Can Tiger Woods Transform His Charitable Foundation Into A Lasting Legacy?

Can the world’s best golfer remake himself into a great philanthropist? We look at what his foundation has accomplished and where it’s headed.

It’s a sunny day in Southern California. At One Tiger Woods Way, four miles north of Disneyland in Anaheim, dozens of kids are streaming down a tree-lined path into an enormous glass and sandstone building called the TGR Learning Lab. Many of them don’t fully understand who Tiger Woods is, although they see his name etched on the side of the building. They don’t hear much about him on TV and they’re too young to remember him in his prime.


After school, hundreds of low-income middle and high school students from the area come to this center by bus to take part in STEM-based activities. At the start of the academic year, the Tiger Woods Foundation reaches out to local parents, inviting them to enroll their kids in the program. It’s entirely free of charge, apart from the $5 fee to create an I.D. card.

Many of these children come from underfunded public schools where science classes are 45-minutes long and often don’t provide opportunities to complete experiments. But here at the Lab, a student might express interest in rockets and have the opportunity to build a water bottle rocket from scratch, then use those learnings to design an even more complex rocket, whose flight path can be manipulated. Kids who come to the center have explored topics as wide-ranging as oceanography, video production, and robotics.

Video: Why Tiger Woods Is Deeply Attached To His Foundation

“Now kids have a place to call home,” Tiger Woods told me about a month ago, over coffee in the West Village. “They have a place that is safe and a place to learn.” But can his foundation, built entirely around his celebrity (and celebrity earnings) be turned into a legacy that will last beyond him?


From Brand-Building to Legacy-Building

Woods was only 20 years old when he founded the foundation with his father, Earl Woods. This year, as Tiger Woods turned 40, the foundation celebrated its 20th anniversary.

The charity began as a simple junior golf clinic where Woods, a rare person of color in an overwhelmingly white sport, introduced the basics of the game to inner city kids. But everything changed in 2001, right after the events of September 11. At the time, he was slated to play at the American Express Championship in St. Louis which was eventually cancelled. “As I was driving home on the 13th, I thought, “What if I was in that building?” Woods recalls. “What would happen to this Foundation? It would be gone because it depended so much on me physically hitting the golf ball.”

This was an important turning point. Until then, much like other celebrities, Woods saw the foundation as another way to boost his fame and build his brand. But in the wake of the national tragedy, it dawned on him that his wealth and global recognition would allow him to create something that could make a serious impact on the world. It could become a legacy to leave behind long after his days as a golf superstar were behind him. Ironically, though, this plan would only work if he became less central to the foundation’s mission, so that he would not need to be physically present for the work to move forward. Woods began to envisioned his foundation as a hub for STEM education to kids from underprivileged communities.


The foundation has provided something for Woods to focus on during times of crisis. In 2006, the same year his father passed away, Woods opened the ambitious 35,000-square-foot Learning Lab in Anaheim. As Woods dealt with the unraveling of his personal life after widely publicized affairs and coped with devastating physical injuries, the foundation seemed to loom even larger in his universe, giving him a positive way to channel his energies. His current goal is to broaden the scope of its impact to serve millions of children annually.

Today, Woods is by far the Foundation’s biggest donor. The other big chunk of the Foundation’s $8 million budget comes from putting on PGA golf competitions and other events where Woods makes an appearance. Many of these events are also underwritten by corporate sponsors such as AT&T, Deutsche Bank, and Rolex, although some revenue comes from attendees who pay anywhere from $50 to see Woods play on the golf course to $10,000 to hang out with him on poker night. “We find that people may not know what the Tiger Woods Foundation does, but they certainly know Tiger Woods and that certainly opens doors,” say Rick Singer, the Foundation’s president and CEO.

Tiger Woods, Science Nerd

The lab, buzzing with excited students eager to learn, is exactly what Woods had in mind back in the days after 9/11. Back then, STEM wasn’t the buzzword that it has become today, but Woods chose to make this the focus of his charity because he felt it would reflect a facet of his own identity. He’s very keen on math, physics, and chemistry. “I’ve always been a science nerd,” he tells me with a grin. “Golf is an extension of me, but there is another part of me: the science part.”


For years, he spent every moment not consumed with golf trying to learn new scientific concepts. As a college student majoring in Economics at Stanford, he remembers taking a six-person astrophysics course where the material seemed, at first, to go way over his head. But he was determined to take everything in. “I had to suck it up,” Woods says. “With six people, there was to where to hide. I had to do more work than anybody else: there were only two problem sets for the entire week but it would take me between 48 and 54 hours to do it.”

Later, in the midst of his hectic schedule as a pro golfer, Woods had a reputation for toting around physics textbooks in his car or suitcase. When he describes his own golf swing, he often talks about it in highly technical terms, describing the velocity, torque, kinetic response, and obscure muscles in his arms.

But the Foundation’s mission wasn’t just driven by Woods’s own love of science. His desire to create a science-focused charity emerged just as it was becoming evident that the workplace was changing and that young people–particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds–would need STEM skills to compete for jobs. “It blended his personal interest with a critical gap in education,” Singer says.


Katherine Bihr, a former principal that Woods hired in 2004 to help design the curriculum at the lab, believes it is important to connect the fun, hands-on experiments to jobs in the real world, so that kids can start thinking about what it will take to launch their own careers. “If a student discovers something they enjoy doing, we give them a chance to try it two or three times,” Bihr says. “We’re trying to give them an opportunity to find out who they are and who they might become.”

