Wilson Foundation CEO: “This is About Civilization and Developing Leaders Moving Forward”

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There is an experiment unfolding in Southeast Michigan and Western New York that is unprecedented in its ambition, and which holds of the promise, through lessons learned, of revitalizing communities well beyond the Rust Belt. That experiment is led by the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, the legacy of the late Buffalo Bills owner whose estate sold the NFL team for a record $1.4 billion in 2014 shortly after his passing. 

Youth Sports and Recreation was identified as one of several philanthropic priorities of the spend-down foundation, which over the next 16 years must disperse all remaining assets from the sale of the team. It’s a good problem to have, but money alone does not solve complex challenges. It takes a theory of change, engagement from a range of community partners, and strategic investments designed to produce measurable results. 

To get it right, the foundation partnered with the Community Foundation of Southeast Michigan and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo to commission State of Play reports from the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program to develop insights and baseline data on sport participation rates among youth in its regions. Those reports were used to convene regional leaders and develop shared priorities. Wilson has already committed more than $250 million in the Parks and Trails and Youth Sports and Recreation funding alone.

At Aspen, we’re committed to the success of the Wilson projects, and sharing the early lessons learned with our broad network of thought leaders. So this year, for the first time, we are taking our annual Project Play Summit out of Washington, D.C., its home since inception in 2015, and bringing it to Detroit, Sept. 17 and 18, where we will continue to advance the national conversation around how to build healthy communities through sports, this time with a heightened focus on community-based strategies.

On the eve of today’s announcement, Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society Program, caught up with Dave Egner, President and CEO of the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, on what’s next. The foundation is a member of Project Play 2020, comprised of 20 of the most influential organizations in sports, media and health, who have come together to develop shared and mutually reinforcing opportunities to get more children active through sports. Below are excerpts of their conversation. 

Farrey: There are few foundations in this country that invest in sports and recreation for youth in a significant way. You’re investing more than any other. Why? 

Egner: The trustees of our foundation chose investment in sports and recreation as a direction for us. I originally thought, “Great, I love sports and recreation, it’s good for kids to be active and build cognitive skills.” What we didn’t realize is that sports are just a means to a more important end. We have a health crisis in our society and access to sport can address that. And if we can expand access to free play opportunities, we can expand the creativity and problem-solving skills of the next generation. This is about civilization and developing leaders moving forward. It’s much bigger than I thought it was. 

Farrey: What are some of the projects you’re most proud of? 

Egner: We’re a spend-down foundation that primarily serves 16 counties in Southeast Michigan and Western New York. I’m proud of the fact that across those regions, we’ve been able to really engage the community in the conversation about how to leverage the opportunities around sports and recreation. It started with the State of Play reports with the Aspen Institute, where we developed baseline data and useful insights. That led to working with our local community foundations on a series of community roundtables and launching regional Project Play initiatives to collaborate in areas such as youth coaching, sports equipment sharing and facilities.  

We created an initiative called Built to Play, working with groups like the Tony Hawk Foundation to build more skateboard parks and KaBoom! to develop more innovative play spaces, and things just blossomed. Now, the platform is in place for all organizations in these regions, not just ours, to do more. We paid to create these platforms with the community foundations we work with so that anyone, a corporate player or otherwise, can get involved. 

Farrey: What opportunities and challenges exist with having sports as a philanthropic focus area? 

Egner: It’s a tremendous opportunity because we’re sports crazy in the United States. We all have our favorite teams and we bring kids and others together around sport and recreation. The challenge is to bring back more free play and local play, so that the travel teams don’t dominate the sport ecosystem. A lot of kids don’t have access to that (travel team) system and the local leagues are dying.  

The most telling finding in the State of Play reports is the number of organized baseball programs (close to 200 in Southeast Michigan alone) vs. the number of kids who say they play baseball close to home (only 4 percent). There are hundreds of travel teams, but they’re driven by parents who are serious about one sport. We don’t see kids playing much at sandlots anymore or in recreational leagues close to home.  

Farrey: The foundation just made a significant investment in parks and greenways. What was the thought there? 

Egner: In honor of Mr. Wilson’s 100th birthday, a $100 million commitment was made in each region, for a total of $200 million, to improve parks, trails, greenways and create new spaces for recreation. These spaces will help create more of a connected region in each place, where kids and others can ride their bikes from one place to another, for instance. Many of these trails connect to sports and recreation facilities. We see the introduction of these spaces as a critical step that overlaps with our work on other priorities for the foundation, including early childhood education and workforce development. 

Farrey: What role did the State of Play reports play in guiding these investments? 

Egner: It was the data and thought leadership in these reports that made these investments possible. Without the State of Play reports, we would have been investing on a hunch and we would not have been able to gather the key players together as effectively. At the roundtables that were set, we were able to identify the interests of key partners and work from there.  

Farrey: What’s on deck for the rest of the year?

Egner: I’m most excited about hosting the Project Play Summit here in Detroit. It’s a real opportunity for people to see what the community foundations are working on. At some point, ownership of this project will fully transfer from us to the community, as it should, and people at the Summit will see how that works. How do we instill the value of the eight plays in parents, coaches and others in our communities? This will be a pinnacle showcase for us.  

Farrey: Why are Detroit and Buffalo great laboratories for experimentation? 

Egner: First, there’s incredible pride in both markets. That’s why you see so many people coming to the table around this project. Also, the professional and college sports teams are engaged at a high level. These are Rust Belt cities that were once the economic gladiators of the U.S. They were two of the wealthiest cities in the world, and they have been humbled (by the loss of industry and jobs). So, how do you do things with less resources? These are regions that are figuring that out.  

Then, there’s raw material that they have to work with. With the Great Lakes, we have 21 percent of the world’s fresh water, as well as skiing and all sorts of winter sports. I don’t think there’s a sport out there that we can’t try to get more children playing.  

Farrey: You’re also involved in Project Play 2020. Why? 

Egner: We’re a regional foundation, and it’s great that we’re able to focus on 16 counties, as you can really hone and concentrate the conversations. Being a member of Project Play 2020 helps because it gives us context of what’s happening nationally. The collective intellect of the members and the issues they understand, we’re very keyed up about that. And for them, it’s a unique opportunity to take the national work and thought leadership and bring it to life here in our regions.

Farrey: How do you bring that to bear? Through pilot programs? Shared knowledge? Adapted tools? 

Egner: It’s all that. And we want to make them sustainable. So, how do we do that? 

Farrey: Let’s jump ahead to the end of your spend-down cycle, in 16 years. What’s the vision for sports and recreation in your regions, once all your investments are made? What do you hope is the state of play in your regions and what contribution do you think it will make to the overall goals of the foundation?

Egner: Let’s start with the base metrics. We want to see greater participation in sports and recreation, regardless of zip code. Whether you are urban or rural, you should have access. From there, it’s the benefits that flow from participation: health-related numbers improve and we save lot of money because kids are healthier. We see people with greater cognitive and leadership abilities. We see better citizens and employees, so there’s more productivity. We see more economic development, particularly around the parks and trails. We know that businesses close to parks are more valuable.  

Farrey: How hopeful are you that we can tell a great story? 

Egner: I’m sure we’re going to tell a great story at end of the day. We already have. The State of Play reports have already caused organizations to take action. I think we will continue to see change and sports and recreation. Remember, we’re not leaving the scene for another 16 years. 

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.