Controversy Over Earnhardt Donations

In the weeks after Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at 2001 Daytona 500, mourning fans sought to honor the NASCAR legend by sending money to a charitable fund in his name. But more than three years later, the bulk of that money -- around $3 million -- is still sitting in a bank account.

A charity watchdog group recently questioned why, and criticized the way the fund is being administered. But officials with the fund countered that it has taken time to plan where the donations should go.

"You don't just sit down and say, 'Let's give away some money today,"' said Doug Swanson, chief operating officer for Dale Earnhardt Inc., headquarters for Earnhardt's race teams. "You have to investigate and explore very thoroughly to make sure it gets in the right hands. It takes time to do it right."

Swanson estimated $3 million was raised, with about $1 million coming from 7,000 individuals and the rest donated by companies. The bulk of that money came in 2001, right after Earnhardt's death.

Swanson said only about $110,000 -- all of it this year -- has been donated from the fund. Those gifts included $41,000 to Ducks Unlimited -- a wetlands conservation group -- in March, and gifts of about $20,000 each to the Salvation Army and Feed the Children. There has also been a gift of about $25,000 to American Forests, a reforestation group.

"We wanted to take our time and make the very best use of the money we could and do it in an organized way," Swanson said. "We're now well on our way."

The fund's relative inactivity drew criticism from the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy in its April newsletter.

"People that send money expect that the money be spent within a year or two, not that it be sat on for three years," AIP president Daniel Borochoff said. "There's a lot of people that could've been helped by that money. It's unfortunate that it was just sitting in a bank account."

Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer for the Better Business Bureau's Arlington, Va.-based Wise Giving Alliance, said his group had not studied the Earnhardt fund's spending patterns. But he said most donors give money with the expectation that it will be used within a year.

The Earnhardt Family Fund was created by the driver in 1997. When the seven-time Winston Cup champion was killed, the family asked grieving fans to contribute to the fund instead of sending flowers.

The fund was set up through the Foundation for the Carolinas, which manages more than 1,500 charitable funds. The foundation does not release financial information on individual funds, only on its funds overall.

The Earnhardt family has since started the Dale Earnhardt Foundation, another charity. That foundation, which works in conjunction with the family fund, is focused on Earnhardt's primary charitable concerns of wildlife, children and education, said Bryan Clontz, an Atlanta consultant to the new foundation.

Clontz said that it takes time to develop a giving strategy for any charity, and that the wait in this case is understandable, considering the demands on Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and the family after the driver's death -- including their court fight to keep private Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

"I think it's important to understand she watched her husband die on a racetrack," Clontz said.