Vermont Lags Nation In Charitable Donations

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(Host) As 2009 ends, charitable organizations across Vermont are hoping that donors will take a last chance to be generous-and perhaps get a tax break or two.  

But a new report puts the state near the bottom in the nation when it comes to the number of dollars donated per capita. And yet, the tough economy is also showing a surprising silver lining.

VPR’s Charlotte Albright explains.

(Albright) According to a new report from the Vermont Community Foundation, the average charitable gift in this state per itemized tax return was 25 percent below the national average.

That puts Vermont in the bottom 10 states in the nation, even after adjusting for its relatively low income base. But that doesn’t mean we are an uncharitable bunch.

Vermont Community Foundation VP for Communications, Felipe Rivera, says when the economy took a nose dive last year, donations actually rose by 17 percent. That suggests that when Vermonters perceive more pressing needs in their communities, they try to meet them, even if they have to tighten their own belts.

(Rivera) "That’s not to say that it’s a situation that’s going to continue indefinitely or that it’s experienced across the board, because I’m sure that we all have stories about the great many non profits in this state that are having a very difficult time making ends meet or whose services are going to have to be cut."

(Albright) And some social services, like the Vermont Food Bank, are reporting that demand is still outstripping  even a rising  supply of donations. 

In Bellows Falls, for example, the need for free meals has increased by 53 percent since the economic downturn.

And organizations that don’t directly target low income populations-like arts and sports groups-are having an unusually hard time attracting donors these days.

Take, for example, the Lyndon Outing Club, which operates an affordable ski slope in the center of town, equipped with a single rope tow and an aging grooming machine. 

Around Thanksgiving, Vice President Sue Teske went to the local selectmen with a dire financial report, and the local paper ran a story about it.

(Teske) "Every year we get a surprise donation from someone after they hear about what’s going on, though this year it’s been a little slow. Although I got to say, to be honest with you since that article’s gone out in the paper we’ve  gotten some big donations. When I say big I don’t mean several thousand dollars.  I mean, like we got a hundred dollar donation from one person. Another person called and wants to give us a thousand dollars but they’re holding off on that because we’re not a 501c-3."

(Albright) Teske says they can’t get that official federal tax-deductible status because new rules require the Outing Club to demonstrate that they serve low-income skiers. They are reluctant to gather that data from holders of discounted lift tickets.

So this group-and probably many others who operate on shoestrings in small Vermont towns-don’t show up on the statistics that put the state near the bottom of the national donor reports.

And the untold hours put in by volunteers who groom this slope, or, perhaps, give freely of their time to countless other worthy causes?

Well, that’s where Vermont really shines.  According to the Community Foundation’s new report, Vermont ranks ninth in the nation for volunteerism, meaning that over 35 percent of its residents donate time to charitable organizations.

For VPR News, I’m  Charlotte Albright.

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