, and that another organization, the New Venture Fund, does the payroll.
So the Hopewell Fund is basically run by Arabella, which then has the New Venture Fund pay the salaries. Got it. The New Venture Fund’s website says it is nonprofit but is managed “under an administrative agreement with Arabella Advisors.” The documents say that in 2016 NVF gave a big chunk of money—$13,167,207—to Arabella Advisors for “management services.”
So what in the hell is Arabella Advisors? It is, according to its website, “a team of passionate problem solvers dedicated to helping clients make a difference on the issues that matter most to them.” OK, still no clue what any of that means.
Arabella Advisors is a corporation, which means there are no public tax records and it more than likely turns a profit. It calls itself a “Certified B Corporation,” which basically means an outside nonprofit has certified it as being not a total corporate monster. Ben & Jerry’s is one, and so is Patagonia. The concept got a nice writeup in the New Yorker back in 2014.
But things get messy here. Back in 2016, SiliconBeat’s reporting on the secretive Campaign for Accountability, best known for taking on Google, led them to the Hopewell Fund, Arabella, and the New Venture Fund, and the three were again intertwined with no clear explanation. From their report:
On Wednesday, the Campaign for Accountability’s Stevens emailed SiliconBeat to say, “Campaign for Accountability is incorrectly identified as a project of New Venture Fund.” Arabella, which provides administrative support to the Campaign for Accountability, had mistakenly sent an NVF tax receipt for SiliconBeat’s donation, Stevens said. “We are a project of Hopewell Fund, a different non-profit organization,” Stevens said.
However, NVF president Lee Bodner said Wednesday that his organization had created Hopewell Fund last year, and although it was an “independent” organization, its staff were still NVF employees and paid by NVF until Hopewell got up to speed.
Bodner said it was up to officials from each Hopewell project to decide whether to disclose funding sources. Hopewell runs its own projects with different donors from those who give to NVF, and the Gates and Hewlett foundations are not Hopewell donors, Bodner said.
Bodner is one of three Hopewell directors. Another is Arabella CEO Sampriti Ganguli. The third is Michael Slaby.
The SiliconBeat report doesn’t mention Eric Kessler, but his bio from Arrabella’s website provides some bits of information. He founded Arabella, is passionate about food (well, “the food sector,” according to the bio), is chairman of the New Venture Fund, serves as a trustee of his own family’s foundation (described as holding “assets generated by the sale of a fifth-generation family-owned business”), and started out as a “field director for the League of Conservation Voters.” Kessler later worked on “conservation issues during the Clinton Administration.” In short, he sounds nothing like the type of person I expect to be at the forefront of fighting police brutality and racial injustice in this country which, you might have forgotten, is why the NFL players are taking a damn knee in the first place. But this is what you get when you do business with the NFL. The NFL was always going to try and co-opt this, it was only a question of exactly when, and how, and for what final amount.
Correction (10:46 p.m. ET): This post originally reported that Kessler’s bio said he worked on conservative issues in the Clinton administration. Kessler’s bio says that he worked on conservation issues.