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Championing Community: Reflecting on Robert Kraft's pioneering 30 years of philanthropy with Patriots

When New England Patriots chairman and CEO Robert Kraft acquired the team in 1994, his goal was to leave a winning legacy on and off the field. In the 30 years since, the Kraft family has impacted the community with more than just six championships.

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Anyone who works with the New England Patriots Foundation may have already heard this story a time or two before.

But as team chairman and CEO Robert Kraft sits in the front row of the team auditorium, he is reminded of it again. Viewing a slideshow of photographs commemorating the 30th anniversary of him buying the Patriots, the first image depicts his late wife Myra behind him with their sons, beaming with joy after the introductory press conference back in 1994.

"I see my bride Myra smiling," Kraft says, his six Lombardi Trophies propped up in the background, three decades removed from his decision to buy one of the worst franchises in the NFL.

"She wanted to strangle me because I told her what we were going to pay for the team, and we paid 50 percent more. It's the only time in my life that I think she doubted my business judgment."

As the story goes, Myra's biggest reservation in acquiring the team was that it could abate their philanthropic contributions. Robert assured her that managing the team properly would allow them to give back to the entire New England community in ways they couldn't yet conceive.

The first order of business after the sale was to establish the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation. Robert felt, at that point, the team had been the worst-performing franchise both on and off the field.

Hitting the ground running by launching the Foundation was a way to make the fan base proud, and 30 years later, that impact is as impressive as the six sterling silver Super Bowl titles framing the scene, as he sits in for this video shoot for the Patriots content team.

For the last three decades, the Patriots Foundation has supported thousands of local nonprofits through direct grants, athlete appearances, and donations of signed memorabilia and experiences to charitable causes.

The Kraft family's philanthropy dates back even further.

"We learned at an early age that we had a pretty good life, so my family and their philanthropy, between my mother and my dad and brothers, was about providing access to opportunity for those who don't have that access or support," said Josh Kraft, president of the Patriots Foundation.

"That always resonated with me. It's important for all of us, for our communities to be whole, and that everybody has the same chance at opportunity. I think that's the lesson I learned from my mother."

After carving out an impressive career in nonprofit work, and a notable 30 years with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, Josh took on the role previously held by his mother full-time, responsible for the Kraft family's many philanthropic endeavors, including the Patriots Foundation, Revolution Charitable Foundation, the Kraft Center for Community Health, and their participation in REFORM Alliance.

Through these initiatives, the Krafts have contributed tens of millions of dollars annually in support of education, health, social justice, military, diversity, youth development, and family initiatives to better the community.

The Patriots Foundation, specifically, has leveraged incredible support from its ownership and fan base to assist thousands of local nonprofits with missions providing family healthcare, fighting homelessness and hunger, aiding the military and veterans, teaching the importance of nutrition and exercise, and encouraging education and mentoring.

Those are the organization's six pillars it targets to impact some of the region's most vulnerable individuals.

"I think this family, this team, the Patriots Foundation – they've been an essential part of our work here," said Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of Pine Street Inn.

"They've been an essential part of our broader community. Mostly, I just want to say thank you to them."

Prior to her current role she's held for the last 20 years, Lyndia worked in various capacities for Pine Street Inn, New England's leading provider of shelter, street outreach, supportive housing, emergency services, and workforce development to those experiencing homelessness. Founded in 1969, the organization has provided a growing range of services to over 2,000 individuals daily.

She remembers the first check the nonprofit received from the Patriots Foundation back in 1994.

"Since then, they've supported our social enterprise, which is our catering company that employs homeless people," Lyndia said. "They've been our lead donors on our outreach vans. That's probably some of the toughest work we do, and I think the Patriots have been phenomenal in helping us purchase a new van and promoting the work we do on the street – but they've been really hands-on, too."

Such a strong, longstanding partnership was rooted in a shared idea about how to make the city of Boston better and have an impact on some of the most difficult problems faced in the cold-weather city.

Both Josh and Lyndia, in separate interviews, recalled a time in 2008 when homelessness was a real possibility for many across the country.

Myra sprang into action to do what she did best.

"I remember taking a meeting, this would have been after one of the big financial crashes, and Myra got a lot of philanthropic leaders in Boston in the same room to say, 'What are we going to do? We have to work together to help.' She made such thoughtful connections."

Lyndia adds, "Myra was probably one of the best-known philanthropists in the city of Boston. She was a very big thinker and a fantastic networker. She brought people together and was someone who really thought about basic needs for people. It was important to her."

That story also resonated with Josh, reflecting one of his most memorable experiences helping the community.

