Op-Ed : For philanthropy, it's time to find a better way
Friday was Philanthropy Day on Martha's Vineyard. Proclaimed by Dukes County, it was a day to honor everyone, seasonal and year-round, for the tremendous amount of time and money they donate to keep the Vineyard and its nonprofits running. We salute and thank all of you for giving back. The Island couldn't survive without you and your support.
With summer and the fundraising event season winding down, it is an opportune moment to reflect on how we are doing: What's the state of Vineyard philanthropy? For nonprofits, it was a tough summer as their events competed for a piece of a smaller pie. A few were up, more were down, and most who were on target were hitting figures adjusted to reflect the current economy. Nonprofits are also grappling with the reality that despite the enormous effort they put into them, summer events are providing less and less of the income they need, and statistics show that philanthropy here has not grown as fast as in the rest of the state. The summer event season may be almost over, but the philanthropic need is not.
For donors, it was a very busy summer, and we know some of you suffered "event fatigue," or were overwhelmed by the invitations and requests for support. Seasonal residents come here to relax and enjoy all the Vineyard has to offer. They want to support and help sustain the Island, but there are only so many events one can attend before it cuts into the quality of their Vineyard time. Plus the constant bombardment and the uncomfortable feeling of having to say no are not a pleasant part of the summer experience.
We must finally recognize that the system we've used for years and years isn't working anymore. It's not working for donors, and it's not working for nonprofits. It's time to find a better way.
The fact is that there are a lot more events than there were 10-15 years ago, because there are a lot more nonprofits now, and many of the new ones are big and important. Why do we need so many? Several reasons:
Our population has grown tremendously over this period, so we have a broader range of needs to support. New opportunities and services have developed. Most of our housing organizations were started in the last 13 years, as were The FARM, YMCA, Polly Hill Arboretum, the Island Grown Initiative, Vineyard Village at Home, Vineyard House, Vineyard Energy Project, M.V. Film Festival and M.V. Film Society, and we're on an Island seven miles at sea and can't share resources with neighboring communities the way a community our size on the mainland can.
The Island has always depended on the generosity of seasonal residents because the local community is too small to support the need alone. Summer events, therefore, were the natural way to fundraise, and they became an enjoyable part of the summer social experience. But, as the number of nonprofits grew, everyone was fighting for a share of a pie that wasn't growing as fast as the need/population. Plus nonprofits are putting more and more resources into their events to make them competitive, when they need to find ways to grow the pie and not be dependent on summer events.
We applaud Dukes County for recognizing the importance of philanthropy to the Vineyard by establishing Philanthropy Day. Our nonprofit community preserves and protects so many of the things that make the Vineyard special and draw us here. They also support the local community, the stewards of the Island. The Vineyard is the way it is because of them. The nonprofit community is significant, accounting for 13 percent of the Island's GDP. That's more community support than six Island towns' combined budgets.
The Donors Collaborative also believes it's essential to recognize the importance of philanthropy to the Vineyard because we are at a critical point regarding the future of the Island. The Martha's Vineyard Commission's Island Plan shows that the sustainability of the Vineyard is in jeopardy and outlines a plan to address the challenges. A large portion of the leadership and cost of these efforts falls on the nonprofit sector, which needs additional philanthropy to sustain the Vineyard and accommodate its growth.
Starting this fall, the Donors Collaborative is going to work with and challenge both donors and nonprofits to find ways to meet our philanthropic needs that work better for everyone. We've been looking at other seasonal resort communities for ideas, and there are some interesting models that might work here: Joint fundraising, area of interest fundraising events, building the corpus of our Community Foundation and more planned giving. If you have any ideas on how to improve the system, we'd love to hear them. Just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Systemic change is never easy, but if we want to preserve the things we love about the Vineyard, now is the time to find a better way.
Peter Temple is the executive director of Martha's Vineyard Donors Collaborative.