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Jason Walsh: New report eyes the forest of Sonoma Valley’s many branches of benevolence


“Mankind was my business – charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence were all my business!” – Marley’s ghost, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Charity, they say, begins at home.

And if home happens to be the Sonoma Valley – then it would appear one’s charitable community – a “home” with revenues of $113 million annually – rests on a firmly solid foundation.

But appearances can be deceiving.

That’s the message coming from the Sonoma Valley Fund, the local branch of the Community Foundation Sonoma County, which last week released its first-ever overview report on the state of the Valley charitable community.

And, according to the report, a “growing disconnect” is taking place between the scale and complexity of the social, environmental and economic challenges facing the Valley – and the capacities of the nonprofit organizations dedicated to meeting those challenges.

The report’s title is “Hidden in Plain Sight” – a not-so-veiled reference to what is perhaps a reasonably accurate assessment that, despite the nonprofit community’s highly active presence in the Valley, its overarching identity remains something of a mystery to the average resident – and probably to the average donor, as well.

Modeled as something of a grand jury report with better pie charts, the handful of volunteer SVF researchers who put together the report spent hundreds of hours between them on a quest to both quantify and qualify the nonprofit community and the philanthropists who keep its Good Samaritan engines running. By studying the public tax returns which individual nonprofits are required to file – citing funds raised, budgets spent and overall operational finances – the Sonoma Valley Fund has delivered a detailed overview of “Sonoma Valley and the charitable sector that serves us.”

It’s certainly an effort worth commending – not least of which because, given the size of the Valley’s nonprofit universe, it’s about time someone’s tried to put the whole shebang into context.

The Sonoma Valley Fund makes no claims that “Hidden in Plain Sight” is a flawless document that has an answer to every philanthropic need from Kenwood to Sears Point. But it does provide some interesting statistics – and, more importantly, raises much-needed questions. Here are three:

The percentage of Valley residents over age 65 “matured” by nearly 4 percent in the last six years to a whopping 23 percent. Yet, is the 1 percent of funds raised for senior services by the Valley’s nonprofits ever going to meet the growing demand? (By comparison “animal protection” services raised 1.8 percent!)

From 2009 to 2014, the percentage of Valley families living in poverty went up by 7.2 percent to an alarming 19.2 percent. (That’s right, one in five local families lives in poverty.) But only 14 percent of funds raised in the nonprofit community went toward “basic human needs/poverty,” according to the report. In a community as generous as ours, why are poverty services – i.e., FISH, La Luz, Nuestra Voz, Sonoma Home Meals and Sonoma Overnight Support – funded that far below the level of need?

Crisis, what crisis? For two years now, we’ve heard that the “housing crisis” is bringing the community to its knees. But, according to the report, “it is striking that no organization in Sonoma exists to address low-income housing or housing policy.” Why is that, and shouldn’t we have one?

Certainly, these are imposing questions without simple answers; challenges whose solutions can’t be mitigated by a single report, or a dawning realization.

But at least awareness is a beginning. And perhaps true charity does not, in fact, begin at home – but instead with difficult questions.

Beginning in early June, the Index-Tribune will present a series of stories outlining what we think are some of the more intriguing aspects of the Sonoma charitable community. By no means will we irrefutably define it, nor will we cover its every aspect. (In fact, we’ll avoid focusing on individual organizations, but rather on issues facing the community as a whole.) But, hopefully, we will inform, shed light upon and – most importantly – raise additional questions and awareness about the philanthropic goings on – the successes and challenges – of the nearly 100 nonprofits currently active in Sonoma Valley.

At the end of “Hidden in Plain Sight,” the Sonoma Valley Fund quotes a particularly apropos line from early 20th century farmer Nelson Henderson – it’s an astute sentiment, one with which everyone in the local charitable community would no doubt agree.

“The true meaning of life,” Henderson once told his grandson, “is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

And it goes without saying: There’ll never be any shade, if those trees aren’t braced with sturdy roots.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.