Heisman Winner A Champion Food Bank Fundraiser

If Joe Burrow didn’t have enough fans from his Heisman trophy-winning season, the Louisiana State University (LSU) quarterback has made a lot more in the past few weeks, and not just because he led his team to a national championship last night.

His remarks after winning the Heisman trophy last month spawned fundraisers on Facebook for his hometown food bank that eclipsed $500,000 in donations, a windfall for the tiny Athens County Food Pantry that operates on a budget of less than $100,000.

The Ohio native completed his historic season by tossing five touchdowns in last night’s 42-25 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.

As of this morning, the Facebook Fundraiser stood at $506,895, raised by 13,828 people, or an average gift of almost $37. The original goal of $1,000 has most recently been revised to $550,000. The page has been shared more than 16,000 times on Facebook.

“I think this is one of those feel good stories that really is real, you know, that doesn’t always happen. Here’s this young man, he got up and gave a completely unique Heisman speech: I’m up there for you and you can be here, too. It’s not your typical, ‘I’m a successful college athlete speech.’ I think he really touched people talking about it, and he was so sincere,” said Karin Bright, president of the Athens County Food Pantry. “In a world where everything seems to be so negative, it’s something so positive, people took notice. We just happened to be the organization that was the beneficiary of some of this,” she said.

The Athens County Food Pantry is an all-volunteer organization in its 40th year. It was started by clergy members in the community and has grown to some 50 volunteers, including 11 board members.

In his Heisman trophy acceptance speech, Burrow talked about growing up in an impoverished area like southeast Ohio and yet stands on a national stage. “I’m up here for all those kids in Athens and Athens County that, you know, go home to not a lot of food on the table, hungry after school. And you guys can be up here, too,” he said after the Dec. 14 ceremony in New York

Bright estimated that about 800 of the more than 13,000 Facebook donors (about 6 percent) opted to share their email address with the food pantry.

The organization plans to keep those donors up to date on what the pantry is doing and how their donations are being handled. “We’re just so blessed and overwhelmed with the generosity we’ve seen,” Bright said. In addition to Facebook fundraising, she said the food pantry has received donations through the mail from all over the country, as far away as Florida, California and Texas.

Bright said the organization received word that the speech had reached an LSU parents’ page and to expect donations. Then she got notice of another fundraiser, and then another. It was a fundraiser created by Athens High School and Ohio University graduate Will Drabold that “started going completely crazy,” Bright said. “That entire evening, we were texting back and forth with our treasurer, thinking, ‘What on Earth is going on?’” By Monday morning after the Heisman event, the phone at the pantry was ringing nonstop and media had descended upon Athens.

The immediate question became clear to Bright: What to do with all this money. 

The board has talked through different things to come up with a process for how to make plans to use the funds, she said. They’ve talked with foundations in the area as well as accountants and attorneys. “I was pretty sure we had everything in order but it’s nice to have someone look over and confirm that everything’s in order,” Bright said.

“Our plan is to honor what the donors have given this money for, and that is to address hunger and food security,” Bright said. What projects that might end up being is still to be determined, she added. The food pantry plans to explore ideas the board had, which are viable sustainable and more long-term, Bright said. Many suggestions from the community about what to do reached a consensus on making sure it’s used on food.

“We hold that trust to be very special and very sacred. It’s one of the reasons we’re not rushing into any decisions. We want to make sure we do it the right way. It’s very important to our entire board and our volunteers, to honor his words and honor what these donors have done,” Bright said.

The board plans to set aside time outside of a regular board meeting to have a planning meeting, perhaps as soon as next month. The only item on that agenda would be how it plans to vet projects, according to Bright. “We have had ideas of projects, things we’ve wanted to do, projects that would help kids over holiday breaks, how could we expand what we’re serving our clients, can we expand the number of people serve. How to reach out to people we’re currently not serving,” she said.

Bright said the organization was fortunate in that the board is always looking at potential things to do if funding was available, what they might do if they had more resources. There are ideas that already have been discussed; that’s been helpful,” she said. “We’ve done strategic planning, not just today and this month but how’s this going to look one to two years from now,” Bright said.

Her advice for a nonprofit that finds itself in the same boat of a sudden crush of attention and donations? “Just be prepared for the onslaught of conversations that are going to come your way, between the media, social media, people stopping you in the street. Be prepared, have your plan in place how you’re approaching it,” Bright said. “Have answers that board is on board with and be prepared. You’re going to be overwhelmed. You’ll be apologizing to a lot of people.”