Covid-19 Cancels Nonprofits’ Fundraising Season
Project Success students from the Marcy Musical performed songs at the 2019 Dreams to Action breakfast at the Metropolitan in Golden Valley. The students are from Marcy Open School in Minneapolis.

Covid-19 Cancels Nonprofits’ Fundraising Season

Minnesota nonprofits are reeling as they call off annual events that build community and raise money.

The Minnesota nonprofit community is facing an existential threat from factors related to the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting shutdowns and social distancing mandates. For health and human service providers, demand for services is soaring. For educators, moving to distance learning formats while schools are closed is a disruptive conversion. For the cultural community, performance and exhibition cancellations mean not only revenue loss, but also unfulfilled missions to gather, engage, and inspire the public.

An extra challenge: Fundraising. When so many people are struggling with layoffs, furloughs, loss of freelance work, or shutting down their own businesses, or watching their investment portfolios tank, it’s not easy to ask them for money.

To add insult to injury, the spring is gala season in Minnesota. As the robins return, so do the invitations for celebrations, gatherings, and events that raise millions of dollars for Minnesota nonprofits. With the “stay at home” and “no gatherings of more than 10 people” dictums that were ordered in March, event cancellations and postponements came pouring in, lighting up social media with distress and worry about organizations’ financial futures.

The gala picture is particularly bleak. Many nonprofits’ core revenue sources are restricted to specific activities, in specific places, with specific measurable outcomes mandated by their funders. Nonprofits often operate on slim margins of unrestricted money—funds that they can deploy for critical capacity-building or use to invest in opportunities. Unrestricted income allows nonprofits to control their destiny and empowers leaders to make the necessary choices as they see them, not as a funder requires.

So it’s particularly disheartening to see a wide cross-section of Minnesota nonprofits canceling their annual or biennial events that bring in unrestricted dollars. TCB collected some examples, and the list easily could be three times as long:

  • Project Success cancelled its annual breakfast, Dreams to Action, that typically raises more than $500,000 in unrestricted income for the organization that serves 16,000 youths primarily in Minneapolis Public Schools.
  • Aeon, which builds and preserves affordable housing, cancelled its Beyond Bricks and Mortar event that brings in more than $500,000 in unrestricted income.
  • The Constellation Fund postponed its first-ever Bright Night benefit organized to raise dollars and awareness of the fund’s progress.
  • The Freshwater Foundation has postponed its Ice Out, Loon In event, which serves as a major element of the year’s income stream, typically bringing in about $60,000.
  • The Autism Society’s annual awareness-building and fundraising campaign takes place in April, which is Autism Awareness Month. Cancellation of many activities will challenge the society’s ability to serve a growing population.
  • In two key events in the arts community, VocalEssence, the prominent choral organization, has postponed its popular gala, pushing any revenue into the next fiscal year, and choral group Cantus cancelled its 25th anniversary concert and gala that had been planned for more than a year.

There is another “event factor” worth considering. Fundraisers are social by nature. They require teams of volunteers, bringing people together to serve a common purpose. They are social not only as occasions, but as activities that help organizations share and amplify their mission and their passion among caring volunteers and event attendees. Galas and events build both financial and social capital. As challenging as a loss of event income may be, there is also the loss of human connection that helps strengthen community commitment to the nonprofit sector and to the causes that are close to lives and hearts.

What to do? Some nonprofits are working to move their events online. Others have postponed their events until fall or later in the year, when they hope the pandemic will have waned. Others are still deciding what to do, since events can be a major effort and human resources already are strained.

Meanwhile, in many cases, event tickets have been sold, sponsorships collected, caterers booked, and event space rented. The ripple effect of cancellation and postponement will be felt across many sectors. Undoing events can be as, or more, complicated, than the planning.

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There are easy ways for supporters to help. Continue to contribute to the charities most important to you as generously as you can. If you’ve already bought an event ticket, instead of taking a refund or waiting until the postponed date, donate the cost to the organization. If you’re an event sponsor, consider ways to let the nonprofit keep your financial support even if the event is cancelled. If you rent space or cater, consider how you can release nonprofits from contracts or help them reschedule and rebuild as the pandemic wanes.

Another thing that could help? Celebrate at home and send a check anyway. Consider making calls and sending emails to let your favorite charities know you are thinking about them. Ask what you can do. And remember, small donations add up.

Minnesota’s nonprofit sector provides 13 percent of all jobs in our state. Supporting nonprofits makes sense—for our economy, for our community, and for the future—as we rebuild together.

Sarah Lutman is a St. Paul-based independent consultant and writer for clients in the cultural, media, and philanthropic sectors.