As Fundraising Opportunities Decline, Many Nonprofits Face other Challenges in the Pandemic
One of the most common sights in Frederick County over the hot summer months are the annual fire company carnivals: Ferris wheels circling near the clouds, tents and lights adding splashes of color to the rural landscape, and the smell of funnel cakes and barbecue perfuming the air.
But the carnival grounds throughout the county are remaining this year empty due to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely all carnivals, which normally run until mid-August, will be canceled.
Not only are these cancellations a social loss for the community, they also represent a huge financial hit for area volunteer fire companies that rely heavily on the revenue generated from carnivals to purchase equipment and vehicles and make mortgage payments on their stations.
Even worse, the pandemic has also forced the companies to cancel nearly every other fundraising opportunity, including hall rentals, bingos, raffles, meals and golf tournaments. “When you think of all the activities from March through the entire summer months where you have the lion’s share of the fundraising activities, it will definitely be in the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars of lost income to the volunteer fire companies,” says Chip Jewell, Frederick County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association spokesman and member of the Libertytown Volunteer Fire Department.
While the county does provide some funding to the volunteer fire companies for operating costs, most of the equipment, maintenance, vehicles and buildings are the responsibility of the individual companies. The county will purchase some items, like ambulances or equipment, but that is part of the formal budgeting process that can take years.
“There is still a tremendous amount of money raised by the volunteer fire company that the county does not have to spend,” Jewell says. “It is all raised locally. We are very fortunate in Libertytown and we are very fortunate in Frederick County that we do have very good community support at most of our fire departments. They are very thankful for the support they get. Unfortunately, right now those communities are also suffering. It is a tough situation all around.”
Libertytown has mortgage payments for a recent $2 million addition, while also purchasing a new ambulance and spending $120,000 on rehabbing an engine. Obviously, the company never considered the possibility of a pandemic robbing its funding sources when the expenditures where committed, Jewell says.
“Fortunately we are a fairly stable company,” he says. “We had some money in reserve. We will have to pull from that for a while. It is not endless, obviously, but we are able to maintain. It is going to have an effect not only on Libertytown, obviously, but all the county companies.”
Jewell was unaware of any companies moving events into a virtual setting but did note some have done take-out food on certain days. Others have sent direct mail asking for donations. “We are going to have to look at other alternatives for funding,” he says.
Another concern for fire companies’ future fundraising efforts is their volunteers. A majority of the members who run events like bingos and meals are seniors who are in the COVID-19 at-risk population. “Are they going to be willing to even work [the events]? And I don’t know,” Jewell says. “… There are an awful lot of logistics that are going to go into this to get [fundraising] back up and running.”
Volunteer fire companies aren’t the only nonprofits feeling the COVID-19 pinch.
Sara Gallagher, associate director of University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, says nonprofits are experiencing a double whammy with the pandemic. Many potential donors are unable to give due to their changing work circumstances. Meanwhile, nonprofits are also facing obstacles in fulfilling their missions and delivering services in traditional ways; many are faced with additional costs by moving their services online. “They are dealing with two very difficult new realities,” Gallagher says.
With many employees working from home for the first time in their career and their commute times vanishing, Gallagher has seen a greater interest in volunteerism. That sounds like good news, but there is a burden for nonprofits who must work to keep the new base involved.
“The question really is sustaining demand,” Gallagher says. “How are nonprofits going to find the right opportunities for this increased desire to help as well as the potential increase in the need for their services? With COVID, it is especially difficult because nonprofits have to communicate safe ways for volunteers to support their mission and they also have to be more creative in ways individuals can support them. It’s not like they can have people coming in and licking envelopes to do mailings.”
Nonprofits, she says, have to think creatively about new volunteering opportunities like asking for help with technical support to move programs online, building community on social media platforms and making sure websites are easy to use and attractive.
But there is also the money.
Nonprofits traditionally have very little cash on hand, maybe a couple of months. More than three months into the pandemic, some nonprofits may be at the end of their reserves. “Government is the largest funder of nonprofits, especially because they rely on nonprofits to carry out their social services,” Gallagher says. “As government revenue shrinks, so does the available pot of resources for nonprofits.”
AN INCREASED NEED
The Mental Health Association (MHA) of Frederick County has seen an increase in need, especially in its call center which is open 24/7. Since the beginning of March, the nonprofit has seen a 23 percent increase over the same period in 2019, according to Shannon Aleshire, chief executive officer.
“When you see an increase, you know that you are needed more than ever,” she says. “Our staff has been working really hard to support one another through this. We have always done that. We work as a team but I really think that knowing the community needs us now more than ever has really kept us going.”
Most of MHA’s programs, including counseling services, have been able to continue just in a virtualized format. “[Going virtual is] not something we would have considered before this, both because there were insurance restrictions in place and we did not think it was a best practice,” Aleshire says. “But it has actually been pretty successful for the people who wanted to participate. That is a personal choice if you want to continue receiving services that way. I hope that when we are not in crisis mode anymore as a nation we can look at a hybrid model and not have to do everything face-to-face in person but give clients that choice as to how they would like to receive services.”
