For Island nonprofits, challenges mean redoubling their heroic efforts
To say that the past year presented unique challenges for Martha's Vineyard's more than 100 nonprofit organizations is certainly an understatement. It was a year of reasonably good results for most Island charities, and very good results for several, with a sudden international financial meltdown dominating the final months and, most probably, many months ahead.
Many groups saw terrific achievements this year. Several in particular come to mind; The Martha's Vineyard Hospital successfully completed an epic $42 million capital campaign and is now building all of us a great new facility. The YMCA is nearing completion of its ambitious multi-million dollar fundraising effort. The Island Affordable Housing Trust set a new record for single-event success, raising $1 million and enabling the delivery of more much needed housing units. The Vineyard Nursing Association quietly and effectively stepped to the plate when the VNS ceased operation, more than doubling their staff and caseload in a few short months. Martha's Vineyard Community Services had good success with its new, post-Art Buchwald Possible Dreams format. The Farm Institute continues to gain wide support and expand its agricultural programs for kids.
File photo by Ben Scott
All of this and much, much more that our Island's many fine nonprofit groups are doing to enrich and serve our community depends on the steady, generous commitment of local and seasonal residents. Wherever one turns, the evidence of this generosity is overwhelming. Our kids get first-rate sports instruction, art instruction, and safe recreational opportunities. We get drama, dance, music and fine art, land conservation, historic preservation, and compassionate social services. We even get a terrific six-week fishing derby during the best part of the year.
The "season" for fundraising for all this good and necessary work seems to grow more compressed annually, with groups vying for support from a limited pool of potential donors. The early spring brings a flood of membership renewal appeals, followed by an even bigger flood of invitations to gala events, many of which have adopted similar elements - cocktails, food, music, and auctions. If the organizations haven't hit their fundraising targets by the beginning of August, at the latest, they know they are in big trouble. By then, the supporters are feeling tapped and suffering from chronic "event fatigue."
As things turned out, this year's spring and early summer scramble was somewhat a blessing in disguise for the nonprofit community. Through the first three quarters of 2008, groups continued to pursue their respective missions and gratefully enjoyed the community's support. If fundraising is like farming, for many of us the crops were largely harvested before the killer frost hit. Then, within three months, billions of dollars of wealth literally evaporated. Everyone has been affected. Everyone.
Fall traditionally brings the end-of-year solicitation from nonprofit groups. The timing simply could not have been worse. The pressing question on everyone's mind was the degree to which economic conditions would impact critically needed giving, which most organizations have come to count on to make their annual budget. Letter after letter went out to potential donors, each beginning with an apology for fundraising at this most difficult time. One leading Island charity even took out full-page advertisements in the papers to implore its supporters not to abandon the cause.
Financial experts have long advised that investors should never attempt to "time the market." But at the Preservation Trust, we let the year-end appeal sit in the office for an extra month, feeling that asking for money at the very moment of a vicious downward spiral would be close to pointless. During that time, we completed a terrific acquisition that had been in the works for six months, and we re-worked our letter to start with that upbeat message, sharing some good news with our members as this year drew to a close. And we have been very gratified with the positive response. The reports I get from other groups indicate a similarly hopeful feeling that the world has not, in fact, come to an end.
Most of my colleagues in Martha's Vineyard's nonprofit community are now preparing their annual budgets for 2009. Budget planning is always part educated guesswork, carrying forward the previous year's performance and overlaying assumptions regarding status quo or, hopefully, growth. So, how to make intelligent assumptions about the coming year, given the horrendous end to the previous one? And, by the way, budgets for many of us are not an abstract exercise, but the financial blueprint that will dictate what we will be able to accomplish and who we will be able to employ.
My sense is that one should always plan conservatively, and particularly for next year with the amount of uncertainty still hanging in the air. The generosity of supporters should never be assumed - it has to be earned by consistent actions, each and every day. The Preservation Trust works hard to earn goodwill from the community every year, and my expectation is that, if we continue to do a good job providing well maintained landmark venues to dozens of Island groups for their activities, we'll be okay.
And so, I believe, will be the other nonprofit organizations that do so much for the people and place that we serve. This is an appropriate time for an honest analysis of our operations; are we as efficient as possible, are our goals realistic and achievable, can we partner with other groups to accomplish even more? Our budgets should be trim, and our efforts to carry out our missions redoubled. Martha's Vineyard will need our services more than ever in the coming year, and I have faith that the bedrock support will still be there.
One of the most enduring themes that distinguishes Vineyarders is that, when times get hard, we don't let each other down. From nineteenth-century volunteers manning lifeboats in raging storms to save foundering ships' desperate crews, to the quieter but equally heroic efforts of the hundreds of good people who make up our nonprofit community, we have always come through for each other in times of crisis. No doubt, 2009 will test our mettle, and I have no doubt that, through our collective efforts, we will prevail and emerge stronger for that test.
Christopher Scott is director of the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust.