(The Center Square) – The coronavirus pandemic and its social distancing response has turned the world upside down for Ohio nonprofits and those services they support, even as a return to a “new normal” continues.
The change in philosophy governing operations of Columbus-area homeless shelters is an example, Lisa Courtice, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Ohio, said.
“[Columbus’] emergency shelter system did an amazing job of quickly expanding their footprints adding makeshift shelters so they could have their residents be six feet apart, social distanced,” Courtice said. “That’s a very important, critical system of any community, a homeless shelter, that has always been built on how many people can we get into a small space? So it had to quickly change.”
The ability of the shelter system to adapt while successfully limiting the spread of the COVID-19 virus among the homeless population has been one of the success stories to come out of the pandemic response in Columbus, Courtice said. It also points to a key challenge that nonprofit organizations have faced in both fundraising and operations since the beginning of the virus’ spread in the state – the need for hurried change.
“In the first two months, everything changed real quickly. Just when you thought you had a handle on something, something changed,” Courtice said. “So it was rapid fire for two months, and now I believe we’re in the calm before the storm where things have leveled off and we’re phasing in, so people have a little more time to do more planning, but they have to plan for different scenarios, and that’s just not something that any of us are used to.”
That planning since the beginning of the pandemic, while focused on prioritizing services, also had to factor in furloughed employees that limited some services, conducting virtual operations when possible during the state’s stay-at-home order, meeting technological and personal protective equipment needs for employees who remained on the job and the ongoing challenge of fundraising in a social distancing world.
The extent of the difficulties became clearer over a trio of surveys of nonprofits conducted between March and May by the United Way of Central Ohio in partnership with the Human Service Chamber of Franklin County and Illuminology.
An April survey of 89 organizations revealed the responding nonprofits reporting a total of $8.3 million in estimated revenue losses due to canceled fundraisers, nearly 1 of every 5 nonprofit employee being laid off or furloughed and 80 percent of organizations reporting having suspended or limited certain program offerings. Courtice said they have not surveyed again in those areas to get updated figures as the state continues through its reopening.
The United Way of Central Ohio established a community relief fund shortly after the pandemic hit that Courtice said was well received by corporate donors and that quickly helped meet about $2 million in initial needs among the more than 40 organizations with whom the United Way partners in the Columbus area. Individual organizations, meanwhile, have been adjusting their fundraising approaches, making more of a virtual push for donors online or postponing events that require larger gatherings of people until later this year with a “fingers crossed” approach to hoping conditions will be better then.
Establishment of relief funds to help nonprofits have been critical elsewhere in the state as well. Earlier this month, the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund awarded $928,000 to 18 organizations in Cuyahoga, Lake and Geauga counties, bringing its total awards to more than $6.6 million going to 120 nonprofits since its formation in March. The fund, created by more than 80 corporate, civic and philanthropic partners, individuals and families, has regularly issued grants to aid nonprofits in providing food, shelter, Internet connectivity, clinical and behavioral health, personal protective equipment and other services targeting vulnerable populations since shortly after the pandemic started.
Likewise, the United Way of Greater Cincinnati has seen the need for services on the rise since February. At the end of May, President and CEO Moira Weir announced a 2020 fundraising goal of $50 million, including an ambitious $10 million push by Labor Day weekend.
“Our goal for this summer sprint is ambitious,” she said in the announcement. “It’s double what we typically raise in a summer. But bold action is what’s required right now.”
As nonprofits look for creative funding answers within their own organizations, some local governments are looking at ways to help. Recognizing that the COVID-19 shutdown and social distancing response has cost Columbus nonprofits about $2.2 million in lost bed tax revenue that would normally be directed their way, the city on June 11 announced plans for legislation to use a portion of its $157 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide about $17.2 million to human services organizations doing their part to help Columbus residents survive the pandemic’s effects.
“The demand on nonprofits that help to feed, house and employ Columbus residents has skyrocketed since COVID-19 reached our city,” Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin said in a release. “Over the past few months, they have accomplished the herculean task of meeting our community’s needs despite declining revenue. Council is happy to stand with the mayor [Andrew Ginther] to, as many have said before, ‘help the helpers’.”
While the needs of local nonprofits addressing the basic human needs of food, shelter and adequate living conditions tend to garner the most attention during a crisis situation, those that cater to a community’s quality of life also find themselves in dire straits. The Scioto Society, a nonprofit organization best known for producing the long-running outdoor historical drama “Tecumseh!” in Chillicothe, about 45 minutes south of the state capital, exemplifies the struggles those nonprofits that depend on event attendance face.
“Part of the reality of getting a show like this back on its feet after the near death blow we received a couple months ago is that we will have to raise money,” said Brandon Smith, CEO of The Scioto Society, in a fundraising plea to the community. “As a 501c3 organization, we do that every year. But this year, we will be more visible both in person and online in our asks.”
“Tecumseh!”, which has been performed from June through August since its inaugural year in 1973 and is a tourist draw for Chillicothe, has been canceled this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, impacting not only the hospitality economy of the Ross County community but also the hundreds of on-stage and behind-the-scenes personnel involved in the production. In addition to the organization’s presence in south central Ohio communities, The Scioto Society also sets aside about $10,000 in tickets annually to be distributed to nonprofit causes within a 250-mile radius.
Smith estimates the organization will need to raise about $100,000 by Christmas. With the ability to conduct more traditional fundraisers limited by social distancing needs, The Scioto Society has utilized the talents of Jarrod DePugh of Metropolis Design Studios in Chillicothe to create a limited edition set of “Tecumseh!” commemorative posters. Only 100 are being created and, while available, they will go to those who donate $250 or more to the society’s efforts. Those donors will also be invited as special guests to attend the production’s return for the 2021 summer season next June.
With so many nonprofit organizations trying to figure out the best way to address funding challenges amid the uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic, several resources have appeared online to help.
The National Council of Nonprofits, for example, offers both suggestions on how to help employees manage some of the stresses brought about by social distancing needs and a plethora of links to resources for nonprofit funding. Forbes magazine’s online site features several successful examples of organizations using virtual fundraising methods and events, and The Network for Good’s website contains such information as recession-proofing a nonprofit, fundraising tips in the pandemic world, strategies for recession fundraising and engaging supporters during a crisis. The Association of Fundraising Professionals, meanwhile, is offering an online coronavirus resource guide containing tips and links designed to be helpful in crisis fundraising, and Philanthropy Ohio has posted dozens of links to resources and information of interest for nonprofits.
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office suggests nonprofits consider alternative fundraising approaches such as restructuring events to make them plausible in the virtual world, explore legal options regarding endowments and reserve funds and make sure that financial controls are maintained to avoid problems later on.
Those individuals looking to donate to nonprofits in need can often find a donation button on the website of their organization of choice or can reach out directly to that organization to learn the best way to contribute.