"People were losing their homes and we did a mortgage relief open house for Massachusetts at the stadium," Josh explained.

"There were counselors and financial planners for all these people in these bad mortgages. We took our connections with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and some other places to create access for these folks. I don't know how many people came through, but it was thousands. The parking lots filled up."

One of both Robert's and Josh's favorite events every year is the Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards, which was renamed to honor the matriarch.

She created the program in 1998 to celebrate volunteers, and close to 500 people making a difference in New England have been recognized through this program. The Foundation reads through hundreds of applications every year, with 25 nonprofits receiving a $10,000 grant on behalf of their awardee. The grand prize winner receives a $25,000 contribution, and the initiative has donated more than $3.5 million to nonprofits across the region since its inception.

"That event was her favorite and it always stands out. I think it's one of the best things we do at the Patriots Foundation because you're honoring the people who are doing the work and sustaining the community through their selflessness," Josh said.

"Everything you hear about my mom is true. She would get dirty. She didn't just show up and write the check. If people were packing boxes or cleaning, she'd get on her hands and knees and help with whatever they were doing. She loved to engage with the staff genuinely, connecting with them and showing them that the partnership was more than just financial. It was about the people who were being served and the people who were doing the work. I think that's what stuck out the most about her."

With the Kraft's philanthropy, organizations overwhelmingly feel more than just financial support, but strategic partnerships and hands-on labor.

Lyndia remembers receiving a personal call from Robert that resulted in marketing assistance to help grow Pine Street Inn's catering operation, iCater, and ultimately add more training slots. Thanks to a Kraft Group executive's ties to The Empowerment Plan, which employs unhoused individuals to help manufacture its sleeping bag coats, Pine Street has more to offer those living on the street and an icebreaker to introduce their resources.

She credits Josh's strategy in connecting the nonprofit to Dellbrook Construction through the team's Cornerstone Partnership program. The corporation helped the Patriots Foundation fund one of Pine Street's outreach vans, but is simultaneously a great resource for the nonprofit's housing projects.

"I think one of the things I think the Foundation has done really well is to think about this intersectionality where they have, in many cases, a broader view in a different set of contexts that they can bring to the table as we do our work," Lyndia says. "I think there is just thoughtful times like that were the Foundation has really come through for us in a way that has meant a lot and really advanced our mission."

Those making a difference at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries see that impact as well.

This past November marked the 30th annual Thanksgiving-in-a-Basket event, where Patriots players, alumni, and cheerleaders help families in need load up their cars with all the necessary fixings for a homemade holiday meal.

"Myra Kraft had a deep commitment to those most in need, and a special affinity for the children," Joanne Hilferty, president and CEO at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries, said while reminiscing about the longstanding tradition with the Patriots

"She always took time to talk to the children and their families and learn a bit about their lives. Her warmth and genuine interest were always evident. She encouraged her family and the players to engage as well. Early on, she observed that many of the children were restless as they waited for the proceedings to move along. Her suggestion – and it was a wonderful one – was to have books for the children. They could read them while they waited and have something special to take home. Many of them did not have books of their own. Goodwill has an ample supply of donated books and has had them on hand ever since and the Patriots Foundation has generously donated books as well. Before the event starts, staff and volunteers can be seen looking at the books and reminiscing about their childhood favorites."

Goodwill has provided these baskets for local families for more than a century. After the Kraft family bought the team, the event became a lively celebration.

The children's books remain part of that tradition.

"The families are thrilled when Kraft family members, players, and former players carry their baskets, chat with them and let them take photographs," said Joanne.

"The children are delighted when Pat and the cheerleaders arrive. Many Patriots players have made it a family tradition of their own and I have watched several of their children grow up helping with the baskets and learning the importance of giving back."

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The importance of volunteerism is embraced from the top down.

It inspired the McCourty twins, Devin and Jason, to get involved in finding a cure for sickle cell anemia – a disease their beloved aunt died battling. They saw some of the healthcare disparities caused by race, ethnicity, geography, and economic status first-hand.

Last season, Robert shared exciting news with Devin. The Kraft family would be making a $50 million donation to Massachusetts General Hospital in hopes of closing that healthcare equity gap. It included funding for sickle cell research, as the disease primarily affects Black individuals.

"He spends time here (in the locker room) because he gets to learn about different people, how they grew up, how they see the world," McCourty said last season.

"I think he's a true ambassador for change. He's done it in so many different walks of life. It's really amazing when you kind of take a step back and just look at his impact. People will be talking about not only what he's done with the Patriots, but around the world, for a very long time." 

