Elizabeth Shepherd’s front-page story in this week’s Beachcomber is not the kind of journalism one often sees in a small weekly newspaper. It’s an in-depth investigative piece that asks hard questions of Vashon Center for the Arts, a well-established nonprofit, and its fundraising campaign for a new arts center.
Why did the Beachcomber opt to do such a piece?
First, the issue warranted it. Nonprofits here — and elsewhere — trade on our goodwill and benefit from our generosity. But it’s a two-way street — meaning that the request for public support and trust demands of the organization some amount of transparency and accountability.
Second, the sheer scale of the campaign to build the new performing arts center made this an issue of public import. From the start, the building was controversial: Some saw it as a much-needed improvement to the island’s rich culture of performing arts. Others saw it as too big, grand and expensive for a semi-rural island of 10,000.
Third, and most importantly, VCA told island donors over and over that they would keep the center affordable for island groups and audiences. A reserve fund — its largest asset was a $6 million trust — would mitigate the expense and scale of the project and sustain the building over time, they said.
But in 2014, the $6 million trust was dissolved, without a word to the public, and VCA used its proceeds for construction — a fact that only surfaced after a town hall meeting in February. The Beachcomber wanted to understand what happened.
Shepherd started digging, and she learned a lot — both from public documents she requested and the interviews with VCA staff and board members that followed.
She discovered that the organization was facing much higher construction costs than anyone had anticipated, making dissolving the trust — as deadlines loomed — a possible path forward. She learned that the trust was heavily weighted in stocks on the verge of plummeting, again arguing for a dissolution of the trust.
But she also learned that some of the organization’s statements about the urgency of the timeline did not hold up under the bright light of scrutiny. And she found that assurances of the $6 million trust were not only made to islanders. They were also made by staff in VCA’s applications for public dollars.
Some at VCA have said they still have resources in reserve to sustain the building. But a large part of these are not income-producing assets the organization currently has in hand. Indeed, if VCA continues its current trajectory in income and expenses, any incoming bequests or planned gifts might well be needed to plug deficits.
VCA is important to this island. It enriches Vashon in untold ways — providing a venue for fantastic performances, gallery space for the visual arts and classes for kids and adults. It’s a stimulus to our island’s robust artistic life. It helps to build community.
VCA matters to its donors, to artists, to dancers and to the hundreds of people who turn out week after week for performances, classes, lectures and more.
The Beachcomber wants VCA to succeed. And the best way, we believe, is for the organization to be forthright about its financial situation, the decisions that led it to this place and its vision for the future. The island deserves and expects not spin or marketing but honest engagement from its nonprofits. We hope for such a relationship with VCA.