Charities hope dividend gifts exceed costs

Posted: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The new Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend donation program called "Pick. Click. Give." raised $550,000 this year, but is expected to cost about $900,000 to administer during the program's first three years.

The program, the result of legislation sponsored by Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, in 2008 has already paid for hundreds of groups around the state, including a couple dozen in Juneau.

The program that allows Alaskans to devote part of their permanent fund dividends to causes around the state was made possible by the Rasmuson Foundation, the state's largest charitable foundation, by pledging to pick up the administrative costs of the program for the first three years.

It is too soon to tell whether the program has been a success, or even how many people will make donations, he said.

"Our goal in this is to provide an easy way for individual Alaskans to give," said Jordan Marshall, who manages initiatives and special projects for the foundation.

The grant is paying for an employee to reprogram computers, for hiring United Way to screen the nonprofits enrolled in the program, and even the Permanent Fund Dividend Division's extra costs in administering the online donation program.

"The Rasmuson grant is designed to allow the state, in implementing this program, to have zero fiscal impact," he said.

"Every time they answer the phone and it is about Pick. Click. Give., they count it up and share it with us and we provide remuneration," Marshall said.

That $900,000 cost is likely front-loaded with start-up expenses, but Marshall said he didn't know whether this year's costs exceeded the amount it brought in this year.

Marshall said he didn't know how much and what level of participation to expect next year, but they'd know more then about the ongoing participation.

"We also introduced this program in the trough of a economic downturn," Marshall said, but was uncertain whether Alaskans seeing the need would give more, or whether they'd even be able to afford to give anything.

Marshall said they made no estimate of likely contributions.

"We'd be pulling those numbers out of the air," he said.

Before they approached the Legislature, which approved the program in last year, the Alaska Giving Coalition surveyed Alaskans to find out whether they were interested in donating part of their dividend.

"We heard that roughly one-third thought they might use this tool," Marshall said.

In practice, the 5,500 people who contributed were less than 1 percent of the 657,000 dividend applicants. Only online applicants are able to use the program.

Marshall said he didn't expect one-third of applicants to donate.

"I took that with a grain of salt," he said.

Alaskans traditionally have lagged residents of other states in charitable contributions, Michele Brown, president of United Way of Anchorage, told the Legislature.

"Alaskans have a great tradition of neighborliness, but it has not yet translated into cash-based philanthropy," she said.

Marshall said he hoped the program would help boost that number.

"Our role in participating in this is to create an easy way for individual Alaskans to play a larger role in funding nonprofits that are feeding the public, sheltering the sick, providing services for elders, for museums and for public broadcasting," he said.

The number of contributors may increase in the future, as the Permanent Fund Dividend Division has been strongly pushing online applications and expects that number to continue to grow, said division director Debbie Bitney.

Next year's numbers may tell more than this year's numbers do, Marshall said.

If it is exactly the same number next year, they'll have a good baseline, but Marshall said he expected it to increase as community groups were more active in promoting it to their members.

It will be up to the Legislature to decide whether they want to continue the program after three years, and how it is to be paid for, state officials said.

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