Over the years, many Patriots players have attested that Robert and the Kraft family's standard has trickled down to them. Some, including current players Jonathan Jones, Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr., and Cole Strange, have started charitable foundations of their own to shine a light on the causes they're passionate about. As a locker room, players contribute to a social justice fund that is matched by the Krafts and donated to deserving organizations.

Through events with Pine Street Inn, linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley felt compelled to share his own story of homelessness at the organization's annual brunch. Former Patriots Ty Montgomery and Terez Hall went as far as joining the Pine Street Inn's street team this season for an overnight ride in the outreach van.

Meanwhile, the Foundation is always looking for more causes and events that will resonate with athletes and get them excited to be involved. The REFORM Alliance, for example, is a cause Kraft was hands-on with to help transform the probation and parole system by changing the laws, systems, and culture that overwhelmingly leads to unjust re-imprisonment – especially for minorities.

In recent seasons, mental health was a topic players were expressing interest in. The Foundation found the Kyle Johnson Foundation and after a few meetings, the first-ever KyleCares Conference was held at Gillette Stadium in April of 2023.

The conference was attended by quarterback Mac Jones and linebacker Josh Uche, who kept up a personal relationship with the KyleCares team and continues to support their events. Cornerback Shaun Wade, moved by the mission, supported KyleCares this year for the NFL's My Cause My Cleats initiative.

"It means a great deal to KyleCares to see players involved in our events and amplifying our message that Mental Health Matters," said Jim Johnson, who runs the nonprofit with his family in honor of his late son, Kyle.

"We know that most professional athletes in general are looked up to by young people as role models. When those role models like Josh Uche, Mac Jones, and Shaun Wade are not afraid to talk about their own struggles and to be vulnerable, it shows their lives are not always perfect, and helps raise awareness in different social and cultural backgrounds to important social issues, such as mental health."

That initial conference was attended by 400 students and adult advisors from 25 different high schools in Massachusetts. Since then, the Patriots Foundation has supported two additional activations with KyleCares – including a mental health summit for teens held at Rhode Island College last week. Alumni players Tully Banta-Cain and Thomas Clayton, as well as the Pat Patriot Mascot, were there to speak about mental health and take photos with kids in attendance.

"While our family and KyleCares Board of Directors are all huge Patriot football fans, and we have enjoyed the team's amazing run of championship success since the Kraft family purchased the team, we are truly in awe of the impact the Patriots Foundation has made on thousands of nonprofit organizations and people throughout New England for the past three decades," Johnson said.

"We can only imagine how often they are inundated by organizations and companies requesting their time, money, and collaboration, so for them to use their broad network and influence to help a small non-profit like ours, it is humbling. The work we do is obviously very personal for us, as every day we honor the memory of our son Kyle, who died by suicide at the age of 19 in 2018. We will be forever grateful to the Kraft family and the New England Patriots for their support in helping us to help other teens and young adults who may struggle now like Kyle did. Teens who want and need assistance, but often are too afraid or too embarrassed to ask for it."

Work impacting the mental health crisis is one example of targeted community work sparked by a national crisis for the Foundation.

When the COVID-19 Pandemic hit, Robert and Jonathan Kraft partnered with the state of Massachusetts and former Governor Charlie Baker to purchase 1.4 million N95 masks for Massachusetts, and the Krafts sent the Patriots airplane to China to pick up medical supplies for state healthcare workers.

After being awarded the Genesis Prize in 2019, Robert announced the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, making a $20 million investment to take a stand against racist and violent rhetoric aimed at Jewish people through social media. In launching the #StandUpToJewishHate campaign last March, Robert doubled down on this stance.

"Robert Kraft deeply values giving back to the community," said Joanne. "He does so personally and expects others in the organization to do so as well. The benefits of his leadership to the New England community are extraordinary –  charitable contributions, events recognizing community volunteers, inspirational visits to teen groups, celebrity appearances at events and so much more. His family members, the players and the alumni are all involved and the impact over thirty years is truly incalculable."

There is another story Robert tells here and there, most often to fans who get the chance to thank him personally for all the Kraft family does in New England.

Growing up, he saw the power sports and music had to unify people from all walks of life, and how the diverse makeup of a football locker room could come together as one. With his diplomacy and charisma, Robert may have been a successful politician.

But as chairman and CEO of the Patriots, he knew he could make a bigger impact to make the world a better place.

The Kraft family, he says, are just stewards of a regional asset that serves to make New England proud and prosperous.

Over the last 30 years, on and off the field, they have overachieved.

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