J.J. Watt Raised $33 Million for Harvey Relief — But Where Will It Go?

What does the playbook say about the relief funds?
What does the playbook say about the relief funds? Photo by Eric Sauseda

If you're one of thousands of Harvey-ravaged Houstonians who could use a handout from Houston Texan J.J. Watt's hurricane relief fund, you're going to have to wait a little longer. While the J.J. Watt Foundation raised a mind-blowing $33 million in two weeks, a foundation spokesperson said there's currently no long-term plan in place for how the money will be spent.

Let's face it: Most people in Houston (and elsewhere) love Watt, so it wasn't much of a surprise when his initial goal of $200,000 was quickly surpassed. But his foundation, established in 2011, is a relatively modest outfit: According to IRS filings, the foundation is used to overseeing about $1.4 million a year, which goes to after-school programs primarily in Texas and in Watt's home state of Wisconsin. The sudden infusion of such a large amount of money is far more than the nonprofit is used to handling.

Watt's has been one of the most successful fundraising efforts in Harvey's wake, and the All-Pro defensive end has rightly received accolades for wanting to help his community. But when the Houston Press asked how people could apply for funds, or how the funds would be used, we couldn't get a clear response.

Connie Watt, the foundation's vice president as well as Watt's mother, told the Press Wednesday that no decisions would be made before September 15, the final day of fundraising. In a brief telephone conversation, Watt's mother, who has also appeared with her son in H-E-B commercials, referred all questions to the Houston Texans communications director, Amy Palcic. When we asked Palcic how this $33 million would be distributed, she told us in an email: "We'll be able to get you that information in the coming weeks. A thorough plan is being put in place as we speak. Thank you for your patience." (Palcic also promised the "plan will be transparent throughout the entire process.")
What does the playbook say about the relief funds? - PHOTO BY ERIC SAUSEDA
What does the playbook say about the relief funds?
Photo by Eric Sauseda

We also reached out to foundation board members Terry Jannsen, a Wisconsin-based financial adviser, and Richelle Martin, an attorney with the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Office of Industrial Partnerships, and will update accordingly should they respond.

One thing remains unclear: whether the goal of the foundation's relief efforts is to get money to victims as quickly as possible; or if it was always intended for long-term recovery efforts. In a statement attributed to Watt, the foundation's website states only that "every dollar" will be "put to work for the people in the devastated areas in and around Houston."

Watt also told ABC News last week that "I take that responsibility [of distributing directly to those affected by Harvey] extremely seriously. And I'm gonna make sure...that what I do is do right by the people who donated, and by the people who need the help."

"They're saying they want to help the people of Houston, but not saying, like, how," Borochoff said.

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Daniel Borochoff, president and founder of Chicago-based nonprofit watchdog CharityWatch, says that charities typically have a specific goal, and the necessary infrastructure, before the first dollar is raised.

"They're saying they want to help the people of Houston, but not saying, like, how," Borochoff told the Press. "There's a lot of ways that a charity can help after a disaster, and donors really should look for something more specific."

He added, "Charities shouldn't just try to raise as much money as they possibly can...because we have limited charitable dollars, so it's likely that a lot of that money would have gone to some other group...One thing that he could have done is aligned himself with an existing charity, because obviously he's got a lot of star power that'll bring a lot of attention and [raise] a lot of resources."

So what should the J.J. Watt Foundation do now?

"My guess is that he would make grants to other groups that know how in disasters," Borochoff said.

Okay,  but how responsible, really, is Watt — wasn't his job just to lend his name and popularity for a good cause, not to be a micro-manager?

"He is somewhat responsible," Borochoff said. "If he wanted to raise $200,000, he should have cut it off. That's why, for instance, Doctors Without Borders, they'll raise money for a disaster; once they reach that goal, then they cut it off — 'this is the money we need for what we can do.'"

Borochoff also said that CharityWatch's role is to "try to inform donors to be thoughtful when they give, and not give solely based on the celebrity connection, but give based on...the charity's plan to help, and this group has not been that specific on what they're going to do."

Transparency and willingness to work with established, experienced relief organizations is paramount in the wake of disasters, according to Richard Marker, faculty co-director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for High Impact Philanthropy. (Marker also helped create New York University's Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and is co-principal of Wise Philanthropy, an advisory and education firm.)

"It's probably not a bad idea to divide that money so that some of that money is available for relief six months from now or a year from now, because one of the things we've learned from every disaster is that there's an immediate respond to that, but there are needs that continue to emerge," said Marker, who agreed to speak in general terms about post-disaster fundraising, and not specifically on the J.J. Watt Foundation.

Experience from past disasters — 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the 2010 Haiti earthquake — has shown that "it's very important that credible organizations oversee [disaster relief], and credible organizations take responsibility for it."

Marker added, "The implementation of that money should go to organizations that are already respected and have infrastructure on the ground, so that there is an efficiency in getting it to where it needs to be done as quickly as possible."

At the same time, Marker said, victims can be forgotten in the months following a disaster like Harvey, when "nobody else is funding. Everybody already has compassion fatigue...As long as it's clear and public and people know who's managing it, some of that money could be set aside" to use for the "non-calculable kinds of needs that inevitably emerge down the road after the water dries out and people still don't have homes."

As for transparency, he added that since people often become suspicious about how their donations are spent, it's important that a charity's money is managed by professionals and organizations in the community that are well-respected — especially if some donations are held for later use.

There certainly is an immediate need, and the Houston Press will continue to cover the J.J. Watt Foundation as it decides how exactly it will help Harvey's victims.
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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow