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United Way Kickoff

With fundraisers canceled due to COVID, local nonprofits forced to get creative

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With COVID-19 still a threat after seven months, United Way of East Central Alabama had planned to host a virtual lunch in October, building social distancing directly into its plan. 

Like other nonprofits in the pandemic, the agency has had to find ways to engage with the community and raise money, attempting to fill gaps created in the budget when fundraisers were canceled due to viral concerns.

Community need for help with housing, rent, food, medicine and utilities has gone up, but charities have found their resources drying out, too, with their usual donors facing financial straits and clamping the donation pipeline in response. 

Philanthropy.com in July said that about 22,000 nonprofits would likely close during the economic downturn, and in August the Washington Post reported that as many as a third of nonprofits nationwide might not make it through the pandemic, according to executives in the not-for-profit field. Such a ratio would be noticeable even in Calhoun County — Guidestar, a charity-vetting service, lists 254 nonprofits in Anniston alone. 

But the need is still there, even when the money isn’t. Shannon Jenkins, president and CEO of the local United Way chapter, said last week that the virus has forced nonprofits to find answers through digital platforms — the virtual lunch, for instance, was set to be streamed to viewers via Facebook Live, while representatives from local companies and nonprofits visited the United Way office in person.

“Traditionally, the United Way goes into companies and we are able to get in front of employees and speak to them,” Jenkins said in a phone call. “That has definitely changed this year. We’ve been doing more Zoom meetings, we have created landing pages on our website specifically for companies … We’re using every avenue that is available to spread the word and continue the campaign.”

But even well-planned, socially distant events are still subject to surprises from the coronavirus. About a half hour before the event’s noon start time on Oct. 20, Jenkins posted a video to the agency’s Facebook page explaining that the virtual lunch was postponed.

“We found out this morning that one of our staff may have a possible exposure to COVID 19 and they are actually I think being tested this morning,” Jenkins said in the video. “We had company representatives coming in, we had partner agencies coming in, and we can't risk them coming into the building until we know what is going on with our staff.” 

The setback, however ironic, won’t hold the organization back; Jenkins said that week that the event had been moved to Nov. 17. 

The week before the lunch was scheduled Jenkins noted, almost prophetically, that “if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it has taught us to be flexible.” 

Keeping calm, carrying on

United Way is in a solid position to weather the storm, Jenkins explained. Grants from the state and the federal Payroll Protection Program helped shore up losses early in the pandemic, when the agency had to cancel its donor appreciation cookout, the annual Day of Action, even the food packaging event at the Oxford Civic Center, and the campaign kickoff event.

“We have definitely had to reimagine some things,” Jenkins said. 

The experience has been common among local nonprofits. The League for Animal Welfare had to cancel its Tailwaggers Gala, an annual event and the shelter’s biggest fundraiser of the year, but they replaced it with an outdoor trunk-or-treat to try to make up the difference. Habitat for Humanity lost a big annual fundraiser, Lobsterfest, and so created a wreath sale that will run through mid-November

The Arc of Calhoun and Cleburne Counties, which works with children and adults with learning disabilities, missed out on three of its fundraisers, including an annual Tootsie Roll drive, motorcycle ride and lip-sync battle, said director Tim Cooper. The agency still managed to make up some of the difference with a “donor derby.” 

“We contacted a lot of donors who contributed during the fundraisers, in an online challenge to see which program got to their goal first,” Cooper said. Five Arc teams were tasked to raise $3,000 in the contest, with the team and program that reached the goal first winning the derby. The job readiness program made the goal first, with challenge raising a total of $7,000. 

Classes reopened in September, like art and gardening courses, which had been canceled in the early days of the pandemic. Job readiness, which is mostly provided through schools, had been held off, too, but Arc instructors created videos for their clients to watch from home. 

Cooper said the Arc will try to hold its annual banquet this year, while working on grant programs. The goal is to avoid service disruptions for the clients, Cooper said. Without the banquet, he said, “we’ll keep improvising like we did this past year.” 

Helping smart

The instinct to open wallets and purses to help nonprofits isn’t a bad one, but it can be taken advantage of by bad-faith actors, said Jennifer Maddox, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Northeast Alabama, which helps local nonprofits by establishing funds with donor money that can build interest and sustain those nonprofits, through grant writing assistance and other services. 

“Crises bring out the unscrupulous,” Maddox said. “There are some that present themselves as needy organizations, when in fact there are lots of problems.” 

“Give to organizations locally that you know,” Maddox added. 

There are simple ways to vet charity organizations. Online services like guidestar.org offer free summaries of nonprofits. The Community Foundation, for instance, has a platinum rating based on its assets, accreditations with national standards organizations and how donor money is used. GuideStar also makes use of tax forms that nonprofits are required by the state and federal government to file; if a group doesn’t appear on the website, it’s worth reconsidering a donation. Nonprofits worth donating to are transparent about their resources and how those resources are used, Maddox explained. 

“See if they’re transparent on their website,” Maddox said. “Do they have financial statements to look at?”

It’s also important to see whether an organization has an operating reserve — money for when something goes wrong, like a viral outbreak — or an endowment, which earns money in interest over time, Maddox explained.

One of the best ways to research a nonprofit group is to get involved, she said. 

“Volunteer for something small or attend an event,” Maddox said.