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Katrina Strikes Nonprofits

As disaster donations rise, local nonprofits wait out the storm.


"We are making adjustments in our fund-raising plans given the current conditions," says Pete Wagner, vice president for development at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. "And rightfully so. We do it knowingly, gladly and willingly."

While the museum's $150 million expansion is largely accounted for — more than $140 million has been raised so far — Wagner says the outpouring of support for victims of Katrina and rebuilding efforts in the Gulf Coast region will probably affect VMFA's annual fund-raising campaign. A mailing that had been planned this month, for example, has been rescheduled.

"I don't think we really know yet the scope of the disasters," Wagner says. "It remains to be seen what kind of role philanthropy will play in the renewal of New Orleans."

Pam Seay, vice president for advancement at the Virginia Historical Society, doesn't expect a big dip in gift-giving to the nonprofit. Typically, Seay says, crises such as Katrina serve as a rising tide for everyone. Long-term, charitable contributions grow as a whole. That was the case after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she says — "people who are moved to give to more than one thing."

The Historical Society's $55 million capital campaign for its new wing, the Reynolds Center for Virginia Business History, is almost complete. Construction should be finished this spring, Seay says, and the remaining $10 million it needs to raise will go toward an endowment and educational exhibits.

Capital donations are typically well-planned gifts, Seay says, while disaster-related giving is the result of "an emotional response to the suffering" people see.

Other nonprofit officials are more concerned about the broader economic impact of the tragedy. At the Valentine Richmond History Center, rising gas prices could affect school field trips, an important part of the museum's business, director Bill Martin says.

"One of the things that we'll see is that school budgets are going to be severely impacted by gas prices," says Martin, who expects to ramp up the museum's school-outreach program in response. "We'll just have to bring it to them."

It's expected that nonprofits in early stages of the construction game will face higher costs of materials and labor. Steel, concrete and lumber prices already have spiked, according to news reports, and the rebuilding has barely begun. That could also delay some projects.

Audrey B. Smith, acting director of the Council for America's First Freedom, says its $25.5 million educational center at 14th and Cary streets, originally expected to be complete by 2007, has been taken off a specific timetable. The council has raised $8.5 million, but fund-raising had been slow even before Katrina.

"It's much more important to our success to get the center in place and do it the right way," she says, "to make sure we fund-raise as long as we need to."

At the embattled Virginia Foundation for the Performing Arts, hurricanes are always in season. But spokeswoman Carolyn Cuthrell says Katrina shouldn't affect fund-raising efforts. She says the group also isn't terribly concerned about increasing construction costs for its planned $112 million arts center on Broad Street.

"Our contractors have already submitted their bids," Cuthrell says. "Our contractors have given us figures that reflect prices prior to Katrina. If we choose to sign the contracts, they will be binding." S

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