What I Did On My Summer Vacation: Travels in Philanthropy

No, I did not go on a “philanthropy tour” of the U.S. this summer…  As I am sure you do too, I did take notice of the ways that the not-for-profit sector showed up in the community where we were visiting.  And what I found fascinated me and challenged my thinking about the “philanthropy revenue engine” available to different kinds of organizations.  Perhaps some of you saw the companion pieces that came out in the New York Times this week on this very topic?  (We try not to be New York-centric, but hey, most of us live here.)  First this piece on ThinkImpact… and then these thoughtful responses.

Let me tell you about the two wonderful organizations I encountered:

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Asticou Azalea Garden and Thuya Gardens are a meticulously maintained garden preserve in the very tony hamlet of Northeast Harbor, ME.  Planned by Charles Savage, owner of the Asticou Inn, and with the support of John D. Rockfeller, Jr., these two, interconnected gardens that bring together traditional Maine plantings with a Japanese aesthetic can safely be said to rest in the “luxury end” of the not-for-profit sector.

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Common Ground Soup Kitchen overlooks the Seawall in Manset, the last building just outside Acadia National Park, on the “quietside” of Mount Desert Island.  This community kitchen and meeting place serves the year-rounders, offering healthy food from local farmers, feeding those whose work happens seasonally and often have a hard time making it through the long, cold, off-season in Maine, and delivering meals (and companionship) to seniors who may be especially house-bound in the snowy, windy months.  Sounds like the kind of grassroots, “up by your bootstraps” kind of organization that every community has – and needs.

We had a wonderful experience both places:  a sunny, morning tour of the Asticou and Thuya Gardens that delivered on their promise to provide a “quiet and contemplative setting” away from the hustle and bustle of daily life… and a delicious breakfast of fresh popovers and local blueberry jam at Common Ground, with a mix of other vacationers and a smattering of talk about the success of the July 4th fireworks display from other local business owners.

Here is what is so interesting…  How would you assume that each organization supports their work?  What would you guess is the revenue engine of each?

You probably assume that Asticou and Thuya Gardens probably has a membership program and charge an admissions fee for visitors.  And you might assume that Common Ground gets by on fundraising events, gifts-in-kind from local businesses and some “cash in a can” donations from local and out-of-town passers-by.

These two defy expectations.

Though they could easily run as a “fee based” business, the Gardens ask very subtly and gently for a voluntary contribution from those who visit.  Sure, it helps that they have “big money” in their history, but like so many others, that may be more perception than reality today.  And like so many others, “big money” often spawns a well-financed, year-round fund development and membership program.

Common Ground has found a for-profit-like niche that serves them (and served us!) well:  offer vacationers and campers hot coffee, wifi, fresh popovers and oatmeal and the voluntary donations will flow. (It helps that the donations “jar” was a big box with a glass top so we could see what others had given – and Marie, the popover delivery-person, was the friendliest, most assertive gift officer I have met in a long time.)  I know we ended up paying more for breakfast than we would have elsewhere, but did it with a joyful heart, inspired by the posters, pictures, and literature all around us – and by Marie’s persuasive powers – explaining what our popover purchase would support long after we had gone home.

We are challenged by our clients to think about how they can expand and diversify their revenue engine – and all of us in “third sector” work today must think about where our funding streams will come from, what is emerging in the future.  What a powerful reminder to challenge our assumptions of what our funding sources could or should be!  What is your organization best in the world at doing?  Is that something you could monetize?  Is that something you should?  Asticou has decided that quiet contemplation is not to be monetized… while serving those who serve the vacation travelers can be.  Fascinating!

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