The new philanthropy


Year-round and seasonal Vineyarders benefit from a very large infrastructure of nonprofit facilities and organizations, extensively supported by gifts from interested and generous benefactors. Traditionally, Island nonprofits compete, however genteelly, in what can be thought of as a retail way — each searching for the right benefactor or two, hosting the right summer events, and for really large capital projects (the YMCA and the hospital come to mind) hosting “cultivation” events off-Island, where many donors are found most of the year. It’s a tried-and-true process; we understand the rules, and the fruits of all the effort involved surround us in the form of the facilities and programs we depend on.

Last week’s story by reporter Barry Stringfellow (Aug. 20, “MV Ice Arena leaders reimagine a new facility, purpose”) seems certain, though, to foreshadow major changes in the very serious Island business of fundraising and nonprofit institutional strategy and implementation. The entry of a new class of philanthropists who want their contributions to have as big a community-wide impact as possible, and who are committed to favoring the performance standouts over less adept organizations, will likely upend conventional donor-cultivation practices on Martha’s Vineyard. And in at least one instance — MVYouth (MVY), a new charitable organization pooling large, multiyear contributions from many like-minded donors — activist philanthropy goes a step further to include both fiduciary and advisory boards along with a small professional staff in order to consider, nudge, shape, and eventually support (or not) projects with attributes closest to the donors’ priorities and most likely to be well-executed and sustained.

A fascinating look at how this new approach to philanthropy on Martha’s Vineyard actually works can be found in last week’s Times reporting regarding the strategic journey that board and community leaders of the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena have been engaged in for the past several months.

Struggling with an aging and expensive-to-maintain facility, arena leadership had been on a predictable course to match incremental replacement and improvement projects to the kind of fundraising-event-and-big-supporter approach familiar to most Islanders. Seeking to add support from the recently launched MVYouth, a natural target because MVY’s focus on capital (construction) projects benefiting Island youth matched the arena’s community role so perfectly, arena supporters hopefully laid out their case last winter.

Something happened on the way to Plan A, though. MVY declined to provide the funding, finding the arena unready to match up with the activist philanthropists’ preference for making so-called last-dollar contributions that quickly and dramatically complete major capital projects. Sympathetic individual donors, though, expressed interest in helping down the road if the arena would rethink its incremental approach in favor of a more efficient total-replacement project, and if the arena would also consider organizational changes to assure greater stability and effectiveness.

Arena leadership took all these points well. They are headed toward total replacement (and ultimate recycling of their current facility for lower-intensity athletic uses), and at the moment it appears that some form of management and possibly board integration between the Martha’s Vineyard YMCA and the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena is in sight.

Arena leaders Geoghan Coogan and Island businessman Bob Mone (who with his wife Gayle has been an arena champion and fundraiser for many years) understood exactly what these activist philanthropists wanted, and are embracing a vision which will bring not only a new, first-class facility serving Island youth to the Y’s campus, but which will also see the beginning of major leadership consolidation among Island nonprofits. As Attorney Coogan points out, “The donor base that’s investing a sizable amount of money in a project wants to see the kind of management that the Y can bring. Giving $4 million to an all-volunteer organization isn’t exactly financially responsible.”

The emergence of activist philanthropy is a welcome idea. MVYouth co-founders Jim Swartz and Dan Stanton; MVY’s founding contributors, nearly 50 in number; and Edgartown lawyer Ron Rappaport, chairman of their advisory board; are doing all of us a great service by their personal giving and by their energy for resetting the whole dynamic of Island fundraising (Aug. 19, “MV Youth achieves first year goals”). Our appetite for financial support from interested and caring seasonal residents for important programs is vast, and getting every benefit possible from dollars spent is important. It is undoubtedly true that a myriad of relatively small Island organizational “silos,” each fiercely protecting their programs and their donor base, but many, truth be told, with extremely weak financial and leadership bases, may not serve us well.

The advent of activist philanthropy as it has emerged so far on Martha’s Vineyard will help a great deal, but it will of course leave important gaps as well. In addition, it will create an enormous opportunity for Islanders to think about all of our nonprofits in a broader context.

For one thing, the very nature of last-dollar funding for large projects will tend to exclude ongoing programs and services, by nature messier and by definition not amenable to quick crescendos of success. And that’s a shame, because the programs filling the facilities probably matter at least as much as the facilities that house them.

For another, the conceit that all-volunteer organizations can’t be stable and financially responsible alternatives to well-funded and professionally managed corporate-type nonprofits is at the least arguable (the successful West Tisbury library project comes to mind on one hand, and the dismal record of cost overruns and program failures at major nonprofits around the country on the other). Setting high standards for giving shouldn’t require homogenization and corporatization as a price of entry.

We also will likely lose some of the intimacy and sharing of Island fundraising while we shed some of our inefficiency. The big-heartedness of Bob and Gayle Mone’s support for the arena’s new direction is greatly magnified because it means that the building they so personally devoted themselves to supporting, in part to honor their late son Ryan, will be turned to other uses. We can all see the balance at work here, but nevertheless we should do our best to hold on to the ways in which community enterprises like the arena, by engaging almost all of us at one time or another, make us feel like owners rather than like members.

And finally, we’re also at risk if the activist philanthropy approach to funding, including highly developed vetting processes, has the effect of consolidating strategic thinking and funding decisions affecting all of us in private hands, with self-selective and self-perpetuating governing and advisory boards offering only small promise of broader thinking. An important principle missing so far in this businesslike transformation where organizations are relatively weak and needy and large donors are very commanding, is that goals, priorities, project execution, and leadership stability need some distance from one another, to avoid self-referential thinking. If ever there seemed to be a time for coordinated thinking among all Islanders about what our community lives really depend on, this may be the moment.