We’re off and running! The summer fund- raising circuit is underway we’ll attend some truly memorable evenings, bid on incredible auction items and enjoy great food, entertainment and company. We’ll also test our athletic prowess on the links, roads and waters, all in the support of our nonprofit community. These events are a fun and important part of Vineyard life. Through July, there are events almost every night and most weekend evenings in August there are several to choose from. The event calendar has gotten so full there’s now a web site (ticketsmv.com) with a searchable event database that also lets you buy tickets online.
Unfortunately, there are too many events and too many nonprofits competing for the same limited group of people. The result is event fatigue and it’s affecting donors, nonprofits and the countless Island artists, authors and businesses that also contribute to these events. We all recognize this problem yet every year the events get bigger and new ones appear; the problems of event fatigue escalate.
Donors come to the Island to do other things as well. As enjoyable as these events are, there are only so many one will attend and at some point guilt starts setting in for declining an event they used to go to, or for going to an event they didn’t want to attend but felt they had to. As long as event fatigue for donors is like muscle fatigue, something you can avoid or recover from by pacing yourself or taking breaks, it’s a natural limit we have to deal with. But if it becomes more like voter fatigue, an apathy that results in low turnout when asked to do something too often, we are in real trouble.
Events fatigue nonprofits in several ways. Scheduling gets very competitive. With so many fund-raisers, nonprofits are at constant risk of losing attendees to another event. This was evidenced last week by the wide concern that Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard’s revenues would be eroded significantly if the Pops concert promoters expanded to Monday night and ran against Hospice’s main summer event. An event may own its own night but still not be a reliable source of income. Will all those $250 tickets get sold? Or just look at the impact weather had on last year’s Possible Dreams Auction and Community Services’ expected cash flow.
Larger nonprofits use precious staff and volunteer resources to produce bigger must-attend events each year, but these extra efforts are meeting diminishing returns. Small nonprofits, if they can afford to hold an event at all, have a hard time breaking through the clutter. Last year the Vineyard had its first Telethon and the Island Affordable Housing Fund raised over $500,000. A great idea and a great cause, but how can small nonprofits compete with that and other big signature events?
Island nonprofits rely too much on events for fund-raising. Since seasonal residents contribute the lion’s share of Island philanthropy, it made sense to focus fund-raising efforts during the summer. But many Island nonprofits made it their only focus. This used to work but things have changed. Summer fund-raisers aren’t enough to cover the budget anymore.
First, there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of nonprofits. Following a national trend, the number of Vineyard nonprofits grew to address important needs and make up for cuts in government funding. Vineyard House, Habitat for Humanity, Island Affordable Housing Fund, Island Housing Trust, The Farm Institute, Polly Hill Arboretum, Vineyard Energy Project and the YMCA have all been founded since 1995. However, the number of public charities in Dukes County reporting to the Internal Revenue Service grew 78 per cent between 1996 and 2006, more than twice the state increase, and the number of small grassroots organizations grew even more. This means the Vineyard today has a lot more nonprofits competing for a limited supply of funds, volunteers, board members and managers.
Second, giving has not kept up with inflation or with the growth in nonprofits, and the result is a widening philanthropy gap. Government statistics show that in real dollars, the average Vineyard nonprofit receives 20 per cent less in contributions today than 10 years ago, while the population and demand for services have increased; services and programs suffer or are lost. Nonprofits need more philanthropy to cover this gap.
The financial shortfalls are 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 its Visiting Nurse Services.
As a community, what do we do about the philanthropy gap? In this new competitive environment, nonprofits need to do more with the limited resources they have. Many have 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. Most importantly, they need to move beyond events as their primary source of fund-raising and develop grant writing, annual campaign and planned giving capabilities.
Donors need to move beyond events as well, recognize the greater need, and like some already do, expand their Vineyard philanthropy by including the Island in their annual giving and planned giving and estate plans. It’s an investment in the Island’s future. Donors should consider how important the Vineyard is to their families and see if they’re giving accordingly. They can join a board. Many organizations seek talented people to help them achieve their missions.
Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard has a clever year-end giving campaign where they send out invitations to a fantastic, but fictional fund-raising event. The non-event reply card lists various silly reasons why one won’t be able to attend but will include a donation. Let’s grab our running shoes and auction paddles and enjoy the summer fund-raising circuit, but let’s offer, and contribute through, more non-events. This type of giving will cure event fatigue and ensure that our nonprofit community preserves the Island’s character and the things we love about it.
Peter Temple is executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative.