Minutes before last year’s game against the Detroit Lions, Jared Allen ran onto Mall of America Field to thunderous cheers as he waved a large American flag in a pregame NFL salute to veterans.
The Vikings Pro Bowl defensive end has made helping veterans his biggest priority, and he seldom passes on a chance to talk about his charity — Jared Allen’s Homes 4 Wounded Warriors.
But the job of starting a charity — even when your name is Jared Allen, and thousands of fans wear your jersey — can be a struggle, and it can be easy for the publicity to outpace the results. Even Allen acknowledges he began the nonprofit without much knowledge of how to go about things, and is only now beginning to learn how to access the corporate help that he said he needs.
Though the charity announced in June that it would be helping three more soldiers move into homes, it had up until now remodeled just two homes since it began nearly four years ago.
“It’s definitely not an uncommon story,” said Jon Pratt, the executive director of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, referring to the problems facing well-intentioned nonprofits that are begun with fanfare but then struggle to gain traction. “It’s the rare one that makes it past five years.”
The problems have not been because of a lack of publicity generated by Allen, a media-savvy personality whom the charity’s president jokingly refers to as “One Take” because of Allen’s smoothness before a camera. In the past half-year, Allen has held another of his military-themed “Night Ops” golf tournaments in Arizona to raise money, a black-tie fund- raiser in Minnesota attended by teammate Adrian Peterson and auctioned off a painting of himself with bids starting at $1,200. Appearing on a large video screen, Allen even addressed a country music jam near Walker, Minn., in 2011 asking for donations.
Denise White, his marketing agent and the founder of EAG Sports Management in Los Angeles, said promoting Allen goes hand-in-hand with promoting the charity. “If you stop putting him in the public eye,” people will stop donating to the charity, she said.
At times, it can be difficult to find the line between Allen’s charity work and the marketing of Allen. The charity’s first fundraising gala at a downtown Minneapolis hotel was filmed by a crew from Fox Sports. For much of the week leading up to it, a Fox camera followed Allen in an attempt to take viewers “inside an athlete’s life” as part of a national telecast. At the fund- raiser, attended by Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, a Marine in full dress uniform guarded the 15 Kevlar military helmets — on loan to Allen from the Marines — that were used as centerpieces on the banquet tables.
Meanwhile, White, his marketing agent, said she has secured promotional deals for Allen with a boat company and even paired Allen with Orange County Choppers, the cable TV reality show that she said built “a chopper for Jared to auction off for his foundation.”
Learning the area
All of the hustle has had to overcome a steep learning curve: Allen rushed to start the charity just months after returning from a goodwill trip to visit U.S. military bases in the Middle East and only then began figuring out how to make it work.
Sitting in a black suit at a fundraiser last fall for his charity, Allen talked matter-of-factly of not knowing Minnesota’s corporate giants — or how to tap them for money. He listened intently as a list of Minnesota-based companies was rattled off. “Target’s located here, right?” said Allen, who spends much of the offseason in Arizona. He nodded as he also heard the names of General Mills, 3M, Medtronic and Cargill. “What’s Cargill?” he asked.
“The first two years were tough because, not knowing anything about a foundation, it was me and my business partner out in Arizona just trying to raise money,” Allen said. “I think the majority of the first house came out of my pocket.
“It’s not as simple as ‘I’m going to build this soldier a house’,” he said.
The charity’s first-year tax filing reported $42,497 in revenue and its most-recent tax filing — for 2011 — showed $55,226 in revenue. “It’s hard anytime you’re a not-for-profit,” said Andrew Limouris, the president of Chicago-based Medix Staffing Solutions, which Limouris said will donate as much as $50,000 to Allen’s charity this year.
Only four days after Allen’s charity announced last month it would be helping its third, fourth and fifth soldiers, two other foundations — including one headed by actor Gary Sinise — held a joint news conference in Minneapolis announcing they were helping their 25th wounded veteran in just over two years move into handicapped-accessible housing.
But the charity’s fortunes may be slowly changing. Dylan Vicha, the charity’s co-founder and a friend of Allen’s since high school, said General Mills has agreed to highlight the wounded veterans charity on cereal boxes, and Allen said it will be part of the company’s new “Serving More Than Nutrition” campaign.
The charity ended 2012 having raised $750,000 and the Vikings, said Vicha, will be sending a camera crew to film work on two of the homes, one in Luverne, Minn., and the other near St. Bonifacius. Wells Fargo, meanwhile, gave the charity a grant to remodel one home, had its employees volunteer to help and has donated $30,000 at Allen’s golf tournaments.
The job now, Allen said in an interview last month, is to “expand our brand, and really reach out to more corporate-level sponsors.”
Even the new Vikings community calendar, released earlier this year to document the team’s charitable commitments, lauded Allen’s nonprofit work. “No NFL player embraces each day in the NFL more than Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen,” the team stated. “However, Allen’s passion is helping wounded service members.”
Allen’s foundation has joined a crowded field of charities — with names such as Operation Homefront and the Wounded Heroes Foundation — hoping to help wounded veterans. Several of them thus far appear to have better track records.
The Military Warriors Support Foundation, founded in 2007 and based in San Antonio, helps Iraq and Afghanistan combat wounded veterans obtain mortgage-free housing and had $2.3 million in revenue after its first two years. “We grew within a year tremendously,” said Andrea Dellinger, a foundation senior director. The charity, started by a retired three-star Army general, said it has as of late last year obtained homes for 241 veterans in 28 states.
Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, which recently received a state award for helping veterans, last year helped 20 veterans in Minnesota with modest home remodeling projects that included making homes handicapped accessible. “It’s all repair work, so it’s either building accessibility ramps or doing repair projects,” said Matt Haugen, a Habitat for Humanity spokesman, who said the nonprofit has spent roughly $100,000 on the projects.
One of the latest recipients of Allen’s generosity will be 24-year-old Colin Faust, a former Marine Corps sergeant who lost his left leg and has no feeling in much of his right leg after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in October 2010. “I can’t even count how many surgeries he had,” said Sonja, his mother, who lives in Waconia.
Faust’s home near St. Bonifacius will be the charity’s first attempt to build a new home — the others have been remodeling projects. Faust, a longtime Vikings fan, said Allen called him, thanked him for his military service and met him on the land he bought for the home. “We sat there, and hung out for about three hours,” Faust said.
Allen’s penchant for glitz has extended to his charity work.
Joshua Bullis, who lost both legs in Afghanistan, said the federal government provided roughly $168,000 that enabled him to buy a home in Arizona and make it handicapped accessible. But Allen’s charity, said Bullis, donated roughly $50,000 that bought “all the cool stuff.”
Said Bullis: “They put a spa in the back yard. They put a grill in the back yard — a built-in grill — [and] TVs everywhere, nice ‘surround sound’ for football.”
Bullis’ girlfriend, Tory Walker, was likewise effusive in her praise of Allen. “Jared amped it up for us,” she said.
Matt Scharping, who raises competition bulls in Minnesota, calls his fundraising for Allen’s charity “the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.” Scharping gave Allen half interest in a bull — Allen and his wife quickly named it “Admiral Bull” — with the proceeds going to the charity.
“He has his priorities straight,” Scharping said of Allen. “Honestly, he’s just a big cowboy.”