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Amid pandemic, donors step up to allay potential shortfalls

For the Virginia Capital Trail Foundation, 2020 began with the wind at its back.

Coming off a strong year of revenues the year before, fundraising in the first two months of the new year was beating expectations – individual giving was high and registrations to the Cap2Cap Bike Ride, its large perennial fundraiser that accounted for a big chunk of its annual budget, were ahead of schedule.

Then came COVID-19. And the fundraising gears began to slow. Really slow.

“Even when we had the stay-at-home orders in March, I didn’t believe that we would not have Cap2Cap,” recalled Cat Anthony, the foundation’s executive director. 

At first, the organization pushed the May event into the summer before finally abandoning hope of holding it in its traditional form. The ride eventually took place virtually over a two-week period. Bolstered with a little creativity, the foundation team worked to recreate the usual one-day ride, staffing the trail with pop-up rest stops and water stations and chronicling the event on its social media platforms. Many riders participated while others either donated their registration fee or transferred it to the 2021 ride. 

Even so, revenues for the fundraiser were down. Then came news that a local government grant would not be forthcoming due to budget cuts. 

That’s when Anthony’s fundraising instincts kicked in. She organized a one-day Giving Tuesday, not waiting for the traditional Thanksgiving timeframe, but in May, as the need was immediate. 

“I wrote a transparent letter to trail users, letting them know that we had lost a certain percentage of our revenue due to not having Cap2Cap,” she remembered. “In one day, we raised around $20,000 to help offset the losses. It was amazing how many supporters donated!” 

That effort, together with government funding from the CARES Act, helped sustain the organization through the early days of the pandemic.

Anthony’s strategy was textbook fundraising, says Alan Hutson, managing partner of The Monument Group, a Richmond-based consulting firm that advises nonprofit organizations on fundraising and development. Maintaining a level of transparency with donors and simply keeping lines of communication open with them are critical, especially during periods of uncertainty.

Hutson recommends what he calls “donor wellness check-ins,” even when you are not asking for a gift.

“The primary purpose is to say that this has been a weird year and see how things are going,” Hutson said. “It’s a very human thing to do.” 

For Myra Goodman Smith, president and CEO of Leadership Metro Richmond, staying in touch with her constituencies – largely the thousands of individual graduates of its annual leadership development program called Leadership Quest – that kind of ongoing communication is par for the course. 

“I grew up in a world of touch points,” she said. “One-way touching and two-way touching, not just to donors but to corporations and foundations.” 

She credits LMR’s biweekly newsletter as an effective means for keeping in touch, and this year especially, LMR’s mission and focus on diversity, inclusion and equity carried a particular relevance to the organization’s audiences. So, while LMR did not make a specific COVID-related appeal to its donors – even after canceling some of its events – Smith believes that its regular communications were effective in reminding its core supporters of the importance of its work. 

“We don’t even use the word fundraising anymore,” Smith said. “It’s building relationships with individuals, corporations and foundations for investment. Nothing flowery. Just being clear: this is the situation: This is what it is.”

Smith anticipates that individual giving will be up year-over-year. “I’m sitting here with 40 donor thank you letters to write.”

The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy also expects to meet budget this year, although the source of revenues was different than in previous years.

To start, two sizeable chunks of funding fell short of original forecasts, due to the pandemic. Its annual fall event to celebrate its work was canceled, creating a $30,000 hole. And congregational giving – the regular donations that come from houses of worship – was down by about half. In a typical year, gifts totaled between $50,000 and $70,000. Executive Director Kim Bobo says they will be lucky to get $30,000 this year.

An infusion of PPP funds from the government sustained the organization through the challenging weeks of the spring, while foundations – whose support remained about flat for the year – made it easier on VIC by simply renewing its grant or making the application process especially simple. 

By all accounts, those government grants last spring were a lifeline for many nonprofits.  Hutson of The Monument Group said that all but one of their clients accepted PPP monies during that period of real uncertainty last spring.

As with LMR’s Smith, Bobo also found that her organization’s mission took on particular resonance with many donors this year, particularly in the wake of the social justice conversations that occurred around the death of George Floyd.

“George Floyd brought renewed attention to the issues and showed a lot of white people how deep the racial inequities are in our society,” Bobo said. “These problems don’t call for individual solutions but have to be addressed through public policies in a more significant way. We’re here for people who want to get involved in a faith-based manner.”

While fundraising has been steady, Bobo notes that the pandemic also allowed for some budget cutting, particularly with travel. Its calendar of appointments around Virginia shifted to virtual events, a situation that was not without some irony – the organization had received a donation of two cars in February, just prior to the lockdown. 

Moving events to virtual was a recurring option throughout 2020.  Greater Richmond SCAN’s annual progressive dinner became progressive in another way, taking place virtually, with scores of dinners being hosted remotely. The event raised $143,000, about 70 percent of SCAN’s original goal. 

Some events continued but were modified to lower risks associated with the virus. The annual golf tournament to support the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls was moved from June to August, but even with the delay, it became clear some adjustments would still be needed. The tourney was eventually held without its traditional BBQ lunch and live auction in deference to social distancing. 

Sometimes even the best laid adjustments don’t work out. When the organization tried moving its annual fundraiser scheduled for the Science Museum to an outside venue – billed as Family Night in the Outfield at the Diamond – it rained. And then it rained on the makeup date as well. (It is 2020 after all.)

To bridge the gap, VHBG turned the volume up on its social media platforms. Rather than designate Giving Tuesday as a single day for soliciting donations, the nonprofit made it an entire week of giving and included an online auction and Facebook Live post, and donors responded in kind. It also is continuing its direct mail efforts, and to help with in-kind donations related to COVID, it posted a wish list on Amazon. The response to all of its efforts has been encouraging, so much so that VHBG expects to meet its fundraising goals for the year.

Some nonprofits even exceeded its goals this year.

At a time when many museums in the country are struggling, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts posted a 40% increase in its giving in 2020, a stark contrast to the 12% of museum directors who recently said that there was a “significant risk” of their museum closing permanently over the year to come.

Despite an encouraging year, Hutson warns that nonprofits are not necessarily out of the woods. 

“Looking back on the year, I’d say that many nonprofits are feeling a lot of gratitude of where they are right now,” Hutson says. “But the smart ones realize that the ascent out of something cataclysmic – like a 9-11 or COVID – is sometimes as dangerous as the descent in.”

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