Corporations cut gifts to local charities

Posted: Thursday, April 09, 2009

At United Way, the regret-to-inform notes are starting to pile up. Hewitt reads one that's sitting on her desk: "Right now, we don't have money for Southeast projects ..."

At Juneau Jazz and Classics, a company that once donated $15,000 wasn't sure it could offer a fifth of that this year. Some longtime donors backed down from support for the first time.

"It was kind of shocking," said Jeanne Pederson, Jazz and Classics executive director. "I'm still going to go back to them."

Alaska's nonprofits spend about $2.4 billion a year. Compared to the rest of the nation, they receive far fewer dollars from philanthropy - 9 percent instead of 20 percent, according to a 2006 study - and much more from government grants.

Like the rest of the nation, philanthropy in the state is weighted toward corporate gifts (especially from BP Exploration Alaska and ConocoPhillips) and foundations (especially the Rasmuson Foundation), as opposed to individual charity.

That's troubling, according to Dennis McMillian of the Foraker Group, which analyzes such data. In economic downturns, corporate gifts and foundations are the first to fade away (BP, Conoco and Rasmuson have cut back), while individual gifts are some of the steadiest streams.

"Even during the Great Depression, individual giving did not go down. It kind of plateaued," McMillian said.

The Empire contacted a dozen companies whose names tend to show up on softball team rosters, United Way thank-yous and theater programs. While the economic pressure on each is different, nearly all - from cruise lines to mines to Alaska Airlines - said they've been choosier lately about how they spread money around.

Alaska Airlines put $2 million into Alaska last year, conservatively. This year, the company is cutting contributions 10 to 20 percent.

"We're just going to do our best to remain just as involved as we have been," said Susan Bramstedt, director of Alaska public affairs for Alaska Airlines.

A sharp drop in metal prices squeezed Hecla Mining Co., owner of Greens Creek, the Admiralty Island multi-metal mine that employs more than 300 people here.

"We're closely guarding our assets, and pinching our pennies, and trying to do the right thing," said community relations director Ron Plantz.

He's trying to balance gifts now to programs that have longterm effects, such as its scholarship programs, with those that provide immediate help, such as the Glory Hole food bank and shelter.

"It's hard to add new requests at this point, but we're trying to honor and maintain existing commitments," said Alaska Electric Light and Power Co. spokeswoman Gayle Wood.

The utility these days has an expensive new hydroelectric project - Lake Dorothy - to pay for, plus avalanche-related costs from the last year. Charitable giving from the utility isn't included in the cost of electricity, she noted - it comes out of shareholders' profits.

Coeur Alaska Inc. has become more selective. It's another company that has poured money into local science teams, charities, scholarships and arts programs for the past couple of decades. Coeur's parent company, Coeur d'Alene Mines Corp., has had cash troubles and low stock prices. But the overall economy isn't the issue, spokeswoman Jan Trigg wrote in an e-mail - it's that the Kensington gold mine isn't producing any gold.

Alaska's two biggest corporate philanthropists cut back this year. ConocoPhillips announced a drop in corporate giving in January. BP Exploration Alaska's $7.5 million-plus charity budget is lower than last year's, at a time when more requests are coming in. The company has been trying not to make binding multi-year commitments, "not knowing what the budget from year to year will be," said Carla Beam, community affairs director.

"We try to reach out to folks locally and ask, 'What are the most important projects?'" Beam said.

An exception to the trend: Wells Fargo Bank, whose company spokesman, David Kennedy, said this year's philanthropy fund is $1.5 million, same as last year. Wells Fargo didn't make the risky adjustable-rate loans that other banks did, so it's in relatively good shape, Kennedy said. That means it still has money to give.

"They're about the only corporation we've heard of that has (maintained gifts)," McMillian said.

McMillian said Alaska nonprofits may need to tap into individual philanthropy to find a steadier revenue stream. As evidence of potential, he mentioned a Boston University survey that analyzed tax data just from households with at least $200,000 incomes. In a comparison of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the amount of philanthropy in Alaska ranked 51st.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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