Updated March 28 at 12:28pm

Swimming against the national tide

By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer

The New England Patriots have one, as do the Boston Red Sox and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

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Swimming against the national tide


The New England Patriots have one, as do the Boston Red Sox and the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.

The New York Yankees tried to get one this year – but failed – while the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island, Woonsocket School Department and Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation need public support to get theirs.

They are official Rhode Island charity license plates, the increasingly popular and sometimes controversial fundraising strategy attracting a growing range of nonprofits.

This year, the General Assembly authorized the creation of five charity license plates before Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee vetoed the “Choose Life” plate supporting a Catholic Church-affiliated anti-abortion group.

Even with the veto, this year’s bills bring the potential number of optional, open-to-the-public plates in the state to a dozen, not counting special plates only available to certain groups such as firefighters, veterans and magistrates.

But although license plates seem to demand an inordinate amount of energy in Rhode Island – there were more than 20 bills relating to plates in 2013 alone – the Ocean State actually has one of the smallest collection of specialty plates in the country. In pioneering Maryland and Florida, the specialty-plate options stretch into triple digits.

As many of the groups that have turned to license plates for revenue have found out, growing the number of successful license plates in a small state is not as easy as it looks.

Even after they have secured legislative approval for plates, charities have to pre-sell 900 of them before the state will order them made, by prisoners, and distributed.

“People see the Plum Beach Lighthouse plate everywhere and say ‘We should do that,’ but to get to 900 orders is a daunting task,” said David Zapatka, president of the Friends of Plum Beach Lighthouse Committee, which is the beneficiary of Rhode Island’s best-selling specialty license plate.

Since the legislature approved a Plum Beach Lighthouse plate in 2009, the state Department of Motor Vehicles has issued 6,911 of them, and Zapatka said he’s taken more than 7,000 orders worth more than $140,000. The Friends use the money to repaint and maintain the lighthouse in Narragansett Bay underneath the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge.

The New England Patriots Charitable Foundation has the second-highest-selling plate, with 3,052, according to the DMV. The Rhode Island Community Food Bank’s has sold about 2,200 Mr. Potato Head plates, and the Boston Red Sox Foundation has sold 1,228.

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