Nonprofit leaders say they’ve been told the Dulles Greenway will end its annual Drive for Charity, which dedicates one day of toll revenues to nonprofits and last year raised close to $327,000.
In 2019, that money was distributed among the March of Dimes, ECHO, the Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter, Fresh Air/Full Care, the Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, the Loudoun Free Clinic and Loudoun Hunger Relief. The collection also funds the Dulles Greenway Scholarship Program, which provides $2,000 to a graduating senior at each of Loudoun’s 16 public high schools.
Last year, the Drive for Charity resulted in donations of more than $42,000 to each nonprofit.
But this year, the Dulles Greenway will not do the Drive for Charity. Instead, said Board of Directors member Pierce Homer, the Greenway is developing an event that will see lanes in one direction closed for a charitable 5K run or similar event.
“We think something that’s a little more community-oriented and in step with the times will help us to maintain our charitable posture in the county,” Homer said. He said in Richmond, where he lives, those are popular events.
“We can broaden the number of charities who can participate both in the fundraising and the fun run itself,” Homer said. “[It’s] kind of a unique way of looking at the facility at ground level.”
And he said it would get the Greenway out of “a difficult posture, to pick winners and losers.”
“It puts a lot of weight on a private entity to make those choices,” Homer said. “While we understand the nervousness of some of the folks that we’ve been very generous with our giving to over the years, there are others who have applied or have expressed an interest in receiving donations, and we just haven’t been able to accommodate it. So we think that this broader base of charitable giving will take us out of the uncomfortable position of picking preferred entities.”
While nonprofit leaders were grateful for the reliable funding they have received over the years, ending the program will leave holes in their budgets. And nonprofit leaders don’t believe the replacement event will bring in the same kind of funding.
“I don’t want to be a pessimist, but based on what I’ve heard so far, I don’t think it’s a $50,000 event,” said disability services nonprofit ECHO Executive Director Paul Donohue.
And, he said, ECHO already does two fundraising events of its own, the ECHO Tennis Classic and the Tour de ECHO—”We don’t really have the bandwidth to do a third event.”
And some nonprofit leaders say they won’t be able to participate in the Greenway’s new event, about which they don’t have details but which they expect to be a 5K on the Greenway, at all.
“We have our golf tournament at around the same time, and I wouldn’t switch my sponsors from our golf tournament to sponsor an event on the Greenway,” said Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter Executive Director Judy Hanley.
The decision comes the same year the Greenway’s owners applied to the State Corporation Commission to increase tolls every year for the next five years, resulting in a total increase of 30 to 36 percent over today’s rates.
The Drive for Charity money was also a particularly valuable kind of funding—unrestricted funding, which is sometimes hard to find for nonprofits. Grant funding is often restricted to specific programs or projects, meaning it can’t be used for overhead expenses like offices and administration.
“A lot of our funders want the funding to go directly to services for clients, so the Greenway funding covered overhead costs, which is a huge loss to our organization,” Hanley said. “And even though it’s a small percentage of our overall budget of $2.6 million, it’s still a significant chunk of money that we needed for overhead.”
Other nonprofits with smaller budgets will feel the loss even more keenly.
“About a quarter of our operating revenue from last year came from the Drive for Charity, and it’s been similar for previous years,” said Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy Executive Director Michael Myers. “So, what that means for our organization is, it supports and enables us to conduct pretty much all of our programs.”
His organization also has other ties to the Greenway, leading walking tours of the company’s 149 acres of privately held wetlands, conducting bird counts, and other programs.
“We look forward to whatever iteration of their charitable giving, because we have a strong relationship with them that goes deeper than just the financial benefits,” Myers said.
Although the word went out about six months ago, long before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the country into lockdown, for nonprofits weathering the storm, it’s just one more bit of bad news.
“To their credit they gave us months of warning,” Donohue said. ECHO, which is funded largely through fees collected from the state or Medicaid for services to their clients, has felt the impact particularly hard as many clients can into the nonprofit amid the current social distancing protocols. For fee-for-service nonprofits buffeted by COVID-19 pandemic, Donohue said, “it’s almost surreal.”
“That $50,000, right now—I never could have imagined saying this, but that seems like kind of nothing, because we’re doing our billing right now for March services, and it’s less than half of normal,” Donohue said. “And this time in a month, when we bill for April, based on the way things are going, it’s going to be almost nothing. And we’re a $6 million organization, so our monthly cashflow is pretty significant, of which $50,000 in May is a tiny piece.”
ECHO also offers transportation for their clients with a fleet of buses and vans, and the Drive for Charity money went directly into that part of the budget.
“At the time, it represented a budget deficit that we were going to have to figure out how to get around, but compared to the COVID budget deficit … it’s really just one piece of the tsunami,” Donohue said.
Nonprofit leaders were grateful for the support they’ve had in previous years, and are still figuring out how they will fill those holes in their budget.
“Corks [for a Cause, a Loudoun Abused Women’s Shelter fundraiser] last year brought in about $40,000 net, and the [annual LAWS] golf tournament brought in about $20,000, so even our events don’t make as much as the Greenway was donating to us,” Hanley said. “We are incredibly thankful that we’ve been a recipient for 13 years.”
“I bear no ill will towards the Greenway, I mean 10 years of about $50,000 is phenomenal, and I certainly appreciate all the drivers in the area that jumped on the road every year to do that,” Donohue said. “…. They were kind of called out for, ‘how can you raise tolls and then give money away to charity, you should cut your tolls and forget the charity.’ I guess they’re playing hardball.”
“Just as the Dulles Greenway is reimagining their charitable giving to local nonprofits, we’re sort of reimagining our fundraising strategy,” Myers said. “So, this is an opportunity with their alternative event. It’s an opportunity for us to engage with our local donors and local business.”
This article was updated April 16 at 5:25 p.m. to correct an error in Pierce Homer’s name and title.