Charitable Giving Declines on Island

Vineyard Institutions Worry the Squeeze Will Eliminate Services in Competitive Market for Needed Contributions

Gazette Senior Writer

It's known as the giving season, but as holiday lights glow along darkened main streets and the clock winds down on 2002, an array of vital Vineyard institutions report a troubling trend: Charitable contributions are down this year.

"Usually we are in good shape and ahead by this time of the year, but it's been slow and we are behind," said Augustus Ben David 3rd, executive director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.

"The next two or three weeks are going to be crucial; it is the time when we make it or don't make it for the year," said Dick Johnson, executive director of the Sheriff's Meadow Foundation.

"We are certainly down from last year," said Emily Bramhall, a member of the board for Hospice of Martha's Vineyard.

"It is certainly safe to say we are also feeling the pinch," said Brendan O'Neill, executive director of Vineyard Conservation Society.

"A climate of uncertainty? I'd say that's probably an understatement," said Ned Robinson-Lynch, executive director of Martha's Vineyard Community Services.

The trend is not universal: The Martha's Vineyard Hospital reports annual donations are up this year and The Trustees of Reservations also report annual donations and memberships are up slightly.

But it appears that many Island nonprofit organizations - especially the smaller ones - are beginning to feel the effects of what some say is a combination of factors, including the downturn in the national economy and also an increasing competition for charitable contributions as the number of nonprofits on the Vineyard multiplies. Sometimes there is also competition within the organization itself. If a capital project is launched, donors may give to the capital campaign but not to the annual fund, and the nonprofit group is left scrambling to cover its routine programs for the year.

This has been the story at both Felix Neck and Hospice. At Felix Neck a capital campaign was launched last summer to raise money to buy a key piece of property adjacent to the sanctuary. The campaign was a complete success. But Mr. Ben David said this week that the sanctuary relies on about $40,000 in annual contributions; the money is added to income from a modest endowment to meet the annual operating budget.

Annual contributions at Felix Neck are down a whopping 50 per cent. Mr. Ben David said only about $20,000 has come in. "This is the one we absolutely count on. We have an endowment but it is not anywhere near big enough to run Felix Neck. If we can't balance our budget, then we have no choice but to cut staff and we are running on a skeleton staff right now," he said.

At Hospice there is concern that donations may have slowed after a generous gift last year from the estate of the late Katharine Graham helped to create a protective endowment. The Vineyard Hospice program does not charge for its services and it has an extremely lean administrative staff. All of the money raised at Hospice goes directly into care.

And the demand for Hospice services has increased exponentially in recent years.

"We have more cases and we're glad because the message is out there, but people who say, ‘Oh Hospice, they got a big gift; they don't need anything,' we want to disabuse people of that, because without our annual fundraising we could not offer the same level of service," Ms. Bramhall said.

Hospice just started its annual "nonevent" appeal for money, a cleverly designed invitation to a fictional gala event. Ms. Bramhall said she will not know the results of the appeal for a few more weeks, but she said right now she is projecting a 10 or 11 per cent drop in annual donations this year.

Mr. O'Neill and Mr. Johnson both said donations are down about 20 per cent; both Sheriff's Meadow and VCS have annual operating budgets of about $200,000.

"Ours is a group that relies almost exclusively on membership donations to exist; we are a small operation and we don't have a larger organization to fall back on," said Mr. O'Neill. "We have to continually hone our case and make it clear that we're not done when it comes to land conservation," he added.

"I think everybody knows a big part of it has to be the economy. People just don't have the extra money," Mr. Johnson said. He said ironically the drop in annual giving comes at a time when Sheriff's Meadow is in the middle of one of the most active periods for land conservation in its history, with acquisition projects under way from Chilmark to Chappaquiddick. "It's just ironic that things would be lagging at the time when we need the annual support to keep up with these projects," he said.

"It's a solid 20 per cent off, and I hope that's as low as it goes," said Norma Costain, director of development for Sheriff's Meadow. She said foundation board members plan to make personal phone calls this year to annual contributors who have not yet sent in a donation.

"Giving is down all across the board, whether it's local or international, and it's down for nearly all charities," said Tom Chase, director of field conservation for The Nature Conservancy. Mr. Chase said the conservancy deliberately avoids competing with the smaller local charities by not doing local membership drives, and focusing instead on individual donors. But he echoed the same theme as others, noting that contributions for large land acquisitions are still healthy, but annual giving is off. The Nature Conservancy needs to raise about $150,000 a year for its annual operating needs. "It's much harder to attract contributions for the mundane things," Mr. Chase said.

"We have more people giving, but they are giving less," said Mr. Robinson-Lynch. Community Services relies on raising about $700,000 a year to meet its operating budget; the money comes from a handful of events, including the successful Possible Dreams summer auction, the fall Windsurfing Challenge and an annual appeal. Mr. Robinson-Lynch said the annual appeal is about even with last year, but the dire predictions about drastic state budget cuts in the coming year are expected deliver a blow to Community Services, which relies heavily on state grant money for its five health and human service programs.

"It's been said that the state is heading into one of the worst depressions since the Great Depression - they are making $99 million in cuts as we speak. So if our annual appeal holds, we are probably going to be about where we were last year, but we need to do better than last year," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said.

Development director Michael Dutton said annual gifts now total $1.1 million at the Island's only hospital, well ahead of the $950,000 budgeted for the year. Much of the gift money will be used to offset a large operating deficit projected for this year.

Ms. Bramhall and Mr. O'Neill both said the downturn in annual giving will hit the smaller, bare-bones Island institutions the hardest.

"We are in another tier and there's more vulnerability. We don't have a huge endowment to fall back on and we don't sell tote bags and coffee mugs. It's more important than ever that supporters sustain their giving in these down times. The work of these groups is critical - whether it is in the area of human services, housing, historic preservation or land conservation,' Mr. O'Neill said.

"The quality of life that's here on the Vineyard - the way that happens is by those of us who can supporting it. If we want to keep up the quality of life in our home here, we need to think about our giving more carefully," Ms. Bramhall said.

Mr. O'Neill said there has long been a perception that the Vineyard has unlimited wealth when it comes to charitable causes, but he said recently a truer picture has begun to take shape. "The myth of the Vineyard capacity is something that a lot of people talk about. You've got wealthy people there; you must be able to sustain all these things. But I think the evidence is otherwise," he said.

But Ms. Bramhall also said giving comes in different forms. She described the annual Handmade from the Heart holiday bazaar sponsored by Hospice. It is an event that raises a modest amount of money (this year about $4,000), but at its core are countless Vineyard residents who contribute handmade things to the sale, from heirloom quality smocked baby dresses to gourmet foods.

"So many people want to make things and give them; it is such an outpouring of support and love that people have made things with their two hands. It's so gratifying. And all donated," Ms. Bramhall said.