The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t stop the bills from coming.
For nonprofits, especially those that rely on fundraisers and events for their revenue, the pandemic caused anxiety and belt-tightening in 2020. As social activity has returned with the availability of vaccinations, nonprofits are trying to emerge from the chaos and forge a new path.
Elizabeth Pulley said her Children’s Advocacy Centers of Arkansas organization survived the dark first year of the pandemic by scraping together a subsistence level of revenue through donations. The CAC provides support and services for victims of child abuse statewide and, unfortunately, the pandemic increased the need for the organization’s work.
Pulley, the CAC executive director, said the organization’s 17 facilities statewide served more than 10,000 children in 2020, the most the CAC has served in a year in its history, an unwelcome record. The CAC did it on nearly bare minimum funding of $100,000, most of which came from contacting supporters directly for donations.
This makes it easy to understand why Pulley was so happy that the CAC’s Arkansas Woman of Inspiration dinner on Oct. 6 was so successful. The banquet, which honored Gene Jones, the wife of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, generated more than $500,000 from its 515 guests.
The Woman of Inspiration event is the CAC’s biggest fundraiser and was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“I was actually shocked at the turnout, in a good way,” Pulley said. “We wanted to raise $500,000, and we were over that. I am very happy about that. Last year, you know, child abuse didn’t stop with the pandemic. Our doors never closed, and we couldn’t have fundraisers.
“We rely heavily on private funding and federal and state grants. A lot of that money has also been cut. This is the year we needed to have a big fundraiser and kind of make up for some of that. I was so thankful we were able to do it this year.”
The Urban Institute reported its research showed that 42% of small nonprofits — those with annual expenses of between $50,000 and $500,000 — received less money in 2020 through donations; 18% of large nonprofits saw decreases.
Among arts nonprofits, 54% reported losing revenue in 2020. The Urban Institute said that nonprofits that received money for services — for example, ticket sales to a stage performance — reported a 30% decrease in such fees in 2020.
Will Trice of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock canceled the theater’s 2020-21 season when the pandemic hit. Trice said the company scaled back to a bare minimum of staff.
“We are a live event organization; when those went away we had to adapt,” Trice said. “We reduced our asks for contributions to match the skeletal operation, knowing that we would be increasing that once we started ramping back up our operations.
“We got our infrastructure down as small as we possibly could to keep the institution going. That was a strategic decision we made so that we wouldn’t be incurring a lot of operational loss.”
The decision so far has panned out; the Rep is almost back to full pre-pandemic staffing and putting on performances again. It reopened this summer and has a fall season scheduled to begin a bit behind schedule in December.
“We have started the engine back up,” Trice said.
The Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville never completely shut down but scaled back its normally robust performance schedule. Its Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers canceled or postponed concerts, but the Walton Arts Center decided to use a bit of creativity.
The center started offering virtual programs, such as its heARTS to Homes podcast that featured local artists and a Mosaix Festival that featured diverse cultural performers. In the early days of the pandemic, the center hosted a blood drive and had local musicians perform for donors.
“We didn’t want to go completely dark,” said Jennifer Wilson, the center’s director of public relations.
Wilson said the center put on 135 performances during the first year of COVID and had attendance of about 29,000, a far cry from its usual 250,000-plus annual attendance for the center and the AMP. The center started a Ghost Light Recovery Fund that received donations from 1,000 patrons, including nearly 200 first-time donors, that helped keep the staff employed and the center operational until the easing of the pandemic allowed performances to resume.
“That was the important thing: Figure out how to stay active and stay involved,” Wilson said. “We spent two or three months tearing it all apart, and we came up with completely new programming that was outside of our business model. It really wasn’t making money, but it was a way for us to stay involved with the community. Then you start rebuilding as soon as everything starts opening back up.”
Resilience & Creativity
None of the creativity surprises Heather Larkin, the CEO of the Arkansas Community Foundation in Little Rock, an organization that solicits donations and then issues grants to other nonprofits in the state.
“The pandemic canceled live events and that is how most nonprofits survive,” Larkin said. “The nonprofit sector is very resilient. They have a lot of creativity. They tried everything.
“It’s remarkable how people pivoted quickly and thought strategically.”
Larkin does worry about delayed effects of the pandemic, as does John Erck, the vice chancellor of institutional advancement at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock. Erck has been a major fundraiser for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville during the past decade, and he said big donations are often the result of years of meetings with prospective donors, something that the pandemic altered.
Erck did say the pandemic has ushered in new best practices in that virtual meetings are now commonplace and can be much more efficient than flying across the country to meet with donors.
“My crazy theory is I think there might be a lag in the effect,” Erck said. “You can continue the conversations that were already going on, but it is hard to start new ones. That’s a process. Fundraising is not just ‘call people and they give you money.’ It takes time to build trust and relationships. That impact will happen later rather than be immediate.”
Larkin said there is still uncertainty with the pandemic and how a surge in infections may affect the best-laid fundraising event planning. It’s like planning an outdoor wedding and then hoping the weather cooperates.
“The hardest thing is knowing what to do,” Larkin said. “It’s hard to plan. Nonprofits are starting to have those events, but they are smaller and simpler.”
The uncertainty is there with the CAC, whose individual facilities operate their own community fundraisers, as well.
“Moving forward with other events, it is really hard to know exactly what we are going to do and how we are going to accommodate,” Pulley said. “Some of our centers have their individual fundraisers, some of them are doing them, and some of them have canceled.
“We are looking at ways to be creative and asking donors, if you normally give and attend events, still give. Don’t stop giving. That’s important for us to continue doing the services we need to do, even during a pandemic. We are still going to serve as many kids as we can because that is what we are supposed to do.”