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Charities fear donations will drop if Boston hosts Olympics

Nonprofits seek a bigger voice in decision-making

A conceptual drawing of the Olympic Stadium at Widett Circle.
A conceptual drawing of the Olympic Stadium at Widett Circle.(Boston 2024)

It’s a key selling point of Boston’s Olympic bid: The Games would largely be paid for by private funding, not taxpayer money.

But that financing plan is sending ripples of anxiety through the city’s nonprofit sector, which worries the event would soak up philanthropic dollars that might otherwise go to charity.

And, in a potential double-whammy, a Boston Olympics could strain local nonprofits by putting more demands on social services, as happened in Atlanta when the Summer Games were held there in 1996.

“I don’t think we ever quantified it . . . but there were a lot of nonprofits that got less that year, and actually a couple of years before and after,” said Alicia Philipp, the president of the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, a nonprofit philanthropic group. That dip occurred, she said, because so many private dollars were diverted to readying the city for the Games by, for example, building the massive Centennial Olympic Park downtown.

As a result, “less money went to more traditional nonprofits with traditional causes,” Philipp said. “They kind of got crowded out.”

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And although the Olympics elevated Atlanta’s reputation globally, a downside of that attention was that “people on the margins sensed us as a city with streets paved with gold, so you have to be prepared for that,” by having sufficient support programs for the unemployed, homeless, and mentally ill, she added.

With Atlanta’s experience as a cautionary tale, some Boston nonprofits are strategizing about how to prevent a drop in donations if the Olympics come to town. They are also angling for seats at the tables where decisions about the city’s bid are being made.

“It’s definitely something that has come up in conversation with other nonprofit leaders,” said Rick Jakious, chief executive of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network.

“People are looking at what the budget for the Olympics is going to be and recognizing that the line item of ‘private contributions’ would certainly be philanthropic dollars and wondering what the impact would be on nonprofits.”

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A rosier view comes from Michael Durkin, president of the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, who was working for the United Way in Atlanta in 1990, the year that city won its Olympics bid. He left before the Games were played but said he does not recall raising less money due to competition from the Olympics.

“I essentially do not feel that it’s a major concern that, oh my goodness, philanthropy is going to dry up or philanthropy is going to be redirected,” Durkin said. “There are a lot of people who are good supporters for all kinds of organizations, and the funds are not only going to come from Boston-based corporations and organizations.”​

Indeed, national and international companies would be the source of a significant chunk of the funding for the estimated $4.7 billion operating cost of Boston’s Olympics, as would local corporate marketing and public relations budgets — money that may not have been earmarked for nonprofit causes anyway.

And donors often rise to the occasion. After the Boston Marathon bombings, for example, the One Fund raised more than $60 million in its first 90 days of existence. Yet “I can only think of, offhand, maybe one or two corporate supporters that said, ‘We’re not going to be able to give you guys as much because we’ve given to the One Fund,’” Durkin said. “I was worried like the dickens that that would be a huge drain, but it was not for us at the end of the day.”

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The man leading the effort to land the Games, Suffolk Construction chief executive and Boston 2024 chairman John Fish, said he has considered the possibility that local nonprofits could be hurt by the Olympics, but added that “the reservoir of wealth in Boston for philanthropy is one of the strongest in the country.” Because of that generosity, he said, “I believe there’s plenty to go around in the city of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Fish also said he believes the Olympics could result in more, not fewer, philanthropic dollars flowing to Boston’s nonprofits because the Games would raise the city’s profile internationally, potentially attracting a wider universe of donors.

The International Olympic Committee will decide in 2017 which city will host the Games. Among Boston’s potential rivals are Rome, Paris, and Madrid.

Meanwhile, the competition for donor dollars is already underway. Boston 2024, itself a nonprofit, is soliciting contributions on its website. A “donate” button is at the top of the home page, and the site notes that it accepts all major credit cards and “donations are fully tax deductible.”

Jakious, of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, said his organization’s board will be weighing the impact the Olympics could have on local nonprofits — from schools to human services to the arts — and how to prevent any negative effects.

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He and other nonprofit leaders also emphasize the importance of including Boston’s not-for-profit community in discussions about the city’s bid so that potential concerns can be aired and addressed.

“When movers and shakers get together and want to do a big thing like this, they sometimes forget to include people often left out of the power structure,” said Jonathan Spack, the executive director of Third Sector New England, a Boston-based organization that provides a variety of resources to nonprofits.

“So it behooves those of us in that category . . . to speak up early in the process,” Spack added, “and say, ‘Don’t forget about us, we’re an important part of the community here, and if you want to ensure an event that’s successful for the city and all its citizens, you should make sure all important stakeholders are included up front in the planning process.’ ”


Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.