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Cultural Trust trying to raise $300,000 to pay debts and expenses

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

April 22, 2008

 
 

By Stephanie Horvath

The new chairman of the Cultural Trust of the Palm Beaches said it needs to raise at least $300,000 to pay off its debts and host another season. But community members and charity experts say that could be a nearly impossible challenge in a community that's watched the nonprofit cultural arts group fall from grace. In the past two weeks, the group has cut short its season and its small staff has resigned.

Its board has reorganized after shrinking from nine members to five. It's facing a lawsuit over a dispute regarding a $22,000 loan, several vendors say they haven't been paid and at least one major donor said the group misspent its money. And one of the village's accountants is scheduled to being auditing the Trust's books this week, Village Manager Paul Schofield said.

Tom Dongilla, the Trust's chairman, said in a blog posting on Sunday that the group will spend the next two months trying to raise the $300,000 it needs to move forward. Dubbed "Rescue and Resurrect," Dongilla said this would be the first phase of the Trust's plan to re-establish itself in the community.

According to Dongilla's post, the Trust needs $100,000 to pay its vendors, $100,000 to pay back loans made by current and former board members and $100,000 to operate.

The Trust also will try to raise another $400,000 it needs to build an amphitheater on the 10 acres it leases from Wellington, Dongilla said. The Trust is staring down a January deadline to finish the project, and it hasn't begun construction yet.

No requests for donations have been made, Dongilla said.

The board's other plans include talking with leaders in the western communities and putting on a smaller season of events that would still include theater, a Valentine's Day cabaret, a comedy show, a community reading event, a holiday musical and the Palm Beach Jazz Festival.

But first it needs to raise the money. And that likely won't be easy.

"I can't say they've got a lot of goodwill value, because their organization has been damaged," said Don Dufresne, a longtime Wellington resident and a leader in the equestrian community. He said he wouldn't consider giving money without seeing the Trust's books and a detailed financial plan. "If you're going to establish credibility, you've got to come clean with your finances. Otherwise, what confidence does a contributor or donor have that their money will be well spent?"

The Trust has said it will open its books up to the village to audit, but it has declined to release them to the public. Dongilla said he would show the books to potential donors and that he is working on a financial plan.

"Was there anything malicious going on? I don't think so," Dongilla wrote in his blog posting. "Were there any financial improprieties? I just don't know. That's why the audit is important. It will tell everyone the plain, unvarnished facts."

The Trust might be able to rely on old relationships with donors, said Jaene Miranda, executive director of the Palms West Chamber of Commerce. But the group has burned bridges with many of those. Major donors, including philanthropist Tamara Gerber and showgrounds owner Mark Bellissimo, have expressed concerns about the group. Wellington Regional Medical Center pledged $50,000 in 2005 but has since said its money was misspent.

It's also unclear whether the Trust's board has the experience to raise the money. Robert Kovacevich, its former fundraising consultant, said board members left fundraising and donor development to their chief artistic director, Manuel Bornia.

"Almost all of them balked at the raising money aspect of it," said Kovacevich, who said he's still owed $15,000 by the Trust for the work he did since early 2005. "The majority of the board members thought Manny was going to do it or manna was going to fall from the sky, which doesn't happen in the real world."

Dongilla said the Trust's five remaining board members are himself, Leonard Sukienik and longtime board members Tim Fox, Valerie McKinley and Dick Palenschat. He declined to comment on the board's ability to raise money.

Being honest and transparent about its problems will be crucial to the Trust's fundraising efforts, said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, an online resource for foundations and donors.

"It's definitely an uphill battle, but I've seen it done before. It depends if the organization makes a compelling case," Miniutti said. "But it won't be easy."

Stephanie Horvath can be reached at smhorvath@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6643.

 

   
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