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Charity Challenge: Nonprofits Forced to Adjust to COVID-19Lock Icon

6 min read

Easterseals Arkansas had auction items and flowers arrayed at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock on March 12, all set for its annual Fashion Event that evening.

But an invisible threat was rising.

Schools and businesses had started closing that Thursday, setting off early bells in the coronavirus alarm that soon overwhelmed the state and country.

“We made a really tough decision to go ahead and cancel, which in hindsight was good,” said Easterseals Arkansas spokeswoman Jillian Jacuzzi, speaking from personal experience.

Her mother-in-law, Patti Jacuzzi, 72, had volunteered to check in Easterseals models at the gathering, which supports a mission of serving Arkansans with disabilities and special needs. What nobody knew then was that Patti Jacuzzi already had COVID-19; she died less than a month later from its complications.

As the global pandemic upended the economy and people’s lives, it posed financial and operational challenges for nonprofits, said Rick Cohen, spokesman and chief operating officer of the National Council of Nonprofits of Washington.

“Some are seeing individual contributions that have gone down,” Cohen said. “And some are seeing skyrocketing demand for their services, such as food banks, mental health related organizations.”

Meanwhile, many nonprofits had little cash to insulate them. “So … only having a couple of months of cash on hand and this having gone on for more than six months, it’s really a very tough situation for a lot of organizations,” he said.

The uncertainty of the pandemic also makes it difficult to plan for 2021.

Arkansas Children’s Foundation, which supports Arkansas Children’s, was having “a very healthy, robust year in terms of philanthropy” through the end of February, President Fred Scarborough said. “Then March hit.”

Since then, the foundation has seen a 40% drop in the number of donors, and some of those donors might have made two or three gifts during the year.

Arkansas Children’s Foundation canceled 50 events. For its fiscal year that ended June 30, donations to the foundation would have been down $10 million from the previous year had it not been for the arrival of $7.5 million in planned gifts that had been in the works for years, Scarborough said.

“We can talk about money all day long,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, it’s the impact of fundraising that makes a difference at a children’s hospital.”

Nonprofits have converted major fundraising events to online formats or found new ways to raise money.

After canceling the Fashion Event in March, Easterseals held it online on June 25. The virtual event netted just under $100,000, breaking its fundraising goal, said Jillian Jacuzzi.

The Junior League of Little Rock plans to resume its annual Holiday House event, which normally attracts more than 160 merchants and 15,000 shoppers, in November 2021. This year instead, JLLR added other events such as a You’ve Been Boo’ed gift basket fundraiser. Its Christmas program, Sleigh Bell Soiree: A Cyber Celebration, will include a “virtual pop-up shopping event,” JLLR President Casey Rockwell said via email.

Arts Organizations

Among the hardest-hit nonprofits are arts organizations. Earlier this year, the financial books at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre looked promising, said Will Trice, who took on the job of executive artistic director in August 2019. The Little Rock theater organization was turning things around after having to suspend operations in April 2018.

When the pandemic arrived in March, the Rep decided “that we were not in a place where we could take on a lot of financial risk,” Trice said. “It was just too risky to think that we might be able to do that.”

It canceled two productions and its major annual gala, which was budgeted to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, ahead of it when the coronavirus surfaced. It also canceled its summer programs and its entire 2020-21 season, which was expected to run into June 2021. Other theaters have since come to the same realization and canceled their performances, he said.

Trice said the majority of the staff of about 30 was laid off. The payroll now has only three full-time employees and four part-time workers.

He said the Rep is using this time to develop a strategic plan and an operating model that is sustainable.

“When we do resume programming again, that’s when we’re really going to need the support of our donors in the community to enable us to ramp back up again,” Trice said.

He said he didn’t know what those costs would be. “It’s almost like just starting a new company from scratch,” he said.

Some arts organizations are doing better, though.

The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra saw a 2.95% increase in donations to its annual fund for the fiscal year that ended June 30, said CEO Christina Littlejohn. “This is due to an increase in giving from past and present board members and many current and new community members making gifts under $1,000,” she said via email.

After the virus hit, ASO’s musicians started a nightly “Bedtime With Bach” series on its Facebook and Instagram pages that reached more than 200,000 people and helped raise awareness of the organization.

Littlejohn said ASO saw an increase of gifts in the $50-$100 range, which she said might have been a share of federal stimulus checks donors received.

ASO postponed until 2021 the concerts that had been scheduled from September through November. Its Christmas program is still on the calendar, but that might have to be rescheduled, Littlejohn said.

Going Virtual

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ annual Gala for Life, a fundraiser for its Rockefeller Cancer Institute, was scheduled for October. But the black-tie event was reimagined as UAMS’s first-ever televised event to raise money and awareness for cancer in Arkansas and broadcast last Wednesday on KATV, Channel 7. During the day, viewers were encouraged to donate online or by text or phone.

“Cancer doesn’t stop for the pandemic,” said Angela Wimmer, the vice chancellor for Institutional Advancement at UAMS.

Wimmer said that within hours after the virus hit Arkansas, UAMS’ fundraising team quickly shifted its fundraising efforts. “We really haven’t slowed down at all,” she said. “We moved to having virtual visits, Zoom visits with a lot of our donors.”

Institutional Advancement also started a Lunch With Leaders series online that replaced in-person events that were normally held throughout the state. “We’ve had such a great response from people,” she said. “They love being able to tune in on their lunch hour and hear updates and see what’s going on.”

She said that and other virtual events will continue after the pandemic.

For Arkansas Children’s, switching from in-person to virtual events was a financial trade-off. Money saved on expenses tied to in-person events is spent on technology and online pledge collections.

Arkansas Children’s also found that online events bring in fewer donors.

Arkansas Children’s Foundation canceled its in-person Color of Hope Gala this year in northwest Arkansas. Instead, it held a two-week online matching fund drive that ended Aug. 13. The Color of Hope event would normally raise $2 million in an evening, Scarborough said, while the replacement fundraising drive raised $750,000.

The foundation’s strategy, he said, “is for us to maintain momentum and convert as much as we can to … support Arkansas Children’s. Knowing that we won’t capture all of the fundraising, but for us, it’s as much about the relationship.”

Planning for 2021

UAMS’ Wimmer said planning for the current fiscal year, which started July 1 was difficult. Institutional Advancement set a goal for $30 million after surpassing its goal of $25 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30 “by quite a bit,” she said. The money raised supports academics, patient care and research.

“It’s going to be a tough year for everybody,” Wimmer said. “There’s still just so much unexpected that could happen. It’s hard to plan in times like these.”

Arkansas Children’s Foundation is working on three scenarios for 2021. One optimistic plan is that Arkansas returns to a pre-COVID world, Scarborough said.

It’s also “running what I call the realistic scenario, where we’re impacted by COVID but able to make some adjustments and continue moving forward,” he said.

There also is a pessimistic plan if COVID remains challenging into next year.

“And if that sounds like that might be cumbersome, you’re absolutely correct,” Scarborough said. “It is more difficult to manage three scenarios than it is one.”

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