The Arena and the Y

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Like many year-round and destination resort communities, Martha’s Vineyard depends on and is immeasurably enriched by its not-for-profit organizations. Significant private philanthropy underwrites a substantial infrastructure of services, facilities, and land-use initiatives across the Island. These private nonprofits supplement tax-supported programs and predominate across many categories — arts and culture, human services and health care, recreation, conservation, historic preservation, housing, civic and educational programming, and agriculture and locally grown food come to mind. Some have a strong bias toward the basic needs and interests of the year-round community, some toward entertaining seasonal residents and visitors; all combine to make life on the Island richer.

As a general rule, community philanthropy is raised locally and stays local, except where scale might dictate a larger regional service area. Wealthier communities have more extensive nonprofit resources available than poorer ones. In each case a relative balance is struck among demographic, business, and economic variables and the privately supported infrastructure we can enjoy.

On the Vineyard, though, as in many other small destination resort communities, there’s a disconnect between the extent of community enrichment we’ve come to expect and the resources our limited local economy can make available on its own.

That’s because our aspirations are sophisticated, and many of our seasonal residents have great and visible affection for the Vineyard, ties to the year-round community beyond typical service and customer relationships, and deep pockets as well as generous natures. The results are apparent in ways large and small, from major new buildings to funds which pay for human service and cultural programs.

As the costs of Island program needs ascend the capital and facility ladder, and as ongoing programs receive less and less tax support, it’s no surprise that Vineyard organizations, in almost perpetual fundraising mode, develop a list of potential interested supporters and then indulge in the “we just need one or two” fantasy. Those on the angel shortlist get hammered pretty hard. Experience shows that this strategy can work, but counting on the relative few for a neverending flow of goodwill and big checks may not reflect good planning in the face of heightened competition for funds and inevitable donor fatigue. We already see a rising generation of philanthropists bringing new focus and models of funding to major, large-scale projects, as MVYouth is actively doing now in the areas of child health and social services.

Amid a philanthropic landscape of a great many boards, a great many missions, comparatively few big donors, and very substantial fundraising needs, Barry Stringfellow’s story in last week’s Times (YMCA and MV Ice Arena discuss possible merger), reporting on early discussions between leaders of the two private organizations potentially leading to consolidation, may anticipate the next step in the evolving relationship between private funding and Vineyard organization roles.

Mergers and consolidations are a common for-profit corporate strategy; they can expand markets, reduce operating costs, increase scale and leverage, and they can rationalize and improve allocation of financial and nonfinancial assets. In some instances, significant strategic advantages can be realized, and in others, failing organizations can be secured.

All of these benefits can exist on the community nonprofit side as well, but the considerations expand to include several other factors: a strictly financial and strategic scorecard is replaced by a complex calculus including strong identities and history, board and staff talents and personalities, and the interests of founders and donors. Dating to the mid-1970s, the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena has been a triumph of community participation and support, providing a facility in many steps, beginning as an outdoor rink; many Island families and seasonal residents have made big contributions, and have brought along their friends as well, in support of a major Vineyard asset.

The arena’s needs, though, may now be exceeding the likely levels of community support available. Geoghan Coogan, the arena board’s vice president, cites the rink’s declining physical plant and need for eventual replacement as motivation for conversations with the Y.

And the much newer and larger YMCA might indeed represent a significant opportunity to preserve and stabilize the arena, should its own resources and appetite for expansion make sense to its board.

The conversations between these two groups are said to be very preliminary, the respective motivations and institutional interests are still private, and there’s a long way to go before a plan might emerge, but now, before specific deals are arrived at, is a good time for the community to pay attention and weigh the potential effects. Perhaps the Y has a role on behalf of the arena, but it isn’t yet clear how, or why. If consolidation would mean a realignment of resources, programs, and dollars and public fees, or if donor-driven concerns bring a new dimension to the infrastructure we’ve come to count on, all of us have a stake in it.