What’s New with the NBA Foundation? Its Executive Director and an NBA Player Weigh In
Incorporated in 2020, the NBA Foundation has its roots in the outrage over the police shootings of Black Americans that sparked a nationwide racial reckoning that year. But while many names come to mind from that time — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — it was actually the shooting and serious injury of Jacob Blake, a then 29-year-old Black man, by a police officer in Wisconsin that sowed the seeds for the NBA Foundation. In response to the shooting, the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court against the Orlando Magic in an August 26 playoff game. NBA Foundation Executive Director Greg Taylor called that moment “an inflection point.”
The NBA Foundation is a nonprofit organization established and initially funded by all 30 National Basketball Association teams. It’s focused on driving economic opportunity and empowerment in the Black community — with a particular focus on job readiness, skill training, job placement and career advancement for Black youth ages 14 to 24. When it got started, the foundation pledged an initial $300 million over the next decade. Each NBA team pledged to donate $1 million annually, or $30 million collectively every year, over those 10 years.
When we last covered the NBA Foundation back in 2021, its work was just getting started. But what’s new with this sports foundation? How far along is it in its efforts to give away that pledged $300 million? And how does the foundation’s star-studded leadership influence its work? I recently spoke to Greg Taylor as well as Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers star forward and NBA Foundation board member, to find out more.
“An amazing three years”
Formerly a W.K. Kellogg Foundation staff member and president and CEO of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, Greg Taylor joined the NBA family in 2013. He can’t believe how much time has flown by. “It’s been an amazing three years, [and it’s] actually surprising to me to know that we’re in our third-year anniversary,” Taylor said. Through a growing list of partners, the foundation has given away around $77 million, or about 26% of its $300 million commitment.
Taylor was excited to share more about some of the foundation’s initiatives, including its new HBCU Fellowship program, now in its second year, whichaims to provide career development opportunities in the business of basketball for undergraduate and graduate HBCU students.
Fellows are selected by NBA teams and the league office to work within a variety of departments, including ticket sales, corporate partnerships, IT, social responsibility and marketing. The fellowship is paid and runs during the summer from June to August for 10 weeks. Count the NBA Foundation as another philanthropic supporter of HBCUs to note in recent years.
The fellowship so far works with 29 out of 102 total HBCUs in the U.S., and Taylor says the foundation wants to grow that number. The NBA Foundation explicitly wanted the fellowship to expand beyond the big four HBCUs of Hampton, Howard, Morehouse and Spelman. “We certainly have representation from those schools. But we know there’s talent at all HBCUs. These young people have been fantastic,” Taylor said. Near the end of the fellowship year, the fellowship is holding a close-out ceremony with its lead partner, Children’s Defense Fund, at Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee — a 157-acre farm that once belonged to the pioneering “Roots” author.
Meanwhile, at this year’s All Star Weekend on February 16, the foundation also kicked off its NBA Foundation Pitch Competition, aimed at growing the next generation of Black entrepreneurs and tech leaders. In collaboration with the National Black MBA Association and Utah Black Chamber of Commerce, the foundation hosted a live pitch competition highlighting Black entrepreneurs in Salt Lake City and across the country.
Among the participants were Folasade’ Ogunmokun, founder of Unskrypted, an interactive television streaming network that aims to “redefine the narrative surrounding the Black community”; Derek Canton, founder and CEO of Paerpay, which does contactless payments; and M-T Strickland, whose company Metric Mate provides a mobile platform to seamlessly keep track of workout regimens.
An NBA player and foundation board member speaks
The NBA Foundation’s eight board members include a legendary hooper, the league’s commissioner and the owner of the Atlanta Hawks. Tobias Harris of the Philadelphia 76ers is one of two current players rounding out the board.
Born in Long Island, the 31-year-old forward joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019 after stints on the Los Angeles Clippers, the Detroit Pistons, the Orlando Magic and Milwaukee Bucks. The reliable journeyman has averaged a little over 16 points per game for his career. Harris says he first got his feet wet in philanthropy in his early days on the Orlando Magic. He created a mentorship program with a group of elementary school boys. “I would go frequently to see them, like once or twice a month. That was 12 years ago, but I’m still in contact with those kids to this day. They’re all now like college freshman, doing great,” he told me.
Harris wanted to focus on education and literacy in his early philanthropy. His mother always emphasized the importance of education. In those early days in Orlando, he remembers telling youth that everyone has a dream to be an athlete or an entertainer, but that regardless of where they ultimately end up, it’s important to arm themselves with a strong educational backbone.
Following the days of the so-called NBA bubble, created to safeguard players during the early days of the pandemic, Harris got a call about being on the board of the NBA Foundation. Once he learned about the equity-minded vision of the NBA Foundation, which was in line with his own personal giving, he said he was all in. “The focus on STEM education, job shadows, development for our youth… I was just happy to be a part of it,” Harris said.
As he’s worked with the NBA Foundation, Harris has also been deepening his own personal giving. His Tobias Harris Charitable Fund focuses on educational equity for at-risk youth. And when he joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 2019, Harris donated $1 million to support the educational programs of nine different charities. His Tobias Lit Labs campaign, meanwhile, brings books and authors to families and schools. For his efforts, he was the recipient of the 2016 NBA Community Service Award.
Looking around at his athlete peers, Harris notices that everyone is going about their philanthropy in a slightly different way. Harris himself is laser-focused on making sure that youth have a support system. “You see a lot of different guys, getting out of the community, doing different things, especially in communities that they’ve come from. Building basketball courts. Figuring out ways to impact their families, their friends. So that’s how I think a lot of guys are going about it,” he said.
Proof of concept
Joining the NBA Foundation’s cohort of grantees is Exalt Youth, which is steered by Gisele Castro, the organization’s executive director since 2016. When she started, Exalt had an operating budget of $950,000, but that number has since grown to over $6 million. “I have been in the juvenile justice, criminal justice field for over 25 years,” Castro told me. “Starting in the early 1990s, there weren’t a lot of groups committed to funding juvenile justice. It’s very difficult to see progress and impact. With philanthropy, typically they’re looking for ROI.”
But Castro is proud of Exalt’s model, which is rooted not only in making sure youth avoid jail, but in re-engaging young people’s love of learning and reversing the school-to-prison pipeline. Castro notes that her youth start out reading at a forth or fifth grade level, but then, after the program, go on to graduate from high school and college. Exalt also focuses on the period after graduation, and on making sure young people have career pathways.
She calls the NBA Foundation Exalt’s “strongest champion,” and says the partnership has really forced her to think about the biggest systemic barriers to progress in juvenile justice, and ways to solve them.
The NBA Foundation has also supported nonprofits like Black Girls Code and Get Lit, which uses poetry and visual media to improve literacy and empower youth and their communities. Another early grantee is the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston, which works primarily in the Black and brown neighborhoods of Roxbury and North Dorchester, empowering youth to be change agents to address the needs of their communities. Other grantees have included Black Girl Ventures, City Year, Memphis Youth Initiative and SEO.
Three years into the NBA Foundation’s journey, Taylor and his eight staff members remain laser-focused on their mission. He believes that the foundation has accomplished “proof of concept.” Looking ahead, he said the next step is further solidifying connections between companies who hire these young people, the nonprofits who train them and the NBA ecosystem.
“Can we create, if you will, a hiring tree in each of our 28 markets? Where young people who spent time in these nonprofits, becoming ready for the world of work and economic opportunity, have the education that they need, the employment prospects that they’ve earned, and we can make that as seamless as possible.”