Harrisonburg nonprofits see fundraising losses — and gains — during pandemic

A volunteer at Our Community Place loads food into a vehicle // File photo by Tristan Lorei

By Eric Gorton, contributor

Fundraisers have been canceled or postponed, and normal operations are but a memory this spring for nonprofit agencies serving Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Still, leaders of several say they remain solvent and able to perform their missions as the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on.

“It’s an unpredictable and crazy roller coaster,” said Sam Nickels, executive director of Our Community Place (OCP).

The agency provides 17,000 meals a year to the city’s homeless and others with food insecurity, in addition to a number of other services, including laundry and shower services, storage lockers, case management, volunteer and job training opportunities, and help finding housing.

“We’ve lost a lot of money from fundraisers that have not happened, but we’ve gotten a lot of support from the government’s PPP program (Paycheck Protection Program), The Community Foundation emergency fund, and our donors have also really stepped up,” Nickels said.

Since OCP began a new fiscal year on April 1, donors have already given 43% of the $150,000 budgeted for contributions from individuals, congregations and businesses, compared to 8% at this time a year ago, said Eric Olson-Getty, director of development and administration. However OCP will need to find a way to make up for losses from the canceled events.

“We anticipate that our income from in-person special events will be negligible to nonexistent this year, so the fact that we’re doing well on individual donations right now doesn’t mean we’re secure for the long-term,” Olson-Getty said. “Our expenses will eventually catch up to us if we don’t find a way to replace income from canceled in-person events, and that will most likely need to be from sustaining this momentum from individual donors.”

OCP will get some help from the The Great Community Give, normally held each April by The Community Foundation of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. This year, the event has been postponed until June 24.

Nickels said OCP has expanded services and hired some additional part-time staff to provide more food, more case management and other services.

“Our big focus right now is trying to get as many people as possible out of the shelter and homeless hotels so they can ‘shelter at home’ like other folks in our community,” he said.

Patchwork Pantry, another agency addressing food insecurity by providing three-day supplies of staples to those in need in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, has “seen some generous gifts come in during this time,” said Executive Director Jennifer Ulrich.

With a budget of $19,125, the organization does not have an annual fundraising event and relies solely on its donors.

“I am a bit reluctant to say what percentage of our fundraising has come in as we may need to adjust our budget,” Urlrich said, adding that the agency is seeing an increase in the number of folks needing food and the budget is a moving target.

“That being said, we are well ahead of what we normally raise by this time,” she said.

In addition to money, Patchwork Pantry accepts donations of food and other items and has a supply of masks to hand out as well.

“We have a generous community,” Ulrich said.

Revlan Hill, executive director of The Community Foundation, a nonprofit that builds and manages philanthropic funds to meet community needs, is impressed by donors who have continued their giving through difficult times, and by other local nonprofits that have risen to the challenge.

“The community at large has been terribly generous to the joint partnership that The Community Foundation and The United Way have together to raise money for nonprofits who are responding to the current pandemic, the COVID-19 Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Response Fund,” she said. “I’ve seen generosity like no other. Companies stepping up with large gift support. We’ve had some anonymous donors give quite large contributions.”

The Great Community Give raised money for 89 nonprofits last year and is slated to assist more than 100 this year. Hill has not heard of any organizations that are in danger of folding due to the pandemic.

“I think people are thinking differently,” she said. “There have been a lot of creative ways that organizations are changing ways of how they do business. We all know that what we do in the community matters.”

A gathering at Our Community Place // Photo by Randi B. Hagi for Our Community Place

Nickels said Our Community Place has strong safety protocols that have enabled it to continue providing face-to-face services.

“We are proud of our staff and volunteers for stepping up during this time of increased danger in our work,” he said. “Continued community support is what is allowing us to serve food seven days a week and to be working all day long on getting people into housing. We deeply appreciate the support everyone has provided.”

Among the organizations having to operate differently is the Boys and Girls Clubs of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, which implemented a virtual club, or “V-Club,” to continue its educational mission.

“We reach out to our kids through that and it’s focusing on fun things to do and providing a tiny bit of structure for their day,” said Executive Director Sandra Quigg.

The clubs normally operate out of schools, but that became impossible on March 13 when public schools in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County shut down for the remainder of the academic year.

“We went into an abrupt stop,” Quigg said. “We are a face-to-face youth development organization and our model has been, we’re there with the kids. It took us a little bit to reevaluate and to determine, ‘How do we do this? What do we do? How do we serve our kids?’”

Being forced to reinvent the way it reached children curtailed fundraising at a time of year when the agency normally focuses on it.

“We had to do a pretty hard pivot and so we couldn’t focus on fundraising. That kind of explains our dip in fundraising. We weren’t out there,” Quigg said.

In addition, the agency expects to take another hit due to changes to its annual gala – by far its largest fundraiser of the year – originally scheduled for June 6, Quigg said.

Normally bringing in $80,000-$100,000, the event usually includes a number of live auction and silent auction items. This year, it will be held August 15 and feature fewer auction items “to be respectful of the situation,” Quigg said.

“The focus is community and service and our 25-year anniversary. We still need the money, but we’re very aware of our surroundings and what everyone else is going through,” she said.

Donations picked up after the start of the V-Club and when one of the clubs re-opened in Elkton to serve children of parents who have continued to work outside of their homes.

“We’ve been able to reach out and sort of say, ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and donations started to come back in,” Quigg said.

Grants have also helped, Quigg said, and grantors have been willing to adapt their expectations.

“The grants are usually fee-for-service. You are doing something and the grantor is looking for a report on that investment. Some are very specific, some are to fund a certain thing and there are certain outcomes they would like to see. What we have found is most of the grantors have been very, very flexible. One of our grants is a face-to-face mentorship and that became impossible. Another grant stated specifically it had to be done in our clubs, but we can’t be in our clubs. We’re extremely thankful that grantors have been flexible.”

Still, the Boys and Girls Clubs, with an annual budget of about $1 million and 70% of that coming from fundraising, are about 40% behind and have had to furlough about 35 part-time workers. Most of those, Quigg said, were students, many of whom live out of town when colleges are not in session. The organization has been able to retain its full-time staff.

Hill, of The Community Foundation, said she doesn’t want donors to forget about organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs whose primary missions may not seem essential during the pandemic.

“The thing is, the museums of our community, the educational nonprofit organizations of our community that help our children, the arts organizations in our community – they play a big role in making Harrisonburg-Rockingham County what it is,” she said. “We’re always encouraging people to think about, not just food, obviously everybody needs food, but all these organizations are important. Jewels for the community.”

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