As World Sport Chicago’s programs and funding diminished, Kam Buckner’s salary grew

Buckner is running for Chicago mayor and has touted his time on the nonprofit. But an analysis shows the WSC dissolved under his watch.

Kam Buckner
Chicago mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kam Buckner, shown at a May 18 news conference. Buckner oversaw World Sport Chicago, which dissolved under his watch. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
Kam Buckner
Chicago mayoral candidate and state Rep. Kam Buckner, shown at a May 18 news conference. Buckner oversaw World Sport Chicago, which dissolved under his watch. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times

As World Sport Chicago’s programs and funding diminished, Kam Buckner’s salary grew

Buckner is running for Chicago mayor and has touted his time on the nonprofit. But an analysis shows the WSC dissolved under his watch.

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In 2007, Chicago officials and civic leaders had an idea: to create a nonprofit organization that would bring Olympic sports to the city’s youth, promote Chicago as an international sporting metropolis and, in turn, boost the city’s chances of securing the 2016 Olympic bid.

When Chicago infamously lost its bid for the games, backers of World Sport Chicago insisted the nonprofit would still carry on a legacy — bringing sports and the “ideals of the Olympic movement” to underserved youth.

In 2015, Kambium Buckner — current Chicago mayoral candidate, state representative and former employee with the Chicago Cubs — took over the nonprofit, and promised to use WSC to give kids in “forgotten pockets” of the city “opportunities and chances to succeed and to survive.”

But a WBEZ analysis shows that, while Buckner carried out that mission for several years, World Sport Chicago slowly dissolved, its finances diminished and money spent on programming for kids decreased during his tenure. This all came as documents show Buckner’s salary nearly tripled, from $137,352 to $364,159 in just four years, before the organization was “involuntarily dissolved” by the state last year.

Buckner is among seven others vying for the 2023 mayoral seat. He announced his campaign in May with a “four star” plan that includes “safety and justice,” improved education, economic recovery — as well as stabilizing the city’s long-troubled finances. In his campaign literature, he has touted his time at World Sport Chicago, saying he brought sports to 70,000 students.

In response, a spokesperson for Buckner disputed WBEZ’s analysis of his salary, saying the organization’s diminishment under Buckner was by design, and that — despite public comments from Buckner stating otherwise — he was brought on to World Sport Chicago, and paid, to help dissolve the organization.

World Sport Chicago’s success

When it was created with about $11 million in the bank, World Sport Chicago, or WSC, was pitched as a legacy organization of the 2016 bid — regardless of whether the city secured the Olympic games. In fact, when the city lost the bid in 2009 to Rio de Janeiro, WSC was endowed with another $7.4 million in funding, most of which was left over from the bid committee.

Led from 2007 to 2014 by an executive director named Scott Myers, World Sport Chicago held international sporting events, such as the 2007 World Boxing Championships, and regular programing for kids and for disabled athletes.

“They offered a wide range of Olympic sports for both children to learn, and for professional athletes to come in and teach in a sense,” said Chicago resident Christie Herr, who said she volunteered with WSC from its inception to 2016. “You’d have anything from like wrestling, to boxing, to archery, to swimming … And it gave the community an opportunity to see these Olympic sports up close.”

WSC, including under Buckner, had programs such as PlayStreets, the Valor Games — a sporting competition for wounded veterans — and Becoming a Man, Sports Edition, perhaps one of WSC’s most successful endeavors.

A study by the University of Chicago that looked at one year of the program showed that it served more than 800 boys in 18 CPS schools during the 2009-10 school year, and resulted in a 44% decrease in violent crime arrests among participants.

To fund that programming, the organization was relying on the lump sum of leftover Olympic money that inevitably decreased year over year. But, under Myers, WSC was also raking in more than $1 million a year in grants and contributions from places such as the MacArthur Foundation, which donated $1,375,000 between 2009 and 2014, to sustain its programming for kids.

Philanthropic contributions and grants, finances declined quickly under Buckner

That annual revenue source decreased immediately under Buckner in 2015. During his first year with the organization, revenue from grants and contributions dropped by 43% — from $1.3 million in 2014 to just $730,000 in 2015. It dropped by another 39% — to $440,423 — in Buckner’s second year.

