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Our View: Strengthening our non-profit community

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Auction Napa Valley 2017

When the fire storms hit Napa County in October, our non-profit sector was able to spring into action, providing services of all kinds, from direct aid to people burned out of their homes to counseling and unemployment compensation even for people who lost no property but whose lives were upended by the disaster anyway.

There are many reasons why this was the case, not least of which was the previous experience in the 2014 earthquake, just three years before, and the relative wealth of Napa County, which has promoted a strong philanthropic community.

But one element deserves special notice, and that is the contribution made by the county’s iconic charitable endeavor – Auction Napa Valley.

Since it began in 1981, Auction Napa Valley has raised $180 million for charitable causes of all sorts. In the last five or six years, the sponsoring Napa Valley Vintners have become much more professional and strategic in their planning and giving with the proceeds. The results really began to show in the 2017 fire disaster.

The reason these grants have been so effective isn’t just a question of money (though lots of money helps), but rather of how the Vintners structure their gifts. Where many charitable and government grants are tightly targeted – with money specified for some particular project or outcome – the Vintners’ grants are what is known in non-profit circles as “unrestricted.” That means they can be used for anything, from pens and pencils to staff salaries and training.

“Unrestricted support is a rare and beautiful thing for a non-profit to receive,” said Terence Mulligan, executive director of the Napa Valley Community Foundation, which administered the Vintners’ $10 million aid package after the 2014 earthquake and has remained a close partner in the organization’s disaster relief efforts.

Why is it so important? Non-profits typically operate on a shoestring and if their money is tied up in tightly restricted grants, they have trouble building the kind of infrastructure that a business needs to operate – professional leadership, accounting, human resources support, and office space. Unrestricted money can also be used as matching funds to apply for larger state, federal or private grants.

Take one example. We spoke with Michele Grupe, executive director of the Cope Family Center, which provides a variety of mental health and supportive services for parents and children. The Vintners provide about $350,000 per year to the organization.

“The Vintner’s multi-year, unrestricted funding has been crucial to planning and implementing our growth over the past four years,” she said. “More recently, it has also provided flexibility as changes develop with federal and state funding, knowing that we can apply the funds to where they are most needed.”

The money has helped in three particular areas, she said: leadership and staff development, data collection to prove to the Vintners and other grant-makers that their money is being effectively spent, and improving the long-term financial stability of the organization.

Those are things that are difficult to do with more restrictive kinds of grants and government contracts, but they make a big difference when an emergency hits.

“Our staff served over 1,000 Napa County residents impacted by the fires, serving, helping many families each day who were dealing with significant trauma,” she said. “Being able to support the staff, [and] address their secondary trauma (as well as trauma they experienced) made it possible for [us] to fulfill our role as helper during the response and recovery.”

As technical and unglamorous as this kind of giving is, it is extremely helpful to non-profits of all kinds. The money raised and given out by Auction Napa Valley has made our community stronger and more resilient.

It is, indeed, a rare and beautiful thing.

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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