Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


An open letter to Zygi Wilf: Time for you to help us

REUTERS/Eric Miller
In 2011, the Wilf Family Foundation spent $5.5 million on a vast number of charities all over the world. But it donated only $22,500 or 0.4 percent to nonprofits here in the Twin Cities.

I hope this letter finds you healthy and happy. For certain you should be happy because we Minnesotans have done some heavy lifting to make your dreams come true. If all goes well, in 2016, the Vikings — your team — will be moving into a spanking-new $975 million stadium to which we taxpayers will be contributing nearly $500 million, plus interest. 

Yes, I realize that much of the money will come from a tax on electronic pull-tab gambling, something the state never had before. But you know as well as I do that we could have put that money to use for our own citizens, for schools, transit, housing, health care and parks. With that kind of dough, we could have transformed desperately poor North Minneapolis into a garden of the gods or rerouted I-94 so that it didn’t slice St. Paul in two.

And, already you have prospered. According to Forbes, since we voted you the dough, the value of the Vikings franchise rose by 22 percent to $975 million, of which about two-thirds is debt-free.

If we hadn’t granted you the money, you would have had to try to move the Vikings to Los Angeles. And Lord only knows what kind of deal those Hollywood creative-accounting chiselers would have given you. So, you have to agree that we’ve really, really helped you.

Now I am calling on you to help us. 

I understand that you make your home on Park Avenue in New York City, in a $19 million four-bedroom apartment — and I for one don’t begrudge you. I’ve seen the pictures, and it looks lovely — I should only be invited for a cocktail party. The point is that you’re here only occasionally; so you probably don’t realize that we have a bit of a crisis on our hands.

You see, two of our premier cultural institutions, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, are deep in the red. This year, the orchestra suffered a $6 million loss. And chamber group is running a deficit of $1.2 million. 

To close its budget gap, the board of the Minnesota Orchestra asked musicians for a 30 percent cut in annual pay, from an average of $135,000 to $82,000. Similarly, members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra would see their pay drop from an average of $78,223 to $62,500 or $50,000, depending on whom you believe.

I am almost embarrassed even to mention such piddling amounts to a guy like you who thinks in tens of millions and uncomplainingly pays Christian Ponder and Adrian Peterson humongous salaries to play a few games. In any case, musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra said “no,” so management locked them out of the concert hall, and canceled performances through Nov. 25. The SPCO musicians are still negotiating, but their management has told them that if they don’t agree to the pay cut by Sunday, they’ll have to take their cellos and oboes and hit the bricks.

Since you are an out-of-towner, you may not have attended performances of either group. That’s a shame, because both are impressive. Even if you’re not a music lover, however, you have to agree that, like the Vikings, the orchestras put our towns in the top tier of cities; without them, we’d just be, oh, I dunno, a large version of Dubuque.

Some of our musicians are looking for and taking jobs elsewhere. If there’s too much staff erosion, we might have to replace our virtuosos with musicians who play at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Didn’t something like that just happen to you? As I recall, it had to do with substitute referees, and it didn’t work out too well.

So here’s my pitch: Please, sir, plug those deficits and save our orchestras. The whole bill would come to a mere $7.2 million.

Can’t afford it, you say? I realize that times are tough in the real estate business, but Sports Illustrated estimated your fortune at $310 million. That’s about $60 million more than Mitt Romney’s got, and people think he’s pretty comfy.

But I don’t ask you to take the dough right out of your pocket. You can use some of funds you’ve considerately set aside in your philanthropic foundations. I checked with Guidestar, the database of nonprofits, and you’ve got 25 of them. I don’t know why there are so many; some had no assets, but that’s your business. The two largest, however, were worth about $200 million.

In 2011, the largest, the Wilf Family Foundation, with $114.5 million in the bank, earned $14.3 million. (And by the way, could you tell us the name of the financial adviser who managed to get a better than 10 percent return?) It spent $5.5 million on a vast number of charities all over the world. But it donated only $22,500 or 0.4 percent to nonprofits here in the Twin Cities. Some $20,000 went to the Vikings Children’s Fund and $2,500 to the Minneapolis Jewish Federation. The record of the Z S & M Wilf Foundation was little better. Of the $3.7 million it distributed, a scant $2,000 went to Twin Cities groups.

Is that any way to treat us?