By 2018, the last year public tax documents are available for the organization, World Sport Chicago brought in just $383,654 in grants and contributions.

Julian Posada is a former WSC board member who now works as chief operating and enterprise officer at The Resurrection Project and is also on the Chicago Public Media board of directors. He attributes the decline in funding, in part, to Myers’s absence.

“Scott was a prolific fundraiser. Scott was great about that, but he was leveraging the connectivity and all the people supporting that case for the Olympics,” Posada said, adding there was a downturn in momentum for WSC in the years following the city’s losing bid.

The decrease in annual donations contributed at least in part to shrinking revenue and assets overall under Buckner. When Buckner took over in 2015, the organization had more than $3 million in net assets — a combination of leftover bid dollars, regular contributions and income from investments.

By 2018, the organization had practically run dry, with just $159,009 in net assets.

Former board member King Harris, who helped raise money for the organization on and off from 2010 to 2016, praised Buckner’s efforts, and said it became increasingly difficult to keep donors enthusiastic about supporting Olympic sports for kids.

“I think Kam was sincerely committed to run the program, support it, raise money for it,” Harris said. “So in fairness to Kam, our inability to raise money longer term to support the program, in my opinion, forced the sunsetting of the whole program.”

Management expenses grew as dollars spent on programming shrunk

Although the amount of total money spent hovered around the same range under Buckner’s leadership, the way the organization spent its money seemed to change drastically. Management expenses grew as the amount spent on World Sport Chicago’s activities declined, according to 990 tax documents.

Under Myers, around 85% of the organization’s expenses — or between around $1.2 and $1.7 million — were spent on program activities each year, according to tax filings.

But that dipped drastically in 2015 — when just 54% of World Sport Chicago’s expenses were dedicated to programming for kids and disabled athletes. Program activity expenditures continued to decline, dropping to 43% the next year, 31% in 2017 and rose slightly, to just 38% of all expenses in 2018, according to the documents.

Those figures far fall below some recommended standards for nonprofit organizations, according to the Better Business Bureau. The group’s 20 “Standards for Charity Accountability” say that no less than 65% of an organization’s total expenses should be dedicated to program activities.

At the same time, the percent of expenditures for management expenses — which account for leadership salaries, office supplies, rent and advertising — grew.

Though they hovered in the teens under Myers, they jumped to 32% of all expenditures in Buckner’s first year, and 52% by 2018, according to documents filed with the IRS.

In response, a spokesperson for Buckner initially said the shift in spending is because the organization changed its model — from providing direct services to kids, to doling out grants to organizations with similar missions. Additionally, she blamed rising rents for the increase in management expenses.

Although the organization was indeed awarding hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to other organizations under Buckner, the percentage of expenses the organization allocated toward grants actually decreased during three of the four years of his tenure. In 2018, the final year for which 990s were filed, WSC increased its grants expenditure to more than 30% of expenses.

Still, all of those grant amounts were calculated and accounted for under programming expenses, not management expenses, in tax documents.

Buckner’s salary ballooned

A former defensive lineman at the University of Illinois turned neighborhood relations manager for the Chicago Cubs, it took $137,352 to lure Buckner to lead World Sport Chicago in 2015.

The salary was a 61% increase from his predecessor’s salary the year before, but the organization’s 30-plus member board of civic leaders was eager to bring him on.

“We are excited to have found Kam Buckner — a leader who will enable the organization to continue to grow the positive impact on Chicago youth,” WSC Chairman Pat Ryan, who led the city’s Olympics bid, said in a statement at the time, according to Crain’s Chicago Business.

Ryan did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Posada, a former board member, remembers Bucker as being “incredibly passionate” about the organization’s mission.

“He was young and filled with a lot of enthusiasm around the power of sport to help disenfranchised communities … about getting power lifting on the South Side, or sailing on the South Side — to disenfranchised kids,” Posada said.

With the exception of just one year, documents show Buckner’s salary continued to grow annually, jumping demonstratively from $146,172 in 2017 to $364,159 in 2018 — a 144% increase in just one year, as revenue at the organization declined.

Buckner’s campaign insists he did not make $364,159 for a single year’s work at World Sport Chicago. A spokesperson said Buckner got paid that much in 2018 because he was responsible for administrative tasks to wind the organization down the following year, after he resigned. Buckner joined the Illinois Legislature in January 2019.