Besides after-school programs, the Lab also offers weeklong sessions to 4,000 fifth- and sixth-grade classes from local schools, where students and teachers can take part in either a Crime Lab or Marine Science program, learning things like fingerprinting, animal dissection and DNA analysis. Low-income high school students can sign up for college prep workshops and attend presentations from colleges and universities. During the summer, students between fifth and 12th grades can attend summer school.

While the Learning Lab in Anaheim is the flagship, there are six other satellite hubs in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Virginia, and Florida. In total, these campuses have served more than 150,000 over the last decade–85,000 of whom were girls–in over 50 areas of STEM study including biomedical studies and engineering. A vast majority of the students are minorities who are living below the poverty line. After attending one of the labs, the foundation says, 82% of students saw an improvement in their grades and 91% reported increased confidence and optimism about the future; most importantly, 83% of them became first-generation college attendees. The foundation has also offered 149 college scholarships to high-achieving at-risk students, who had a 98% graduation rate. And in addition to helping students, the Lab has held professional development workshops to around 5,000 STEM educators from underfunded schools.


Going forward, teacher training will become an even bigger focus. This year, the Foundation has partnered with the Discovery Education (a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, which owns the Discovery channel) to digitize and disseminate the STEM curriculum it has developed to educators around the world. Launching next year, the new digital platform will provide free resources to those teaching students between 10 and 18. “Tiger wants to reach millions of kids and it became pretty evident that you can only reach so many by inviting them to your centers,” Bihr says. “But if you can share the content that you’re teaching with teachers, you can reach a lot more.”

Not All Celebrity Foundations Are Created Equal

For sports superstars, participating in charitable ventures is now essentially part of the job. Much like Woods, golf prodigy Jordan Spieth created a foundation at the age of 20, three years ago. Spieth’s charity focuses on helping special needs children and military families. Lance Armstrong started the Livestrong Foundation to improve the lives of cancer survivors. Andre Agassi’s foundation provides educational opportunities to underprivileged children.

But not all foundations are created equal. In 2013, ESPN examined 115 charities launched by high-profile professional athletes and found that 74% fell short of acceptable non-profit operating standards. According to Charity Navigator, a nonprofit watchdog, the Tiger Woods Foundation does not fall into this category. It spends 82.1% of its budget on program expenses rather than overhead costs, it has independent voting board members, and it makes all of its financial information accessible to the public. “This is a healthy charity,” says Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator’s VP of marketing. “And every year that we’ve rated them they have had a four (out of five) star rating, so they have maintained that consistently.”


But that’s not to say that Woods does not personally benefit from his foundation in other ways. For one thing, there are tax benefits for donating to his own charity. And, of course, it allows Woods to enhance his own image by regularly reminding the public of his achievements. “It’s part of the general marketing of the celebrity,” says Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor of public affairs and philanthropy at the University of Indiana who is an authority on celebrity foundations.

Foundations also generate goodwill, which can be especially valuable during times of crisis. When Woods made a televised apology in 2010 in the wake of the scandals that dominated tabloid headlines for months, he quickly brought up his foundation, renewing his dedication to its work and expressed regret for letting down his staff and the students attending the programs. While no one would question the sincerity of his concern for the foundation’s future, speaking about it also served to soften his image and get people thinking about his good deeds.

The Foundation did not suffer significant losses in sponsorship during those difficult years and has since continued to grow. But Lenkowsky questions whether it has a strong future ahead given that it depends so heavily on Woods himself in order to stay financially viable. The bulk of its revenues come from Woods showing up to golf tournaments and other events. The sponsors who underwrite these events only do so because Woods is still considered a hot commodity. What will happen when Woods gives up golf for good? “The big question would be: is the Tiger Woods Foundation going to outlive Mr. Woods’s celebrity or is it likely that, when the celebrity’s star has diminished, that the foundation will diminish too?” he asks.


The Long Game

For his charity to be sustainable in the long term, Lenkowsky says that Woods needs to focus on making it a leader within STEM education, partly so that it will be able to generate funding from grants and public donations. He could achieve this by, for instance, having a smaller board of prominent education experts and developing working relationships with top-notch educational organizations. We’re already seeing the Foundation making progress in this area with its partnership with the Discovery media platform, but Lenkowsky believes that there is a lot more they could be doing. “After his scandal hit, you would have been a fool to bet on any survival for the foundation,” he says. “It’s obviously survived and seems to be growing in terms of revenue, so now, if he starts taking steps to improve the program, he could make it into a sustainable legacy.”

In late October, Woods hosted a gala at the New York Public Library to celebrate the Foundation’s 20th anniversary, where guests could pay between $10,000 and $50,000 a table. Woods himself funded the glittery event, so all proceeds went directly to the organization.

Right before the program began, as people drank cocktails and mingled under chandeliers, I asked Woods what he was thinking two decades into this project that he started with his father, who is arguably the most important figure in his life. He pointed out that even his decision to change the Foundation’s focus was an important moment in their relationship. “We built the foundation together, but the transition from golf to education was me,” he says. “I trusted him to get it started, but he trusted me with how we were going to go in the future. The fact that we had that type of kinship is something I miss each and every day.”


Can the Foundation now pivot once more to become financially independent from its founder? There’s still a long way to go, but Woods is a master at the long game.


About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts


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