You might be grumbling that since acquiring the Vikings in 2005, you’ve spent $100 million of your own dough on them — or so I’ve read. But that’s a business investment. If you sold the team tomorrow, you’d still enjoy a magnificent profit — a long-term capital gain, no less, taxed at a maximum of 15 percent.

And I hate to bring this up — but I am sure that Lester Bagley, your PR guy, has told you: You’re not universally popular in these parts. “Carpetbagger” is about the nicest thing people say. I thought of linking you to some of the unflattering items bloggers have written, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Should you be curious, you can go to Twitter and search under the hashtag #Wilfare.

If, however, you pulled our orchestras out of their respective financial holes, those critics would have to take it all back. Even people who gnash their teeth and punch holes in walls upon hearing your name would be forced to concede, “Well, I guess he’s not so bad after all.” Polishing your reputation is surely worth $7.2 million. And such a generous donation would no doubt prompt God to permanently transfer  your name to the Book of Life instead of consigning it to the Book of the Sub-Optimum.

In conclusion, I hope your checks will soon be in the mail.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/19/2012 - 09:17 am.


    Is this really the best way to spend 7.2 million in charitable dollars? I am as sympathetic as anyone to the striking musicians. Clearly, it was a mistake to engage in a huge renovation project when the orchestra management couldn’t afford to pay the folks people actually come to see and hear. But some sort of white knight invtervention isn’t a solution, it’s a distraction from an effort to find a long term solution to the problems facing the orchestra and which is desperately needed now.

    More generally, our community is going to be facing a number of problems in the future, some of which are going to be much more central to our collective well being than the orchestra dispute which is after all, one between the the very well paid and the very rich. As rich as Zygi might be, not even he, has the money to solve all of them, or even make very much of an impact on very many of them, nor should we expect him to use his money in that way. It’s we, as a community, who must make the tough choices, to make things better. We can’t assume that some magical being from New Jersey will solve them for us.

  2. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 10/19/2012 - 11:02 am.

    Re: Open Letter to Zygi

    Haha. What a dreamer!

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/19/2012 - 11:32 am.

    The Vikings Stadium

    Another thing we have to get over is the Vikings Stadium, by the way. It is indeed truly an example of misplaced priorities, and it’s a deal that is looking worse by the day. But it is a deal that is done. There is nothing to be gained by using it as a scapegoat that permits us to avoid real problems going forward.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/19/2012 - 02:10 pm.

      We won’t get over paying for it for 30 years !!

      Are you suggesting everybody keep quiet about the corruption of local and state government by this massive handout to the wealthy – and in a time of scarcity for those in need ??

      You may be tired of hearing about it, but you’ll keep paying and paying no matter how you feel – for three decades.

      So no – this is not going away.

    • Submitted by Kevin Laurie on 11/25/2012 - 02:42 pm.

      Changes to the Vikings

      To start with I have been bleeding for 44 years living with Super Bowl losses, with that I feel I have earned the right to speak my piece! First replace Musgrave is dead weight Try to get Sean Payton, . We had a chance to get Kellen Moore from Boise State Doug Martin also from Boise State not that we needed a running back however a back up doesn’t hurt ! The really sad thing is Frazier coached them and otrhers in the senior bowl!! We need a head coach that has guts, emotion one that doesn’t just stand there like a bump on a log. Again Sean Payton !! Why do we always seem to get stuck with the LESS than sorta good ?? Frazier and his buddy Musgrave NEED TO GO it is time to CLEAN HOUSE!!! Mr. Wilf, Zygi if I may PLEASE it is time to step in , especially with the new stadium in the works We NEED NEW!!!!!

  4. Submitted by Skip Nordstrom on 10/19/2012 - 11:51 am.

    letter to zygi

    Excellent idea! Make sure a copy goes to Zygi.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 10/19/2012 - 11:55 am.


    You’re a sweetie. Thanks.

  6. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/19/2012 - 12:39 pm.

    The orchestra

    The problem the orchestra is having isn’t that Zygi isn’t giving them millions, it’s that we aren’t going. If you want to help the Orchestra, buy a ticket.

  7. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 10/19/2012 - 03:55 pm.

    getting over it?

    No, we need to remind ourselves of this and how the big boys shut the rest of us out of the game. By law voters were supposed to have to vote on it, but somehow all the laws were ignored. I don’t know why, do you?
    If Zygi needs public money then shouldn’t the orchestra get some too?

