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Nonpolitical nonprofits vie for attention

It’s sunset on Thompson Island, a place where energetic 5th- and 6th-graders come every summer to learn about science in the wilderness.

But on this night, women sip chardonnay from a covered pavilion overlooking Boston Harbor and the city’s skyline. A DJ plays music as wedding planners play lawn games and tour the island on golf carts as travel writers, bloggers, and social-media influencers toast marshmallows at a beach bonfire.

Thompson Island Outward Bound, whose mission is to give urban middle schoolers a taste of nature, held the first-ever event in the hope that its guests will promote the island as a venue for everything from corporate outings to bar mitzvahs — and in turn lift the non-profit’s bottom line.


In the polarizing Trump era, when groups like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union seem to have captured the fund-raising limelight with a surge of so-called rage donations, less political nonprofits are watching revenues cautiously, and in some cases, finding increasingly creative ways to raise money.

Laurie Sherman, executive vice president of Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center said the group hopes to double the number of days students can come to the island, even in a competitive charity landscape.

“We call it bridge-building, cross-selling,” she said of the private events. “You come out for a wedding and maybe you want to become a donor.”

Tara Spalding, chief development officer at Horizons for Homeless Children, said the competitive fund-raising climate has motivated the Roxbury agency to seek deeper connections with donors. The group recently invited them, along with their children, into a classroom for homeless preschoolers to make scarves for the youngsters. It was a first for the agency, Spalding said, and a fundraising success at a time when donors seem to have more causes than ever to choose from.


“They were blown away by what we do,” Spalding said of donors. “A lot of it is personal outreach. It was meaningful, new and exciting.”

In the weeks and months following Trump’s election, donations poured in to many charities at a feverish pace. Contributions to the ACLU of Massachusetts jumped by 500 percent and the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts has received gifts from 27,000 new donors since the election, compared to 4,800 new donors in all of 2015.

Environmental causes like the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston enjoyed a 222 percent spike in giving after the election — and that was before Trump’s recent decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

Eileen Heisman, chief executive of the National Philanthropic Trust, said fads in political giving come and go. They include groundswells that sometimes appear to eclipse the work done by some agencies — whether it’s the “tried and true” soup kitchen or a longstanding youth program.

“Everyone wants to be the next ice bucket challenge,” Heisman said of the ALS fundraiser that went viral in 2014, raising $115 million. “But there’s a lot of charities that are still chipping away at fundraising, using social media, doing direct mail, and instead of trying to be the hottest fad, they’re just doing the basic blocking and tackling.”

Indeed, many causes are worried about the future as dramatic changes to federal immigration policy, health care, and the environment, to name a few, prompt giving to various national charities. Looming cuts proposed to federal spending on social programs only add to the anxiety.


Melisse Hinkle, Margaret Lombard, Baron Lombard, and Pearce Lombard took a tour of the island. Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Officials at the Pine Street Inn acknowledge that their cause might not be as exciting or appealing as political causes at the moment.

Spokeswoman Barbara Trevisan said Pine Street Inn is grateful for its many longtime donors, but getting on new donors’ radar can be more challenging. This year it has aired a series of pro bono print and digital ads spotlighting the individuals it helps to find permanent housing.

Such messages are more important than ever as agencies like Pine Street Inn confront proposed federal funding cutbacks under Trump.

“People don’t always want to hear about people who don’t have a place to live,” Trevisan said. “It’s a challenge to keep our message out there.”

Big Brother Big Sister of Massachusetts Bay has a list of 1,500 youths waiting to be paired with a mentor. Fundraising has been stable, but its development division is paying closer attention internally to any fluctuations.

Chief executive Wendy Foster said the group also has to be careful to stay removed from the political fray.

“We’re an organization with broad appeal that has to look to wonderful adults of every stripe, regardless of political affiliation,” she said. “You can misstep easily” and risk turning off a donor or volunteer.

It’s too soon to know whether Americans are giving more since the election, or whether people are diverting funds from causes they supported in the past toward hot-button political causes.


Katherina M. Rosqueta, founding executive director for the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, said Americans have consistently donated between 2 percent and 2.5 percent of their income annually over recent decades without much fluctuation.

Rosqueta said researchers who study philanthropy had predicted that politically charged donations would cool off after a while, much like donations to causes after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“”But that’s not the case,” she said. “Depending on what’s in the news, you’re seeing big increases.”

For a non-profit like Thompson Island Outward Bound, which hopes to expand the number of Boston middle schools it serves and close the achievement gap between the city’s diverse student body, that means spreading the word among event planners that the 204-acre island is open for business.

As guests played lawn games and envisioned pricey weddings on its rolling lawns, Sherman said a corporate client or engaged couple that rent its facilities gets the benefit of knowing the proceeds go to a good cause.

“We’re worried about keeping attention on the issues that affect the people we work with,” Sherman said. “What’s not being talked about enough today is how thinly resourced our schools are already.”

Guests (from left) Lea Bellai, Zynetta Canning, Ana Rivera, and Tammy Canning enjoyed sunset during a Thompson Island event open house. Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.