Nonprofit Collaborative Tracks Charitable Giving on Vineyard

Gazette Senior Writer

A new study shows that philanthropic giving to many Island-based nonprofit organizations fell from 2003 to 2004.

The study, conducted by the Martha's Vineyard Donors Collaborative, is based on the filings that the organizations are required to do with the Internal Revenue Service as part of their nonprofit status.

The collaborative conducted the study, which also is continuing, as part of its mission to expand philanthropy on the Vineyard.

The 64 nonprofit organizations examined by the collaborative spent slightly more than $50 million in operating expenses for fiscal year 2003. They raised a total of $14 million in donations for the same fiscal year, or 26.4 per cent of operating expenses.

The following fiscal year, however, expenses for the 64 organizations rose to $56 million, while charitable donations fell to $11.5 million, or 20 per cent of operating expenses.

Further, more organizations ended fiscal 2004 with a deficit - 26 - than the previous fiscal year - 17. Eight declared a deficit for the second year in a row.

"The bottom line is that in 2003, less money was spent and more money was raised than in 2004," collaborative president Beatrice Phear said.

She said the collaborative is uncertain why donations fell from 2003 to 2004.

One suspect could be the Vineyard economy, which has been slowing down. But Ms. Phear said the decline has been evident only the past year or two, not in the period covered by the study.

Another suspect is political giving, since 2004 was an election year. She said campaign contributions may have siphoned off money that usually would have gone to charity.

The proof in the pudding likely will begin to emerge in the coming months, as fiscal 2005 tax filings by the organizations become available for analysis. Ms. Phear said lag time of up to a year is common between the end of an organization's fiscal year and the public availability of the tax filing for that year.

The collaborative believes the third consecutive filing may reveal Vineyard nonprofits that are especially in need of help. Although some organizations may be running deficits now and again as part of a larger strategy, others might be turning to reserves to make up for a lack of cash.

The Charities Review Council says that an organization should not have a persistent operating deficit that occurs in each of three consecutive years.

On the other hand, the collaborative found in its study that Island nonprofits are reporting a healthy net asset base, totaling about $122 million. Assets include land, buildings, equipment, investments and bank accounts.

To conduct the study, the collaborative reviewed form 990s filed by the organizations with the Internal Revenue Service.

The study was somewhat limited in scope and excluded some of the larger and smaller nonprofits operating on the Island.

Financial break-outs for donations to Island offices of some of the larger organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy and The Trustees of Reservations, are not available using the 990 form. Also, about 30 small Vineyard-based charities have operating budgets under $25,000 a year and are not required to file Form 990s, although some do. These organizations were also excluded from the collaborative study.

Ironically, the study states that it "is often the very smallest that do important work, and for which even a modest donation makes a huge difference. Anecdotally, we believe many of these smallest organizations are struggling."

At present, Ms. Phear estimates, about 100 nonprofit organizations are active on the Vineyard.

A major question going forward is the effect of the $42 million capital campaign for the renovation of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital on giving at other Vineyard charities.

Indeed, the hospital campaign, which already has raised more than $36 million, is just one of nine Vineyard capital campaigns that together are seeking more than $103 million.

Ms. Phear said capital campaigns, with their allure of concrete evidence of giving, can draw money away from the less visible but also important nonprofit needs, such as operating expenses. Human service agencies, she said, are especially vulnerable to declines in donations in such scenarios.

Another question, Ms. Phear said, is to how the collaborative uses the information from its study. That's still an answer in the making, but two likely outcomes include the encouragement of more philanthropy for Vineyard nonprofits, and offering some nonprofits advice on management and fund-raising.

The study divides Vineyard nonprofits into six fields of service: civic, conservation and environment, culture and arts, education and recreation, health and human services, and housing.

Among the study's findings by field:

* Civic: The study placed six organizations in this category, including the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, which recently changed its name to the Martha's Vineyard Museum, and the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust. For fiscal 2004, they raised $1.3 million in donations, $1.7 million in other income, and had $2.5 million in expenses. One reported a deficit.

* Conservation and environment: The study placed nine organizations in this category, including the Felix Neck Wildlife Trust and the Polly Hill Arboretum. In fiscal 2004, they raised $3.3 million in donations, about $680,000 in other income and had $2.6 million in expenses. Four ended the year with a deficit.

* Culture and arts: The study placed 13 organizations in this category, including Featherstone Center for the Arts and The Yard. For fiscal 2004, they raised about $735,000 in donations, about $722,000 in other income, and spent $1.6 million. Eight reported a deficit.

* Education and recreation: The study placed 18 organizations in this category, including the Farm Institute and the Vineyard Montessori School. In fiscal 2004, they received $2.1 million in donations, had $1.7 million in other income, and spent $3 million. Nine reported a deficit.

* Health and human services: The study placed 13 organizations, including Martha's Vineyard Hospital and Martha's Vineyard Community Services, in this category. For fiscal 2004, they raised $3.2 million in donations, had $41.9 million in other income, and had expenses of $42.7 million. Three had a deficit.

* Housing: The study placed six organizations in this category, including Island Affordable Housing Fund and Island Elderly Housing. In fiscal 2004, they had about $965,000 in donations, $2.8 million in other income, and had expenses of $1.5 million. Three reported a deficit.

While Ms. Phear appreciates the information revealed by the two years' worth of filings, she knows that the passage of time will tell a truer tale.

"I would like to look at a five-year trend," she said.