COVID Surges Killing More In-Person Fundraisers

Late summer and early fall were supposed to be times of reopening, and fundraisers started to plan in-person events. But the Delta variant of the coronavirus proved even more contagious than previous strains, and those live events are starting to be shuttered.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., executives at Erlanger Health System canceled the “Believe Bash” fundraiser. The event, which had been scheduled for Aug. 7, had previously been pushed back from April 17 due to the pandemic.

“We take the health and safety of our associates, community and supporters very seriously, and determined that we could not safely hold this event at this time,” Erlanger President and CEO William Jackson wrote on the event’s website. “We appreciate the continued philanthropic support from our community and their understanding as we navigate these challenging times.”

So many small nonprofits were counting on a return to normal soon but the delta variant had other plans, said Washington, D.C.-based National Council of Nonprofits Chief Communications Officer/Chief Operating Officer Rick Cohen. “As a number of these organization are forced to cancel upcoming events or shift them to online or hybrid events, it’s likely to have a significant negative effect on their fundraising as we saw for many events last year,” he said. “Making matters worse, the Paycheck Protection Program is now closed, and so that lifeline so many nonprofits relied upon last year is no longer available.”

That lifeline is getting shorter every day. The leaders at the Southwest Georgia Council on Aging (SCOA), Albany, Ga., cancelled its $50-per-ticket 15th annual comedy night, which had been scheduled for Aug. 26. “Locally, Covid cases are on the rise with increased hospitalizations, and our desire not to put the aging population we serve at risk is at the heart of this decision,” SCOA Executive Director Izzie Sadler said via a statement.

The second year in a row, the annual Awards and Fund-Raising Dinner for the Kailua-Kona, Hawaii-based Daniel R. Sayre Memorial Foundation was cancelled. The event to honor Hawaii Fire Department Meritorious Service Award recipients had been scheduled for Sept. 4. Additionally, the foundation is shifting the logistics of an accompanying auction. “Because of the inherent exposure issues in picking up silent auction items and delivering these items, only items available through online purchase and delivery will be available in lieu of our normal enormous silent auction,” according to a statement posted to the organization’s website.

Some organizations that had pre-sold tickets are doing what they can to retain donated funds. In Alabama, leaders at the Montgomery Zoo cancelled a Sept. 16 fundraiser. “The Montgomery Zoo and Montgomery Area Zoological Society (MAZS), with careful consideration for the safety, health, and well-being of the public, invited guests, participating vendors, and zoo staff, made the decision to cancel this year’s Zoobilation due to the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in the region,” officials posted in a release on the zoo’s website.

Those who had bought $50-per-person tickets were invited to make their ticket purchase a donation to the zoo, or were offered a number to call for refunds. The zoo and MAZS will still hold a planned online auction that would have accompanied the event.

The organizations that had events with a preplanned online or distance component were at least somewhat fortunate. “It’s not easy at all to shift,” Cohen said. “You have to have the technology to shift available. You have to have the expertise on staff to do it very different way. We saw it last year that even for nonprofits that were able to pull off these events, while some were able to successfully pull off these events, the people attending didn’t have to find childcare to go to these events, they removed some barriers, but it was at the expense of the engagement you get at being able to be there in person.”

A few organizations aren’t making the shift at all. At Peace House, a Park City, Utah-based women’s shelter, organizers cancelled the annual Bling Fling for the second year in a row – and for good. The event, which allowed donors to contribute rings, purses, scarves and other unworn apparel to a fundraising sale, required volunteers to work in close quarters, Executive Director Kendra Wyckoff told KPCW.org. The organization is evaluating event options in light of the pandemic-influenced new normal.