More need, less money for Alaskan nonprofits

People participate in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life annual fundraiser last year.
People participate in the American Cancer Society Relay for Life annual fundraiser last year.(KTUU)
Published: May. 8, 2020 at 10:23 PM AKDT
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The crowd gathering restrictions put in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic have one unexpected casualty: nonprofits. The spring season is a time of growth, and in Alaska, nonprofit organizations use this time to grow support for their missions and funds for their cause.

But due to crowd gathering restrictions, these organizations are unable to throw the large 300-plus person galas, races and auctions they usually do. Dani Lisle, community development manager at Alaska American Cancer Society, says this means they’re facing a significant loss in revenue.

“We rely 100% on the support of our community to fund those services, and of that support, predominantly it comes through the mode of our events, and a heavy portion of those do occur in the spring,” Lisle said.

The Alaska American Cancer Society has had to postpone or consider virtualizing seven different events from the Anchorage Wine and Food Festival to Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. Now, they’re facing an annual revenue loss of 60%, making it harder to serve cancer patients in the state.

The Alaska American Cancer Society is moving the dates of their events to the fall, and the hope is they will be able to recoup some of the funds that support their programs. Other non-profits have made the move to cancel their galas outright. Catholic Social Services has been hosting its Annual Charity Ball for 29 years. This year would have been their 30th anniversary. Instead, the nonprofit is going to take a hit to its budget, and the money they were planning to use for the gala has been redirected to fund its COVID-19 response.

“We’ve been given some lemons and now we have to make lemonade,” Tricia Teasley, development and community relations director for CSS, said. “How does it affect our programs well, I just want to say and acknowledge everyone has been affected by this health crisis.”

As more people are affected by the pandemic, they’ve been turning to CSS to provide for more of their needs. Because of the economic impacts of COVID-19, Teasley says CSS has seen a 30% increase in new clients seeking food.

“Across the board, in what we do it’s changing but also we’re seeing increases because people are unemployed,” Teasley said. “People are needing now who have never had the need to seek out a food pantry or food. They need food during these hard times.”

Like other organizations, CSS has had to change the way they operate during the pandemic from increasing distance between people at its shelters to cleaning more frequently. Now they have to do that without the $300,000 the Charity Ball usually supplies.

Virtualizing events has become a common alternative for athletic events that would have otherwise taken place this summer. The Alaska Run for Women, a race that raises funds to fight breast cancer, announced the 2020 race would be online when in previous years the event has attracted thousands.

The lack of in-person events is a hard challenge to overcome, but the American Lung Association in Alaska was planning to do both a virtual Clean Air Challenge and a now postponed in-person version of the event before the pandemic happened. The Executive Director of the American Lung Association, Marge Stoneking, said nonprofits are facing a new challenge to garner support in this increasingly digital environment.

“We are very reliant and very comfortable in fundraising as a profession with face to face engagement and that is always more meaningful and more connective than a virtual engagement,” Stoneking said.

In the COVID-19 era, that means finding innovative ways to build community and capital for the mission. In-person events have been invaluable at gathering the biggest sponsors of a cause in one place and encouraging them to recommit their support. Without those events in the picture, a large portion of the nonprofit fundraising portfolio is in jeopardy.

“If we are not able to do these events we will have to make a very large pivot in order to make up that revenue for our mission,” Stoneking said.

While it’s too soon to know exactly how the crowd gathering restrictions of the pandemic will change fundraising efforts, Stoneking said virtualizing events will not be a temporary trend for the Association but an option for all of their special programs going forward.

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