Vicky Cayetano: Hawaii's Nonprofits Need To Make Tough Choices To Survive - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Vicky Cayetano

Vicky Cayetano is a longtime businesswoman, philanthropist, former First Lady and recent gubernatorial candidate. She is active in the community, advocating for small businesses, animal welfare, supporting the arts and other aspects of our community. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Opinion article badgeWhen the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra filed for bankruptcy in 2009 after more than 100 years, it looked like Hawaii would be the only state in the country without a symphony.

While some folks did not think that was a big deal, most realized that musicians in a symphony orchestra are often also in the schools and the broader community teaching our children music, creating school bands and bringing an element of creativity, joy and life to our everyday existence.

The happy ending to this story is that the symphony, now known as the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, is alive and well today, and its resurrection is inspiring other orchestras around the country.

Through strong leadership, management and a collection of incredibly talented local and world-class musicians who were willing to reinvent the symphony, the organization not only survived but thrives today.

While challenges will always be there, the symphony made tough decisions so that it could be more efficient. And it remains willing to adjust its repertoire to appeal and adapt to a changing audience, thereby broadening its listeners and base of supporters. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of the HSO.)

In the same way, other nonprofit organizations can look at how to adapt to have an ongoing sustainable model. Are there opportunities for the more than 8,000 nonprofit organizations in the islands to collaborate or even merge together? Are there opportunities for organizations to share so-called back-of-the-house functions such as accounting and human resources?

Nonprofits will have to rethink their operational models, revisit their bases of contributors and step outside of their comfort zones or traditional mindsets to simply survive, not to mention succeed.

Volunteers unload fresh produce from boxes into bags to be distributed to 2500 Hawai'i residents arriving at the Aloha Stadium Monday, November 16, 2020. The free pop-up food distribution event was orgnanized by the Hawai'i Foodbank.
The nonprofit Hawaii Foodbank played a pivotal role in helping needy families as the onset of the coronavirus pandemic caused unemployment to spike. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

A nonprofit label doesn’t mean that an organization can afford to operate at less-than-optimal efficiencies. Supporters who contribute to nonprofit organizations have every right to expect that these organizations are accountable and that they are effective in carrying out their missions.

To that end, we should look at the oversight of these tax-exempt organizations. While the process to obtain a tax-exempt status (determined at the federal level) requires a certain amount of rigor, there is far less oversight once the nonprofit is formed. Investigations typically occur only when a complaint is filed and the damage has been done. So, it is incumbent upon contributors to be diligent in making sure that the tax-exempt organizations they elect to support are managed responsibly and efficiently.

Several valuable resources are readily available online. ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer and Guidestar have tools that help you compare the data showing how efficiently (or not) the organizations are run.

Foundations managed under the umbrella of a principle charitable management organization such as the Hawaii Community Foundation give contributors a level of confidence in knowing that its financial condition and other key parameters are reviewed by a third party. This is part of the service that these charitable management organizations provide for the fee paid to them by the foundations they manage.

While I believe that it is truly better to give than to receive, contributors should not support a cause blindly or just because a friend or relative asks us to. We need to take it upon ourselves to be well informed about where and how these monies are spent.

Whether it is a contribution to your child’s team, the tithe given to a faith-based group or the premiums paid for medical insurance, know that if they are organized as tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations they have the commitment of being accountable for the funds entrusted to them.

Which brings up the point of how some of these organizations manage their expenses and how they compensate their executives. While some nonprofit leaders serve at nominal compensation levels, executives of others earn millions of dollars and the influence and power they exert at the Legislature contrasts starkly with other nonprofit organizations.

While I am not here to criticize executive compensation, the question I believe we should ask is whether these organizations are properly organized and whether they can justify being a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization.

These are valid questions and concerns that need to be addressed.

No thanks to the ever-increasing high cost of living in Hawaii, the needs of our community will only rise. With the growing disparity between the haves and have nots, we should be cognizant and akamai enough to recognize people or organizations who are buying influence disguised as “charitable” giving.

And let’s stop feeling that by questioning something or someone, we are being negative or mistrustful, because we’re not. We’re just being smart.

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About the Author

Vicky Cayetano

Vicky Cayetano is a longtime businesswoman, philanthropist, former First Lady and recent gubernatorial candidate. She is active in the community, advocating for small businesses, animal welfare, supporting the arts and other aspects of our community. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views.

Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for a useful column, Vicky. I have been wanting to write about charities that seem to exist primarily to give their CEOs and sometimes other staff members a luxurious living. A few years ago, I looked up the salaries of the CEOs of several very popular national organizations, and eliminated from my donor list those whose CEOs earned a million dollars a year or more. If I gave them $1000, it would take 1000 other people to match that donation, just to pay the CEO! I doubt that many people think they are funding millionaires, rather than the worthy services their organization supposedly stands for. Yes, we all need to be thoughtful about where we donate our money.

JusticePlease · 5 months ago

Some people say that if folks want 'art' like the symphony, museums, dance companies, opera etc. they should just pay for it themselves. Sounds like that makes sense, but if those things aren't 'out there' in the public space, people, especially young people, won't see them and so won't know that such things exist.

Robo · 5 months ago

Couldn't have said it better myself. Best opinion piece I've seen from Vicky.As far as the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra goes, service that can & really should be offered is live/on-demand streaming of the concerts. This could be added to the subscription packages, so that people who can't make it to a particular show can still watch & enjoy. Also, online-only packages can be offered, to further boost revenue. Major orchestras like the New York Philharmonic & the Boston Symphony are already doing it.Just a thought.

KalihiValleyHermit · 5 months ago

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