  8. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/19/2012 - 08:58 pm.

    Note to Marlys Harris

    Nice that you asked, now you know where the priorities are.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/20/2012 - 06:34 am.

    I think in fact most concerts are 90% sold out.

    Maybe they should give more concerts then. If in fact the orchestra has constructed a business model under which it can’t possibly make money or at least cover costs, that’s a problem in management.

    The orchestra does get public money. And dollar for dollar it’s a much better investment than the Vikings. But there are other good things for us to spend money and that’s true for Zygi as well. And none of this is by way of saying that Zygi shouldn’t be a philanthropic presence in this community. He should be. We have given him a lot, and it certainly isn’t out of line to expect something in return, and just in general it’s the right thing to do. But what exactly Zygi gives to, is his call, not ours, and there are plenty of worthy causes out there,

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/21/2012 - 12:18 pm.


    Maybe the Orchestra should do what the Vikings do. Sell more signage space.

  11. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 10/21/2012 - 06:19 pm.

    How about instead of begging the guy for money

    we just make him pay the same taxes he did in the 1990’s and do what we want with the money.

    Works for me.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/22/2012 - 10:36 am.


    Marlys, haven’t you been paying attention? The Vikings deal has released millions of otherwise dedicated dollars in MPLS for all kind of spending. It’s a waste of time to write a letter to Wilf, his game is capturing public funding, not delivering it. You should be writing R.T. Rybak and demanding he spend some of the stadium windfall on the orchestra. Of course the stadium windfall for the MPLS economy was complete hoax, but you have as much chance of getting that money from Rybak as you do Wilf.

  13. Submitted by Kevin Laurie on 11/25/2012 - 02:58 pm.

    new changes

    Mr Zygi Wilf, PLEASE get rid of FRAZIRE his buddy MUSGRAVE and the REST of the coaching staff get rid of ALL of them they are dead weight!! Some of the worst play calling I have ever seen! We need a head coach like SEAN PAYTON, hint …One that thinks!! IT IS Time to CLEAN HOUSE!!!! ZYGI PLEASE make these changes we need WINNERS not the losers we have been stuck with ! An example of the stupidity, to start with we could of had QB Kellen Moore from Boise State RB Doug Martin also Boise State QB Colin Kaepernick the 49ers or even QB Russell Wilson the SEAHAWKS, just to mention a few!! Frazier coached them in the senior bowl he is! GET RID OF THEM !

  14. Submitted by Daniel Smith on 11/28/2012 - 07:52 pm.

    De-Privatize the Entire Sports Industry.

    I have a bright Idea to help Save the American Economy through the state buy-back off ALL sports teams, so that all Sports Teams are STATE-OWNED, which means ALL PROFITS would go to the STATES, meaning all benefits would be for the peoples of each state. If the Teams represent the state, and the state represents the people, then the people, meaning the state, should own the team, so that all benefits go toward the people and the state. This idea would not affect anything as consumers know it, they wouldnt notice a thing, other than the NEW highways and railways/subways, better public education systems, advanced society benefits, and money the state could put back into ALL of its communities. Have a PRIVATELY owned State Team does nothing but benefit the already wealthy people who own them. We should all FIGHT to get the people involved in the PEOPLES takeover of the Teams, to bring all profits back to the State, where they belong. Zigi makes threats and does nothing for our state, we all have to help pay for his place of business so that he can make his millions. The economic benefits of a PRIVATIZED team cannot compare to the DE-PRIVATIZED state-owned team. I encourage you all to take this idea and innovate upon it in efforts to one-day bring this to reality. I suggest we all vote for our Beautiful State of Minnesota to BUY-BACK our team, and de-privatize the sports industry, so that we can truly see a state-wide economic benefit. We are in times of great change, and this is a change that needs to happen. It is but of ONE way to Truly improve our states, and our Nation as a whole. The Vikings and any other state team are the peoples teams, not ONE individual who had the money to buy it, this is demonic capitalism that takes benefits away from the people, and puts profits above all.

    In addition to this, another thing we should all be concerned about is the state lottery’s, they are all PRIVATELY owned as well, yes, even the Minnesota State Lottery, huh? DE-PRIVATIZATION of the STATES ecnonomically beneficial products should be preserved for the peoples benefit. Zgi can own as much real-estate as he wants, but he should NOT be able to own our state team, nobody should. period.

Leave a Reply