Did donors see the value in ITVFest?


MANCHESTER — As ITVFest considers a new site for its flagship festival, and as its leaders say the organization needs a significant funding commitment to hire staff and grow, there's a question to be asked: Is that funding available in Vermont, from nonprofit donors or from state sources? And if not, why?

The Journal spoke with a number of active philanthropists and development professionals to get a picture of the climate in which ITVFest has been competing for private donations locally. There were several points of consensus:

- The organization's mission may have been misconstrued by potential donors who saw it as a one-week event that benefited its participants, rather than a year-round cultural, educational and economic entity.

- Area donors are accustomed to giving for human service or arts and culture needs, rather than economic development.

- The festival's October event dates conflicted with the already-busy fall foliage season, and there was a sentiment that a week where business isn't as brisk might have been a better fit. (According to organizers, the October timeframe fits with the TV industry's business calendar.)

ITVFest did receive support from local donors and business sponsors, for which it is grateful, said ITVFest board member Carolyn Blitz. It also received funding from the Vermont Community Foundation, as well as several of its individual fund holders, according to Elisabeth Marx, a senior philanthropic advisor for the foundation.

While this fall's festival was deemed a success, it also marked a change for the organization as more of a "matchmaker" for content creators and providers. That changing focus requires an immediate injection of funding if the festival is to grow, Blitz and executive director Philip Gilpin Jr. have said.

The organization plans to remain in Manchester but has issued a request for proposals for its flagship festival that includes a five-year, $1.45 million commitment, with $200,000 up front and $250,000 a year for five years.

Gilpin said Wednesday in an email that he anticipates the festival broke even this past fall. He also said that it's time for the festival to grow.

"We are entering our 14th year and are experiencing a great deal of success, so this is our time to grow in our industry and we need resources to do that," he said.

But it's not unusual for nonprofits to grow slowly, said Marx. "It takes time to build an institution, just like it takes time to build a business," she said.

When it arrived in Manchester early in 2017, ITVFest already had such costs in place, and "had to produce at a certain level" to meet industry expectations, Marx said.

"A huge part of this story is they didn't have a lot of time. Two years is really a blink in the lifetime of a profit or a nonprofit institution. And they had a basic carrying cost that's not an easy lift," she said.

As for the region in which they sought funding: "It's a lot harder when you talk about a smaller community because there's just a smaller pool of people who may be interested in giving," Marx said.

Southern Vermont in general and the Northshire, in particular, have many nonprofit organizations competing for dollars in a rural area. Burr and Burton Academy, the Manchester Community Library, and the Northshire Rescue Squad are all nonprofits. So are numerous agencies and organizations dedicated to fighting poverty and addiction, supporting education, the environment and the arts, advocacy for social causes, and funding for medical research.

But donor preferences and perceptions of what ITVFest represents, rather than competition for dollars, was most often cited as the main factor for private donors choosing not to give to the organization.

"I really think that this community steps forward annually for human and social issues in a very big way. And I think ITVFest is a bit of a different kind of animal because it not a human or social issue — it's really an economic development issue," said Blitz, whose company, Mountain Media LLC, brought ITVFest here and has provided it with logistical support. "And I think if you look at any community that's working on economic development, the engines that are pushing it forward are corporate dollars and government money.

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"I think we don't have deep pockets in either one of those areas — corporate dollars or government. I don't think you can lump ITVFest in the nonprofit community because it's a completely different kind of engagement," she said.

Betsy Bleakie, who raised money to build and sustain the Manchester Community Library and is now its full-time director of philanthropy, also said the perception of what ITVFest does, and the needs it serves, may not have been clear to some potential donors.

"People might not see the direct benefit," Bleakie said. "You can make an argument — and I do believe in the argument — that it can open up opportunities for young people that might not [otherwise] be here.

"For donors, the problem is, to me, is that it seems more economic-driven," Bleakie said.

There's also the perception that the festival was one week per year, rather than a year-round concern.

"They're not yet realizing that it can also be year-round," Bleakie said of donor perception. "But it's not perceived as local as the same way as [Southern Vermont] Arts Center and Dorset Theater Festival. Yes, [ITVFest] can benefit local people and benefit local filmmakers for sure, but they're drawing internationally —- they're drawing young, hip, happening people who are perceived not to need local money."

Asked Wednesday about reasons why some may have passed on giving to ITVFest, Gilpin said in an email: "Donors were as supportive as they chose to be and are each juggling their own philanthropic priorities."

Asked if ITVFest's mission was misconstrued, he said "We can't speak for others, but we hope that people understood what we had to offer and appreciated what we brought in."

The Vermont Community Foundation, on the other hand, saw the festival's mixed art and economic identity as an opportunity to encourage the growth of the creative economy in Vermont.

"The creative economy is a huge driver," Marx said. "It adds things for a community to do but also bringing in creative people who are involved in all kinds of artistic ventures."

"That was one reason the Community Foundation was excited" about ITVFest, Marx said. "[The creative economy] is a really vibrant economy in Vermont as a whole. But this is a new take on it."

ITVFest is also connected to the Vermont Production Council, whose mission is to fill the resource role left vacant when the state disbanded its film commission in 2011. That group drew television productions and film shoots to the region this year, including ABC's "The Bachelor" and the independent film "Stormchaser."

Vermont has so far balked at financial incentives to encourage television and film production, saying it can't compete with larger neighbors — New York, Massachusetts and Quebec — that pour millions into their film promotion efforts.

This past session, outgoing state Rep. Brian Keefe of Manchester proposed a bill that would have put such incentives in place. That bill emerged from committee with a new focus, on workplace training for the production industry, and passed the House. It did not emerge from the committee for a vote before the state Senate.

Gilpin said the region's delegation to the Statehouse, including newly elected Rep. Kathleen James of Manchester, is supportive of the effort. He also said talks continue in Montpelier.

"It's very much in the mix," he said. "The conversation with the state is moving forward on incentives. I had some tremendous conversations behind the scenes. Some people in the state actively pursuing incentive packages right now. That seems very positive."

Reach Greg Sukiennik at gsukiennik@manchesterjournal.com or at 802-490-6000.


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