Charitable giving on the Vineyard has begun to see shifting trends, as competition for donor dollars increases amid a crowded field of nonprofits and an equally crowded summer calendar of fundraising events. There are capital campaigns in varying stages of completion and annual operating budgets to meet, and for most nonprofits, summer fundraising is the primary economic engine.
This year, the Vineyard Playhouse is winding down a campaign to renovate its theatre, while Vineyard House has secured funding for a sober living campus now under construction. The Martha’s Vineyard Arena is looking to replace its roof.
The Martha’s Vineyard Museum is leading a campaign to raise $21 million in private donations for a new museum site overlooking the Vineyard Haven harbor. About a third of that goal has already been committed through cash and pledges, museum executive director David Nathans said this week.
Cindy Doyle, who worked on a campaign to build a YMCA on the Island from 2001 to 2007, said the Y campaign did not get underway in earnest until the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital had finished its $52 million capital campaign.
“There is a whole line up,” Mrs. Doyle said. “It’s like airplanes on the runway when they are doing capital campaigns.”
Much of the donor base is seasonal, so fundraising for Vineyard nonprofits tends to take place within a two to three-month period in summer.
Ms. Doyle said for the YMCA, navigating the Vineyard fundraising landscape was difficult.
“There is a summer feeding frenzy of auctions and benefits, so trying to negotiate through that web is challenging for any organization, and especially for an organization that didn’t even exist,” she said.
Popular summer fundraising events include Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Possible Dreams auction, the museum’s Evening of Discovery, and the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust’s Taste of the Vineyard.
With all the events going on, it’s quite possible to attend a benefit every evening, Mrs. Doyle said.“How do you get people to pay attention?” she asked. “It’s just so much noise. It’s like going into a shopping mall at Christmas.”
While the events provide publicity for the organization, donors don’t always leave with a deep understanding of the group’s mission, she said. “I think there is a place for those, but for an organization to depend on that alone to raise their big nugget to fund their annual operations is misguided.”
While he recognized the risk of event overload, Sam Feldman, who has been a major donor for a number of causes on the Vineyard, said there is no fatigue in supporting the organizations donors care about.
The key is connecting people with the organizations that align with their interests, he said. “If you get people to follow their passions, the fundraising follows,” Mr. Feldman said.
But while many organizations have found repeated success with summer events, some are looking to modify their techniques.
The Farm Institute, a nonprofit teaching farm at Katama, is one.
For many years the Farm Institute relied on its signature summer event, Meals in the Meadow, to sustain a substantial part of its annual operating budget. But this year, as a result of internal conversations about event fatigue, the board decided to modify the format of the event, focusing less on asking for money and more on making the event a simple thank you for donors.
“My sense of the Vineyard in the past four or five years has been that there has been donor exhaustion with large events,” said executive director Jon Previant. Networking with other organizations, he found that they too had observed a change in attitude among donors.
As a result, the live auction and other appeals to donors were eliminated from the event this year. It was a risky move for the organization; Meals in the Meadow represented about 40 per cent of annual fundraising dollars for the organization. “We knew we would not come up with the sort of money Meals has done in the past,” Mr. Previant said. “So we said that’s okay, we will have to come up with the money at another time and in another way. We have been so blessed with donations, and we thought it was time to just say thank you.”
Though he’s optimistic, he’s not sure yet what financial impact the decision will have on the bottom line.
“Right now we still feel really positive about what we did. Ask me again in two months when we have to pay a lot of bills,” he said.
Questions about the effectiveness of event-based fundraising partly led to the creation of a new philanthropic model this summer designed to respond to the needs of Vineyard youth.
A group calling itself MVYouth is made up of more than 40 donors who have each pledged $25,000 a year for four years. The money will go directly to benefit programs for children and young adults, including scholarships.
Meg Bodnar, an Island real estate broker who joined the MVYouth advisory board, had experience with a similar model in Colorado, where she was involved with the Telluride Foundation.
She described MVYouth as a new layer of Vineyard philanthropy that aims to make transformative change for children.
“Donors are giving a sustained amount and it gets the money right back into the community to have the most impact,” she said.
In Telluride, another resort, the foundation attracted seasonal residents who weren’t already engaged in their vacation home community, Ms. Bodnar said.
MVYouth has said it will not compete with other existing charitable groups on the Vineyard.
Mrs. Doyle said the founding of MVYouth has highlighted a transitional moment in fundraising, when groups will look to innovative ways to engage donors in the work they do. “They didn’t want to stop giving, they didn’t want to stop caring, so they said this doesn’t work for us, and we’re going to do it this way,” she said.
Peter Temple, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Donors Collaborative, agreed. “From the donor’s perspective, it is one check you write once a year,” he said. “You don’t have to do due diligence about which nonprofit it is going to and are they going to spend the money as efficiently as possible.”
Mr. Temple said a shift away from event-based fundraising may be a logical trend for the Vineyard.
A recent analysis he did using information collected by the National Center for Charitable Statistics found that the Vineyard has lagged behind Nantucket and Cape Cod when it comes to charitable giving.
In 2012, the most recent year for which nonprofit tax filings are available, the Vineyard raised $27.7 million in contributions, gifts, and grants while Nantucket, a smaller Island with about half the nonprofit organizations, raised $43.7 million. Nantucket does far less event-based fundraising than the Vineyard, Mr. Temple said.
Cape Cod also collects more money for charity, though their donor base is larger and they have more major nonprofits. In 2012, Barnstable County received $473 million in contributions, gifts and grants, which went out to 615 major Cape nonprofits.
The numbers do not account for event ticket sales or investment income. They do not include donations given to groups with income less than $25,000, and they do not include statewide groups like The Trustees of Reservations or church-based organizations like the Island Food Pantry.
Overall giving has increased on the Vineyard since 2002, when a total of a little more than $15 million was raised. Giving peaked in 2008 at $42.6 million, during the hospital and Y capital campaigns and before the recession hit.
From 2002 to 2012 the number of major nonprofits on the Island grew from 75 to 116.
Mr. Temple said it is a fact that many organizations have felt an intensifying competition for donor attention.
“They are all competing for the same pie,” he said. “If there are more people competing, then there is less pie for everyone.”