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Many charity registration plates are stuck in reverse

The Girls Scouts haven’t reached the minimum signups for a special plate, while Red Sox and Cape Cod versions have raised millions of dollars for their charities.

Charity registration plates, officially known as special plates, are a huge allure to any nonprofit organization. Just ask the Red Sox Foundation, which has raised more than $6 million through the plates adorned with the team logo. Or the Cape Cod & Islands License Plate Committee, whose enchanting plate, featuring images of Eastham’s Nauset lighthouse and the cliffs of Siasconset and Gay Head, has raised more than $18 million for local causes.

So which charities will be debuting new plates this year? Very likely, none.

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Massachusetts is in the midst of a special plate drought, with the last new design having debuted in the summer of 2010, when the Wakefield-based Choose Life campaign launched its plate. Since then, about two dozen nonprofits have approached the Registry of Motor Vehicles to start up a plate; not a single effort has panned out.

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, and a Nantucket charitable group all have seen plate drives fizzle after failing to obtain pledges in advance for the minimum 1,500 needed for the Registry to commence production. Rotary International also has shelved its effort, at least for now, after designing a special plate featuring its logo.

Even the Boston Celtics had trouble getting their vehicle registration plate, whose proceeds benefit Children’s Hospital Boston, on steady ground, with fewer than 1,000 car owners signing up for the team’s plate in the first year of production before a significant promotional blitz bumped up sales.

Paul Yorkis, owner of Patriot Real Estate in Medway and chairman of the Massachusetts Association of Realtors, has spent nearly a year trying to presell 1,500 “Welcome Home’’ plates to benefit social welfare and domestic abuse programs. So far, he’s had about 300 takers.

“It’s extremely tough to do, for a lot of different reasons,’’ he said.

‘It’s going to happen . . . I and a lot of other people have to work harder.’

Paul Yorkis On campaign for realtors plate
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Foremost, at least for Yorkis, is the fact that he can’t hand someone a plate when they pay for one, or even provide a target date for when it will arrive.

“We tell them to fill out an application, send a check but don’t date it, and when we hit 1,500 sold, all of the applications will be vetted again to make sure they’re all accurate, and at that point in time the Registry will place an order,’’ he said. “That’s a tough sell.’’

New plates also face the challenge of cracking a well-established and somewhat saturated market. Special plates have been around since 1991, with the Cape plate debuting in 1996, the Red Sox plate in 2003, and the New England Patriots plate in 2005.

The Massachusetts Environmental Trust scrapped plans last year to promote a “Land and Water’’ conservation plate because of a lack of interest. The plate failed, one might guess, because a good portion of its target audience already had purchased one of the trust’s existing plates: the right whale plate, fish and wildlife plate, or the Blackstone Valley plate.

Others blame the economic downturn for waning interest in special plates, which on average cost an additional $40 to register every two years, plus an initial $20 change-plate fee.

The total number of special plates in circulation as of March 1 - 362,150 - is down by about 3 percent compared with a year ago, according to Registry statistics. But some individual plates have seen drops in ownership of 10 percent or more within the past 13 months.

Even the popular Cape Cod & Islands plate, whose organizing committee spends about $100,000 annually advertising and promoting its sale, has experienced a 5 percent drop in usage over the past year.

While that’s a bigger decrease than organizers had expected, the plate is still earning more than $1.2 million annually for local causes, ranging from housing assistance to baseball leagues to local museums, said Paul Rumul, longtime chairman of the volunteer Cape & Islands Plate Committee.

“We’re very happy to be holding our own,’’ he said.

It took Wakefield resident Ken Nordeen and his wife, Merry, seven years to gather enough preregistrations to launch the Choose Life plate, which benefits nonprofit agencies in Massachusetts that do not offer counseling or referrals for abortion. But now, they face a new challenge.

According to state law, once a new special plate has been issued, its circulation figure must rise to 3,000 within two years. If that doesn’t happen, the charity has to forfeit a portion of the $100,000 bond it posted initially to cover the Registry’s production costs.

As of March 1, 2,437 Choose Life plates had been registered, leaving the Nordeens just four months to sell nearly 600 more plates, or else default a portion of their organization’s receipts.

“You just have to let people know that things are going to happen - that we stand to lose some of our money - and they will act,’’ said a confident Merry Nordeen, who promotes the plate by word of mouth and on Twitter.

“This happens all the time in my own life: You see what the hottest fire is you have to put out, and all of a sudden that rises to the top,’’ she said. “I feel enough people are going to rise to the occasion and help me out.’’

Despite obstacles, at least a few other charities remain optimistic about increasing plate sales this year.

Organizers behind the Mini Fenway Park plate, supporting the construction of a youth-sized version of the ballpark, said they will be launching a new ad campaign when the baseball season begins, hoping the hoopla surrounding Fenway’s 100th season will fuel interest.

The Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup victory has been a huge boon for Bruins plate sales, which have risen nearly 30 percent since January 2011. (The plate benefits Massachusetts Youth Hockey.)

Plymouth Rock’s 400th anniversary organizers have presold about half the plates needed to launch their proposed license plate, and the anniversary is still eight years away.

“Time is definitely in our favor,’’ said Cheri Thomson, with Plymouth’s economic development office.

Yorkis, meanwhile, remains hopeful he can sell his Welcome Home plate, which features a Cape-style home behind a white picket fence, to both realtors and regular homeowners who want to help less fortunate residents by way of the Massachusetts Realtors Association Charitable Foundation. A motorcycle rider, Yorkis, 67, is planning on organizing bike rides across the state to promote the plate this summer.

“It’s going to happen,’’ he said. “It just means that I and a lot of other people have to work harder than we’ve worked so far.’’

Peter DeMarco can be reached by e-mail at demarco@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.
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