Charities cancel events over coronavirus, fear fundraising crash

By: - March 14, 2020 5:05 am

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“Three months ago, no one would have ever dreamed we’d be in this situation,” said Luke Zelley, president and CEO of Flint-based nonprofit advocacy group The Disability Network (TDN).

And he’s right.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Friday she’s prohibiting all events and assemblies of more than 250 people until April 6 to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a new coronavirus. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the coronavirus outbreak, March 11, 2020 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

Even before the announcement, Michigan nonprofits had been rushing to cancel or significantly alter major fundraising events due to recommendations from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention advising people to avoid large gatherings that draw more than 100 people.

Whitmer also called for the closure of all K-12 school buildings — public, private and boarding — to students until April 5. Several universities have moved to online classes and Michigan’s State Capitol building is closed to events and tours.

This comes after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in Michigan on Tuesday. There are 25 presumptive positive cases in Michigan, as of early Saturday morning. 

The CDC says seniors have the greatest risk of contracting the disease, which presents a problem to TDN’s workforce: The nonprofit employs seniors and people who are disabled. Zelley added that TDN also looks after seniors and those who are disabled, as well.

“Now that social distancing is being encouraged, seniors and those who are disabled may be experiencing fear, anxiety and depression, and it is important to check in on the high-risk population,” said Zelley.

The Disability Network in Flint | Joel Feick photo

Zelley said he has been planning to hold an event in mid-August called “Over the Edge,” in which a person rappels over the edge of a building. The event would ideally be held during downtown Flint’s Back to the Bricks celebration for classic car lovers that brings thousands of people to the area. Zelley hoped to raise more than $100,000 for TDN.

There’s a huge problem, however. He may have to significantly alter the event due to COVID-19, adding that he doesn’t know what the world will look like then because of the pandemic.

“I may not be able to hold the event during Back to the Bricks, but I know there are things I can do, like look into peer-to-peer fundraising or online fundraising,” said Zelley.

Zelley also planned to hold a launch party to announce TDN’s big fundraiser at the Flint Farmers’ Market on Thursday, March 26, but that’s been canceled due to CDC recommendations. He told the Advance Friday he was closing TDN’s office for the next three weeks in order to protect his staff.

Nonprofits feel the squeeze

The Disability Network isn’t alone in scrambling to regroup amid coronavirus.

The Disability Network holding a meeting before the COVID-19 outbreak | Joel Feick photo

Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO Lansing-based Michigan Nonprofit Association (NMA), said several groups have contacted her about concerns they have related to COVID-19. The MNA is committed to providing more than 900 nonprofits it represents across the state with the resources they need, she said, such as pointers on how to cancel large events and keep raising funds.

Murray-Brown said direct outreach techniques like mailing letters, phone calls and virtual fundraising are just a few avenues that nonprofits should consider using instead of holding large events.

“It’s important to follow the CDC’s protocol to keep everyone healthy,” said Murray-Brown.

Nonprofits could be squeezed by people having fewer resources to donate, amid layoffs from work and growing fears of a recession. And many have had to shutter large-scale galas and dinners — popular ways to raise big sums from large donors — which are significant parts of their annual fundraising plans.

According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, foundations and other organizations have started setting up “rapid response” funds to help nonprofits deal with the fallout from coronavirus.

Experts also urge nonprofits to prepare their finances for the possibility that the economy would face a long-term setback from the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, a coalition of 30 national nonprofits and charity advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to include nonprofits in any stimulus package enacted in response to the coronavirus outbreak. 

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Losing $60,000 in a night

For the Fraser-based nonprofit CARE of Southeastern Michigan, the COVID-19 outbreak means shutting down a major spring fundraising event. The organization offers comprehensive behavioral health services aimed at reducing stigma and promoting recovery from substance abuse.

“CARE for Taste” was scheduled to take place at the GM Heritage Center in Sterling Heights on April 21. President and CEO Monique Stanton said her organization could lose up to $60,000 as a result.

A statewide coronavirus hotline will be open 7 days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 1-888-535-6136. Information can be found on the DHHS website or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website.

The venue canceled, as it wasn’t permitting events of more than 30 people due to COVID-19, Stanton said, even before COVID-19 cases were discovered in Michigan. 

“Canceling the fundraiser is going to have a major financial impact on CARE’s unrestricted revenue,” she said.

Stanton said she’s now checking with sponsors and asking if they’re willing to contribute an equal amount to what they paid for their event ticket to offset that loss.

That unrestricted revenue is money that helps CARE’s entire organization and isn’t spent on one specific program. Stanton added that she expects the COVID-19 pandemic also will impact donations, overall.

“As time goes on, some people may not be able to go to work and that’s also going to have an impact on how they spend money,” said Stanton.

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Then there’s the issue of how COVID-19 may impact how CARE provides services. The nonprofit offers community-based programs like parenting classes, substance use prevention, counseling, community corrections and critical incident stress management.

All scheduled CARE classes and groups are postponed until April 5. Stanton said the nonprofit must now come up with new and creative ways to provide support to those who need it. She said CARE’s programming is a priority and it will shift to conference calls for groups of two or more, while maintaining one-on-one meetings, given the CDC’s recommendations.

“We want to be proactive, adaptive and mindful when it comes to working with the public, so we all stay healthy,” she said. 

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.