Cancelled? What? Why?” Credit: Alan Levine

May 2, 2020; Star Tribune and The Cut

Raising funds was never easy in the best of times. Now, the distancing required to slow the spread of COVID-19 has made it even harder. Many of the traditional ways nonprofit organizations have garnered donations—large galas, poetry slams, live and silent auctions, runs, marathons, and events to honor key supporters—have abruptly halted to follow stay-at-home orders.

By necessity, many nonprofits have had to find new paths to raising needed monies. Nonprofits that rely on galas or events for a significant share of their funds face difficult choices. Do you postpone until the fall or winter and hope that large gatherings are safe by then? Or, do you instead go virtual and try to raise the same money online that you would have raised before through the gala?

Yasmine Falk, the co-founder of Advance NYC, a consultancy that advises nonprofits, told The Cut, “At this point, everyone has settled into the knowledge that this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint. To some extent, we’re beyond that initial moment of panic and triage.”

The loss of event-driven revenue can be particularly difficult for organizations that spent on the expectation of funds to be raised. Some organizations have chosen to postpone their galas until the fall or winter, hoping that by then people will be able and willing to come to a hotel ballroom or theater for a traditional event. Kara Medoff Barnett, the executive director of American Ballet Theatre, which is facing an $18 million shortfall, is hoping that an event is possible this fall. She expects “some pent-up demand, and having it be the most highly anticipated, most successful gala in our history.”

Other organizations, have instead gone virtual and have moved planned events online, hoping to retain as much support as possible. Some have been quite successful in pulling this off. For instance, Girls on the Run Twin Cities had to replace its annual luncheon with an online event; according to the Star Tribune, the organization’s spokesperson said they had had expected the change to come at a loss, but instead they “drew more people and $10,000 more—the most in five years.”

The virtual event allowed more donors, kids, and coaches to attend and share reactions live, which they could not do at a formal luncheon.

When YWCA Minneapolis did a similar thing, their online event drew $300,000, down 40 percent from the luncheon total. However, “new donors accounted for 70 percent of people who gave to a YWCA emergency fund.”

Offsetting event revenues with direct fundraising raises its own new issues. A recent poll conducted by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that some sectors would benefit more than others from the growing interest in giving to address the crisis:

Americans have been more interested in supporting health charities, they are staying firm in their desire to support social-services groups.…but support for environmental organizations, [cultural organizations], and educational nonprofits has slipped since the COVID-19 crisis started, according to the survey.

Candid’s running count of major giving finds 616 large donors have committed $9.5 billion to coronavirus-specific efforts globally, with $1.8 billion of that committed to grants within the United States. The Minneapolis Foundation has seen a significant increase in giving, as donor-advised funds have stepped forward. But Bill Sternberg, a philanthropic advisor to the Foundation, wondered in comments to the Star Tribune if this was more than just a timing issue: “Are they just moving their contributions from December to April? We do not know the answer to that. The magnitude of need right now is so much greater than what philanthropy can fill.”

What will fundraising look like during this pandemic period? The answers remain uncertain, but we will be following this question with considerable interest.—Martin Levine