ANNAPOLIS – Despite declining funding from both the sale of “Treasure the Chesapeake” license plates and a state income tax check-off, Chesapeake Bay Trust leaders say the organization has more than enough money to give away.
Revenue declines have been significant, said David Minges, the trust’s executive director. Money from last year’s tax check- off — $437,879 — is down about $40,000 from the prior year, while the $633,156 garnered last year from the premium license plates is only about 30 percent of 1992’s high of $2 million.
Although Minges said he is “concerned” about the erosion of new trust revenue, he said it is not a crisis situation.
The declines can be traced to complex array of factors, Minges and others said, including a competing campaign finance check-off on Maryland tax forms, a general decline in environmental giving, and the need for more zealous marketing on behalf of the trust.
The addition in 1995 of the campaign finance check-off appeared to erode the trust’s annual tax take. In the first year, the campaign contribution raised about $84,000, said Assistant State Comptroller Marvin Bond. Trust funding, Minges said, fell by almost a corresponding amount.
Reliance on tax check-offs, Bond said, is in general a tricky issue for nonprofit groups. “There’s a finite percentage of people that will participate in things like this,” he said.
Each year, about 3 percent of state taxpayers, numbering about 13,000, choose to take advantage of the check-off, Bond said. And although the percentage of those who give has never really wavered, Bond said, the amount given has fluctuated.
Spending trends for charitable organization follow different themes in different decades, Minges said. With legislation like the Clean Water Act and the formation of groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the 1970s were halcyon days for environmental groups. But in the 1980s, Minges said, giving tended to social welfare issues like homelessness.
And to Josh Knauer, head of the EnviroLink Network, a information clearinghouse for environmental activists, a lot of environmental giving declined with the advent of the ostensibly pro-environment Clinton presidency.
The Maryland General Assembly formed the Chesapeake Bay Trust in 1985 as an independent non-profit corporation. The trust’s primary role is to provide schools and other groups with grant money to help promote awareness and participation in Chesapeake Bay issues, according to the trust’s annual report.
The trust can’t automatically count on revenue from the “Treasure the Chesapeake” licenses, Minges said. Every two years, the trust must obtain the General Assembly’s reapproval to keep the money coming, he said. Reauthorization must be sought at this spring’s legislative session, he said.
But trust leaders are confident the organization’s work will continue in the coming years. One key to the group’s continued financial stability is the boom period of the ’90s, which built a significant endowment, said Frances H. Flanigan, a trust board member.
Last year, the trust maintained a balance of about $7.5 million, an increase of about $500,000 from the prior year, according to trust records. The advantage of the endowment is the investment income the group can derive — about $370,000 in 1996, Minges said. Even if all revenue to the trust stopped today, Minges said, the trust could continue giving grants for five years before being forced to close up shop.
Although grants average about $2,000, the most typical gift is around $700, Minges said. A grant of that size might fund a class field trip to a nature center, an educational stream study, or a portion of wetlands restoration project, he said.
Much of the trust’s past financial success can be tied to the connection almost all Marylanders have to the bay, be they fishermen, jet ski operators, sailors, or visitors to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Better marketing might also be a good way to turn the declining tide of trust revenue. “We need to not assume that everyone has heard of the trust,” Flanigan said. She said the group needs to sell itself better, which will have the dual benefit of increasing revenues and increasing grant applications. “I’m absolutely convinced we haven’t saturated the market,” Flanigan added. -30-