VFH sliced, but survives state budget

news-vaughanVirginia Foundation for the Humanities president Rob Vaughan will not have to announce the demise of the Book Festival this year.

The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities escaped a House of Delegates proposal to eliminate its state funding the same week its most widely known program, the Virginia Festival of the Book, runs.

"We were never not going to survive," says VFH president Rob Vaughan, "but we were going to be impoverished."

The Charlottesville-based organization did not come out of the budget process unscathed, losing $290,000 on top of $550,000 that had already been cut from its current $3.8-million budget. And Vaughan credits the Foundation's supporters for lobbying legislators.

"I was really delighted with the number of people who said they called, and they called others beyond their own legislators," says Vaughan, noting that he doesn't believe that delegates specifically targeted the Foundation for cuts.

"I don't think it was personal," he says. "They were just trying to sweep through the budget and find anything they could cut. We were in that anything."

For the Foundation, the $300K cut, says Vaughan, is still a big chunk out of its own budget, which is down $1 million from a few years ago.

And with a target audience of 20,000 who will be attending the Virginia Festival of the Book March 17-21, "I'm hoping we can inspire the community to support the Book Festival," says Vaughan, "more strongly than in the past."


Gerry, there's the financial stuff you mentioned, and then there's the idea of VFH being "a little narrow and clubby." Are the two related? Regardless, what are some examples of ways in which VFH is narrow and clubby? I don't speak for VFH, but I think the organization is enormously grateful for the state support as well as the support of its many advocates and donors. But I imagine that VFH would also be grateful for any sincere and constructive feedback about its programs or the way in which it relates with the public in general.

I thought of writing to VFH &/or Rob Vaughn when the last financial summary was published, but I didn't because 1) the VFH board of trustees should know that more disclosure is both desirable and customary in nonprofits; 2) public accountability is expected of all nonprofits these days, esp. with money being so "tight"; 3) I offered my development observations to VFH several years ago and was politely ignored. I do not suggest that VFH is failing to meet its responsibilities--fiduciary or otherwise; however, a more easily understood reporting of income and expenses is to be expected, and is usually found to produce more (not less) donor support. Finally, when financial procedures and public communications of those facts remain unchanged over several years, that appears to me to be "a little narrow and clubby." My years of experience in nonprofit administration suggest that it's best to err on the side of full disclosure.
[By way of disclosure, I was once rejected for a writer's grant by VFH, and I also gave some of my time as a volunteer--for which I was properly thanked.]

What if they gave a festival and nobody came? usually it would be discontinued due to lack of interest.....

The Festival of the Book is a GREAT festival. Not every festival has to appeal to everybody.

20,000 attendees who book every available hotel / motel room in the area, eat at resturants, discover the beauty of Charlottesville, and (on a personal note) buy a lot of books from the local book stores. The programs are featured on CSPAN and NPR and the festival is one of the most successful in the country...only in the strangest of worlds would it be considered "pandering to a very, very small coterie of people".

20,000 attendees is a very, very small coterie of people?

20,000 attendees is the average per year cumulative attendance, meaning that yes, it counts people who go to more than one event. And of course most attendees are local, but a large number -- perhaps as much as 25 percent or more -- are not local. And the festival brings significant money to Charlottesville in terms of hotels, meals, even parking. City officials can tell when the festival is going on just by looking at the huge increase in parking fees paid.

Beyond that, though, the festival is very conscious about not catering to "a very, very small coterie of people." It features much more popular fiction and nonfiction than academic writing; it hosts readings not only at the university but in book stores, the city council chambers, churches, and the senior center; it has special events for mystery writing; it has events for aspiring authors; it places authors in the schools; it features a kids' parade. I've heard people gripe that the festival is too big, but never that it is too narrow or elitist.

Although this event, which is one of the largest annual cultural events in central Virginia -- perhaps the largest -- may not be your cup of tea, it's only fair to ask that you know what you're talking about before you proclaim that it "deserves to die."

(As a matter of full disclosure, I work for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.)

VFH could do a better job of relating to the public, and of encouraging a wider audience. It's published "statement of income and expenses" also fails to meet generally accepted standards for nonprofit orgs.-- one cannot discern such key info as 1) how much was received in gifts in a fiscal year; 2) what are operating expenses in major categories (salaries, grants, etc.); 3) funding from government, state and other sources. VFH does much good work, but it comes across a little narrow and clubby.

This so-called festival deserves to die. It panders to a very, very small coterie of people who have financial/literary interests at stake here.

20,000 attendess is the target the VDH wants not necessarily the final count of attendees. Also, the majority are probably locals.

If 20K people came, I'm sure you'd see the difference in local traffic. I hope when they do a headcount, they count not how many attended each event but how many people come. I'm sure most attendees go to more than one event.