When Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids canceled LaughFest a few days into the festival in March 2020, it marked one of the first major events in West Michigan that was sidelined because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, West Michigan nonprofit leaders have been forced to navigate a difficult balance of finding ways to still engage donors and deliver services while not putting its staff, volunteers, donors or clients at risk. That ranged from full-scaled cancelations to new or virtual formats to maintain their donor base.
“Typically what I’ve seen is that (nonprofits) aren’t canceling events as much as they were in 2020,” said Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. “They are turning to virtual events at the risk of not staying connected to donors and the communities they serve.”
This year has brought a wide range of approaches to in-person nonprofit events and fundraisers, Murray-Brown said. Some are choosing to hold small or in-person events with mask requirements and additional safety measures, while others continue to hold virtual events or a hybrid with in-person and online elements, she said.
“There has been a range of ways events are happening that are as diverse as the nonprofits themselves, and I think that is what the future will look like,” Murray-Brown said. “When nonprofits dig deep and think about who they are serving and how needs can be met for their community, you’ll see myriad ways people are making connections that are effective.”
According to an April survey of 496 charitable organizations in 129 countries by Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) America, 61.6 percent of respondents said online programming is a new strategy that would be maintained beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. About 54 percent indicated that new fundraising strategies and campaigns would continue beyond the pandemic.
Fundraising and donor relationship management, communications with stakeholders and technology were also the top three “areas of organizational management” that nonprofits wanted to strengthen, according to the survey.
Not the same as virtual
Christy Buck, executive director of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, didn’t know what Zoom was before March 16, 2020. Once the state issued a stay-home order, her team worked to make all of their training available virtually, which is now allowing the nonprofit to offer its services to out-of-state clients.
About one-third of the foundation’s revenue comes from its service fees for groups that use its mental health training. Opening that up to groups outside of West Michigan has been extremely helpful for the nonprofit, Buck said.
“From day one we created online trainings and portals,” Buck said. “That’s what we did to survive and get our programming out there so it could still be used by the businesses, schools and faith communities we serve.”
The foundation scaled back its awareness walks and its annual fundraising event was held virtually last year, but the plan is currently to hold the fundraiser in-person on Oct. 21 at the Goei Center. The event will follow state guidelines on holding in-person events, but the organization felt it was important to resume the event in-person, Buck said.
“There is nothing like an event in person, and that’s typically how you cultivate your donors and the people who will become engaged and consistent participants in everything we do,” Buck said. “That’s how you get to people’s heartstrings — it’s just not the same as a virtual event.”
Not the ‘safest thing’
Conversely, Grand Rapids-based Emmanuel Hospice about five weeks ago decided to hold its annual celebration virtually this year on Sept. 22-Oct. 1. The event was originally planned to be held in-person with an additional virtual element to make it more accessible to people who are immunocompromised or otherwise unable to attend in person, said Heather Duffy, Emmanuel Hospice’s director of fund development.
The organization decided to shift it to exclusively virtual after assessing the latest COVID-19 guidelines, especially for immunocompromised individuals who make up a large number of the people that Emmanuel serves, Duffy said. It’s the second time the pandemic has pushed the event to a virtual format.
“What we decided was that it wasn’t the safest thing to do an in-person event,” Duffy said.
While it is disappointing to not have an in-person element this year, the virtual luncheon last year was successful and raised $55,000, Duffy said.
“It was hard to give up the in-person element and it was not without disappointment,” Duffy said. “We were excited to get back to that, but we also learned a lot of lessons from the virtual experience.”
Meanwhile, Emmanuel Hospice’s efforts to move its programs online will continue to pay off moving forward, Duffy said.
“I do think it’s important to remain as accessible as possible, and there are so many of our patients who have loved ones in other states and countries, and those folks have access to faith and bereavement counseling just like folks in town would,” Duffy said. “We want to invite them to celebrate with us as well and create new programs and create a bigger toolkit for our patients.”
Gilda’s Club, which works to provide grief services and cancer support to patients and families, has only recently resumed some in-person programming in the summer of 2021 with added precautions to protect the largely immunocompromised community it serves, said Shawn Campbell, Gilda’s Club’s vice president of fund development and engagement.
“We were able to pivot quickly to move our programs and services to a virtual platform,” Campbell said. “Providing that virtually has been successful. Especially to those on a cancer journey who are not feeling physically well to go somewhere, virtual has been great. There still are some people who want their programs in-person.”
Campbell said canceling the 2020 LaughFast a few days into the event when the state’s stay-home order was issued was difficult for fundraising. Gilda’s Club also had its 20th anniversary in February, which in typical circumstances would have been a large fundraising event and time to connect with volunteers and those getting services through the organization.
“We would have liked to have an in-person gala, but we know it’s not safe to do that yet. But we feel strongly that the event should not be held virtually,” Campbell said.
While Gilda’s is postponing its 20th anniversary gala, the nonprofit did hold its 2021 LaughFest event virtually this year. Educational keynotes on Gilda’s programs were delivered during the virtual event along with stand-up comedy sets.
The community has stepped up to support Gilda’s throughout the pandemic, but the need for services is outpacing the support, Campbell said.
Many people also have been delaying cancer treatments and routine screenings because of the pandemic, which Campbell worries could have negative repercussions soon. There has been an uptick in cancer-related programming as well as an increase in people seeking grief counseling.
“The need for our services are at an all-time high,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to keep pace, but there are a lot of emotional health needs coming out of the pandemic. We’re trying to meet those needs.”
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