“When he submitted his resignation to the Board in January 2019, it was with the understanding that an organization with no staff did not need an Executive Director, but there would still be things that needed to be done, including: office moves, managing 401Ks and all the other administrative work it takes to wind down a nonprofit,” a spokesperson said in a written response. “The Board, not Kam, chose to pay him upfront for this work.”

Buckner’s campaign could not provide documentation showing that his 2018 salary was for more than a year’s work. The campaign declined to provide his tax return for that year.

By contrast, Myers, Buckner’s predecessor, never made more than $120,224 in his seven years at World Sport Chicago. The year he made that much was perhaps at the height of World Sport Chicago’s momentum, in 2009. The organization brought in more than $7.6 million in revenue that year, had $5.8 million in net assets, and $1.7 million on programming for kids.

Buckner’s salary was not only seemingly outsized compared to Myers, but also to nonprofit standards. A 2014 study by the organization Charity Navigator looked at CEO salaries for 3,946 U.S. nonprofits. It found that the median salary for a CEO at a small charity in the Midwest was around $87,000 per year — more than four times less than what documents show Buckner made in 2018. A small charity is defined by one that has between $1 million and $3.5 million in annual expenses.

Buckner’s campaign did not respond to questions about why his salary significantly exceeded that of his predecessor, and said that WSC’s board was responsible for setting it.

In response to a question of whether his compensation included “review and approval by independent persons” or was based on “comparability data,” the organization answered “No” on its 990s.

Two of the board members who spoke to WBEZ for the story said they weren’t aware of or involved in the committee deciding Buckner’s compensation, nor did they know why it increased.

World Sport Chicago winds down by 2019

For most of Buckner’s time there, World Sport Chicago was still delivering services to kids, and his work at the organization is one of Buckner’s biggest points of pride.

“Throughout my career, the most important and proudest moments are those when I serve the youth of our city,” Buckner said in a written statement to WBEZ. “They need advocates and we need to do everything we can to take care of them. That’s why I’m incredibly proud of the work we did at World Sport Chicago with the backing of some of our City’s greatest philanthropic leaders to create programs that empowered the youth of Chicago.”

From 2017 to 2019 the city of Chicago paid the organization $237,277 to operate the so-called PlayStreets program — meant to encourage families to play outside together. Buckner also oversaw a program called CPS SCORE!, which his campaign said created a weekend sports league throughout the city.

And although several board members and Buckner’s campaign told WBEZ the organization was intentionally winding down under his tenure, there was no public indication of such.

In late 2017, Buckner appeared on the show Bootstrapping in America, where hosts interview the “hottest entrepreneurs in Chicago,” to talk about the organization’s work. He said the program had served 40,000 kids so far, and that there was more work to be done.

“We look to continue to grow that number and … affect folks in a much deeper way,” Buckner said. “It’s always heartwarming to me when I see a parent, or a teacher who has a child and one of our programs and to see how they talk about it.”

But just nine months later, activity on the organization’s social media profiles abruptly stopped, after a post outlining an event in the summer of 2018 with the PlayStreets program. For a short time in 2021, the organization’s website redirected users to a gambling website, according to an internet archive website that tracks browsing history.

A spokesperson for Buckner said a social media manager left the organization and was not replaced.

As finances deteriorated under Buckner’s tenure, and programming slowed, the organization’s ratings on the nonprofit evaluation site Charity Navigator also plummeted. In 2014, WSC held a three out four stars “Give with Confidence” rating. That declined each year, eventually dropping to a rating of zero stars, or “Exceptionally Poor,” in 2018.

Herr said she stopped volunteering with the organization in 2016, and still wasn’t sure what happened to it when she spoke to WBEZ.

“There was nothing to volunteer for, that I was being notified about,” she said. “And they were very active about sending emails out about volunteer opportunities to their list, and then all of a sudden, it just kind of fell off.”

In 2021, the organization was involuntarily dissolved by the Illinois Secretary of State because it failed to file annual paperwork declaring the names of the organization’s leadership and officers.

An attorney for the Secretary of State’s office said while it is not uncommon for an organization’s paperwork to lapse, there is a process for formally dissolving an organization that World Sport Chicago did not go through.

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.