Eagles Autism Foundation distributes millions through “rigorous” process

PHOTO: Eagles

It doesn’t end when the money is raised.

Well, for some charitable events, it does. Donations are handed over to a partner or a closely-connected institution.

The Eagles Autism Foundation, which raised $3.1 million last year, takes a different approach, impaneling a 16-member expert advisory board to determine which research projects will receive its funding.

Over the last several days, the group has been vetting proposals from around the country, and, this week, it awarded $400,000 grants to eight projects, including three based in Philadelphia.

Eagles running back Miles Sanders supports the team’s autism challenge.PHOTO: Eagles

“We aren’t just raising these dollars, hoping for the best,” said Ryan Hammond, executive director of the Eagles Autism Foundation. “We’re putting this effort behind it that is so rigorous, that we have the best chance of really changing people’s lives through this work.”

After the foundation’s biggest fundraiser, the Eagles Autism Challenge, which, in 2020, took place virtually in September, 46 research teams submitted letters of intent. That was whittled down to 28 full applications.

The nonprofit hired scientific experts from as far away as California and Wyoming to examine the proposals, and presentations occurred over Zoom last Thursday. Hammond said a scoring system is used to select the winning projects.

“We really put in place a competitive process,” she told Metro.

The money will be distributed over two years, with the foundation checking in on the project at the halfway point to make sure it is on track, Hammond said.

Among the projects that will receive funding is a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia pilot study of a cell-based therapy for those with autism and Dravet syndrome, a form of epilepsy, and a study examining emotion expressions in children with and without autism.

Autism “has historically been under-funded from a research standpoint,” Hammond said.

The Eagles Autism Foundation was formed by team owner Jeffrey Lurie, pictured her with his wife Tina.PHOTO: Eagles

In addition to the research money, the foundation earlier this year distributed $200,000 in grants to community organizations serving people with autism in the Philadelphia region.

Usually, both streams of funding are awarded at the same time; however, representatives from the Eagles Autism Foundation said the nonprofit saw a need to get the cash out quickly to meet the urgent needs of the autism community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic forced us to take a step back and reimagine how we could positively impact the community in ways we never have before,” Eagles Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement.

With the shift to telemedicine, early intervention therapists at Elwyn ran into an issue they had not experienced before, Hammond said. Some had difficulty communicating instructions with non-English speaking parents of children with autism.

The organization received a grant from the foundation to pay for translators to facilitate the therapy.

“It was unanticipated,” Hammond said. “It wasn’t something people were prepared for or expected, but it was something where we were able to be completely responsive to the current situation.”

The Eagles Autism Foundation has raised more than $10 million since its founding in 2018. Lurie, whose brother has autism, has championed the effort, ensuring all donations from the public are directed toward the grants, foundation representatives said.

Money is primarily raised through the Eagles Autism Challenge, a one-day bike ride and run/walk at Lincoln Financial Field.

This year’s event was scheduled for May 22 but was postponed in the hopes of holding an in-person fundraiser in the fall. Hammond said the Eagles will decide on a date following the release of the NFL schedule next month.

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