The nonprofit did see a slight increase in donations recently. “A lot of people wanted to rally around nonprofits that were providing essential services,” she says. MHA was one of 65 nonprofits to receive a grant through the COVID-19 Philanthropic Funders Initiative. While grateful for the support, Aleshire worries that level of fundraising will not last. “I just don’t know if that level of fundraising is sustainable within our community for a long-term period of time,” she says. “The virus is going to be around for a long-term period of time. … We will have to seek out additional sources of funding.”
The Catoctin Affair, MHA’s largest fundraiser of the year, was moved from its traditional black-tie dinner format to a virtual setting and performed well after sponsors chose to convert sponsorships into donations. Aleshire notes the nonprofit decided to not cancel the event in order to provide an opportunity to engage the community and the work they do, as well as highlight the businesses and organizations that support them. “They still supported us financially during that time and that was critically important for us to recognize them,” she says.
Heartly House also moved the annual fundraising Affair of the Heart gala online in early May. The event honored and featured an interview with author Rachel Louise Snyder who wrote the book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. Though the event was well attended, there were technical difficulties with the platform used, which caused people to leave. Inga James, Heartly House president and executive director, estimates they lost some donations because of the delays.
However, James notes, the nonprofit has seen an overall increase in donations from the public. “Individuals are being very, very generous,” she says. Heartly House also received a grant from COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for Nonprofits, which it used to upgrade its telephone system to better communicate with clients.
James does worry that residents are going to start getting donor fatigue. “People are already putting a lot of themselves out there,” she says. “I think we are going to see the pendulum swing to the other side soon. Maybe next spring or something. People are going to feel like, I can’t give anymore.”
In early June, Heartly House’s emergency shelter was also full, with a limit of just three families due to pandemic restrictions. Anyone else who needed refuge was placed into a hotel, “which is a really bad second choice,” James says. “It has no safety. There are no cameras. … They are isolated and they are already in crisis,” she says. “It is a really bad situation for somebody who is in that situation, somebody who is in imminent harm and seeking safety. We don’t like [providing service] that [way] but that’s how we’ve got to do it right now.”
The organization is also providing telehealth counseling, including its abuse-intervention program. This method can be harder with victims of trauma. “Oftentimes, talking into a screen doesn’t work for them,” James says. “It doesn’t feel safe, feel comforting or trauma-informed. Some people are opting out right now because they can’t do telehealth.” Heartly House is also offering telephone counseling, which is also not ideal. “We are struggling with that,” she says. “We are struggling to meet the need. We are struggling to get out and identify the need and get out there and have them come to us because our hotline calls have been down.”
Heartly House went remote on March 17 and calls to its hotline fell immediately to about a fourth of the normal rate. “What my theory is the people who can safely call, do,” she says. “The ones who can’t because it is too dangerous in their homes, don’t. They are not calling us, either.”
WOMAN TO WOMAN
Woman to Woman Mentoring was three days away from the organization’s largest fundraiser of the year, the Clutch the Future purse auction, when the state shut down. “We had to pivot very quickly,” says Tonya Hatosy-Stier, executive director. “We had such an amazing team in place that helped us, to within 72 hours, move from a live venue where we had 400 women coming together to a virtual event.”
Holding more than 200 purses for an undetermined amount of time was not an option and the fundraiser annually provides a significant portion of the organization’s operating costs in order to continue to sustain programming.
One of Clutch the Future’s organizers, Ashley Waters, had suggested last year that some of the bidding could possibly move online. “We were testing this new technology out that would allow for mobile bidding,” Hatosy-Stier says. “We had a lot of the things in place. … We just had to shift things really quickly” to include adding pictures and descriptions of the purses. The nonprofit was able to match the amount it raised last year.
Serving around 100 women a year, Woman to Woman’s mentoring traditionally is done face-to-face, but the nonprofit has moved many of its interactions online through FaceTime, Zoom and other platforms. It suspended its popular pop-up shops offering gently used business clothes to those in need while stepping up partnerships with other nonprofits and touch points with participants. In May, Woman to Woman Mentoring received a $29,100 donation from Frederick’s Impact Club.
In the midst of the pandemic, Hatosy-Stier took a call from a past mentee who wanted to help a young woman who had lost housing. The mentee knew Woman to Woman did not provide housing but hoped its network of contacts could help. “Imagine getting that call,” she says. “The desperation of someone who is stuck, who is lost, who doesn’t know where to go next. Imagine that feeling and being the type of person that I am and being the type of organization that we are and want to be. We want to provide solutions.”
They were able to find the woman a home and pair her with a program mentor. “We are that conduit,” Hatosy-Stier says. “We are driven by love. Sometimes people say that’s kind of cheesy, but that is what it is. We are driven by love to support women and people who need help during challenging times.”