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Donor Fatigue

Napa nonprofits worry as philanthropists grow weary

By Gary Brady-Herndon

'Spare some change?"

As winter's chill sets in, that's a question North Bay residents have grown increasingly familiar with. Increasing requests for handouts go hand in hand with declining government services, a weak job market and an economy where millions of workers earn wages below the poverty level.

Local charitable organizations are often the only entity standing between the down-and-out and life in the streets. But what happens when the number of nonprofits seeking financial support reaches overload?

Welcome to the world of donor fatigue, Napa-style.

Riding the crest of the California wine craze, Napa County continues to enjoy a standard of living well above many less fortunate regions in the state. Boutique wineries and 5,000-square-foot homes, however, do not insulate the community from its own disadvantaged population, including migrant farmworkers, many of whom continue to face deplorable living conditions.

Nonprofits have long attempted to fill in the gaps here. With just over 130,000 residents, the county is home to an estimated 500 to 600 nonprofit organizations, each one supporting a worthy cause while vying for a shrinking number of charitable dollars. Despite the success of the Napa Valley Wine Auction and the $52 million it has funneled into the community since 1981, the remaining nonprofits face a dog-eat-dog world of fundraising where the big dogs rule and the little dogs go wanting.

Napa resident Tom Fuller knows Napa's nonprofit landscape as well as anyone, having organized and worked on a number of county-wide fundraising projects over the years. He sees the needs of area service providers increasing while funding for local charitable causes decreases, especially now in a time when federal, state and local government backing for nonprofits is drying up.

"The smaller nonprofits are getting thrown on their ears by the cutbacks," he says. "They're scrambling for new sources of revenue to maintain their support base."

Part of the Napa conundrum is the presence of a number of highly visible and extremely successful nonprofit behemoths in the county. Providing services ranging from health and human services to social and cultural venues, no one questions their mission or commitment to the community. Nonprofit dollars, however, are governed by the trickle-down effect. For smaller agencies, the problem lies in the fact that a majority of the money goes to the higher-end nonprofits, evaporating before it ever trickles down.

Fundraising is a way of life for Napa Valley Museum executive director Eric Nelson, who knows from years of working in the nonprofit sector that cutbacks come and go in a cyclical nature. Yet the current climate is unusual, he says, in that every facet of the nonprofit community is feeling the pinch.

"When you've got more people out there with their hands out, it makes it harder," Nelson says. "Museums in general are seeing endowment funding going down due to higher interest rates and donors taking a more somber attitude about giving. While our fee-based services are stable, we, like everyone else, are having to compete for donor dollars."

In a market the size of Napa County, Nelson sees another issue that separates the wealthy nonprofits from those trying to keep their organizational heads above water.

"Being able to define and develop a niche in the community with a group of donors who support you year in, year out is very important," Nelson says.

Christopher Conway is COPIA's vice president of external relations. He believes the time has come for nonprofits to police themselves and consolidate services to better serve the community's needs and stretch donor dollars. "The upper tier nonprofits always have very strong and loyal constituents," he says. "Organizations with smaller donor bases have a harder time competing. Philanthropy forces mergers. We work better when we work together."

While Conway agrees with Fuller and Nelson that donor dollars are tighter in the region, he sees the problem as being national in scope. "Corporate support has evaporated over the past few years and government support has been reduced," he says. "Private foundations funded by family businesses used to drive philanthropy in America. With the shift to corporations, family-owned businesses are almost nonexistent."

The challenge, as Conway sees it, is to help potential donors identify the needs and opportunities within the community where their donor dollars will do the most good.

Some argue that Napa County's small size combined with its wine-industry wealth helps it to act as a magnet for nonprofits, sapping donor dollars. Not so, says Terrence Mulligan, president of the Community Foundation of the Napa Valley. His organization recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, raising some $5 million during its tenure, and Mulligan estimates that Napa County is well under the number of nonprofits on a per capita basis than other counties of similar size.

While local fundraisers remain optimistic about their individual organization weathering the storm, with overall donor dollars dwindling even as needs increase, nonprofits large and small—from cultural institutions to social-service providers—face an unenviable task: doing more with less.

Indeed, "Spare some change?" just might be the new year's first buzz phrase.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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