Op-Ed : Falling behind in giving
Memorial Day is behind us, and so we start another summer fundraising season. However, before we begin bidding at auctions and running in road races again, perhaps we should step back and see how well we are supporting our nonprofit community. These events are wonderful, and the organizations they support help protect and maintain the Island's character and quality of life. But they have a larger need that can't be met by events alone.
According to data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), philanthropy on the Vineyard has not kept pace with the mainland, and in real dollars, contributions to the average Vineyard nonprofit decreased 20 percent between 1996 and 2006. As a result, our nonprofits are suffering from a growing "philanthropy gap" between the funds they need to operate and the revenues they raise. The pressure is real. Ask any Island nonprofit. The AIDS Alliance went out of business, Island Food Pantry, VNA and Featherstone all had several years of deficits, and Community Services closed VNS, a major program/service.
There is a lag in obtaining nonprofit data, but the trend is clear. From 1996 to 2006 for all 501(c)(3) public charities filing with the IRS (which means they have more than $25,000 in total revenue) contributions to public charities in Dukes County grew 98 percent to $28.5 million, significantly less than the 148 percent growth in contributions statewide. This lag was compounded by another factor. Following a national trend, the number of Vineyard nonprofits increased during this period as new organizations were created to address important needs and make up for cuts in government funding. Vineyard House, Vineyard Healthcare Access Program, Habitat for Humanity, Island Affordable Housing Fund, Island Housing Trust, The FARM Institute, Polly Hill Arboretum, and Vineyard Energy Project, for example, were all founded during this period. In fact the number of public charities in Dukes County reporting to the IRS during this period grew 78 percent to 91, more than twice the statewide increase of 38 percent. This means the Vineyard today has a lot more nonprofits competing for a limited supply of funds, volunteers, board members, and managers.
Due to the relatively low growth in contributions and the high growth in the number of charities, contributions to the average public charity reporting to the IRS in Dukes County only grew 11 percent during this period, compared to an 80-percent statewide average increase. After adjusting with the national Consumer Price Increase (which we all know woefully understates the cost of living on the Vineyard), the average Dukes County public charity reporting to the IRS saw a 21-percent real dollar decrease in contributions compared to a 48-percent increase statewide.
This decrease in contributions comes at a time when many Vineyard nonprofits are seeing an increase in the demand for services as Dukes County grew 20 percent over this period; the second-fastest growing county in the state. The Vineyard's new residents skew toward the old/retired who use more per capita health and human services. These figures exclude the growth of a large undocumented population, which further increases demand for services.
If philanthropy isn't increased significantly, the Island's nonprofit community, and the Island itself, will be forever changed. Why do we lag behind the mainland, and what can we do about this "philanthropy gap?"
It's not clear why we lag. Some have argued that since Vineyard philanthropy comes primarily from seasonal residents, it's understandable that contributions here lag behind the mainland; people tend to give more to the community they live in or to the schools they attended than to the community where their second or third home is located. We are very different islands, but the NCCS figures for Nantucket don't bear this theory out. In 1996, contributions on Nantucket were a little more than half of those on the Vineyard, but they grew 251 percent (compared to 98 percent on the Vineyard) over the next 10 years and almost equaled the Vineyard's in 2006. The number of charities on Nantucket grew slightly more than the Vineyard, but given the dramatic growth in contributions, the average charity on Nantucket enjoyed a 58-percent real dollar increase during the 10 years, outpacing the statewide average of 48 percent. This doesn't mean life is rosy for Nantucket nonprofits (they have their own problems because real estate, construction and other living costs are much higher there), but is there something we can learn from our Nantucket nonprofit peers?
As for the "philanthropy gap," Vineyard nonprofits need to learn to do more with the limited resources they have. They must realize that the old Vineyard way of doing things won't work in this new competitive environment. There are many organizations with overlapping missions. Perhaps there would be operational savings through mergers, joint ventures, and strategic relationships. They could evaluate and improve the effectiveness of their programs and cut those that don't make sense economically. They need to move beyond events as their primary source of fundraising and develop grant writing, annual campaigns, and planned giving capabilities.
For donors, the "philanthropy gap" raises a different question; how important is the Vineyard to you and your family, and are you giving accordingly? Have you included the Vineyard in your annual giving and your planned giving/estate plans?
So, let's grab our running shoes and auction paddles and enjoy the summer fundraising event circuit, but realize that events aren't enough and that we need to increase our philanthropy to the Island if we want to preserve its character and the things we love about it.
Peter Temple, executive director of the Martha's Vineyard Donors Collaborative, lives in Aquinnah.