PONCHO Takes a Bow

Tasked with planning a proper celebration to mark 50 years of giving millions of dollars to Seattle arts, the board of directors for the Patrons of Northwest Civic, Cultural and Charitable Organizations made an unconventional decision. They decided to call it quits.

In late February, the Seattle-based nonprofit better known as PONCHO announced that it was ending its much-ballyhooed charity auctions, closing up shop and transferring its remaining nest-egg, along with its name, to a legacy fund at The Seattle Foundation.

“The old guard, people who have been with the organization for 40 and 50 years, said that it was their strong preference to end PONCHO on a high note,” says board president Stephen Kutz. “The 50-year anniversary is a great time for celebration, and that was a good time to do it.”

Since 1963, PONCHO’s charity auctions have raised more than $35 million for a total of 218 arts organization in the greater Puget Sound area. Some of those organizations received as little as $1,200, but the cultural pillars that PONCHO was intended to support received transformative sums. The Seattle Symphony was its greatest beneficiary, receiving a total of $4 million over the half century. Close behind are the Pacific Northwest Ballet ($3.5 million), Seattle Art Museum ($3.5 million), Seattle Repertory Theatre ($3.4 million) and the Seattle Opera ($3.4 million). Lately, enthusiasm for the auctions has waned as donors fund their favorite arts organizations directly.

“What has become clear to PONCHO and many other organizations in the city is that having your sole source of fundraising come from auction-based events was running out of steam,” says Kutz, a 10-year PONCHO board volunteer who was elected president in January. “We needed to be able to diversify sources of fundraising, to find other missions that people would have a real passion for.”

The board considered reinventing PONCHO. For four years it explored different funding methods and recipients, searching for a unique role to play in the area’s arts landscape. Eventually PONCHO focused its research on fund-raising for arts education in area schools, but the burden of rebuilding was too much. Instead, PONCHO will spend its 50th year celebrating its accomplishments and making one final push for donations.

The money it raises in this anniversary year will be added to the PONCHO Legacy Fund at The Seattle Foundation. The fund will also be seeded with the money that remains in PONCHO’s coffers after paying severance packages to its four full-time staffers (a total of $100,000 to $250,000, depending on how much it can profit from a medium-sized cellar of wine left over from past auctions). The result will be an endowment, administered by The Seattle Foundation, that will continue to feed money to the city’s cultural core.

“I give credit to the old-timers in PONCHO because they really drove the decision making,” Kutz says. “They said, ‘Listen, instead of trying to reinvent PONCHO, let’s just quit and recognize that we’ve done a tremendous amount of good.’”

See more in the April 2013 issue   →