This is what should have happened Saturday night in a downtown Denver hotel ballroom:
More than 600 people, dressed in cocktail dresses and suits, should have paid $250 each to hobnob with a Kennedy, a former Denver Broncos player and other local dignitaries to raise money for Mental Health Colorado. They’d wine and dine and bid on art and weekend vacations in an auction while smiling for pictures all in the name of raising money for one of the state’s largest mental health advocacy organizations.
This is what actually happened:
People sat at home watching on their computers as Mental Health Colorado CEO Vincent Atchity and former Broncos running back Reggie Rivers hosted a virtual event from a downtown studio. In pre-recorded segments, Rivers interviewed former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and people who benefited from the organization’s work gave testimonials. Those who watched paid what they wanted, averaging about $70 each, and bid on vacation packages in an online auction, Atchity said.
The 38th Annual Tribute Gala should have been the nonprofit organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year. But moving to a virtual event and simply suggesting people donate left Atchity and other staffers uncertain about their future budget.
“It’s a mystery whether we can get enough participation,” Atchity said two weeks before the event. “A bunch of our fundraising is loaded toward the back of the year. We are living in a state of suspense and uncertainty because everybody is thrown for a loop by the pandemic and economic uncertainty.”
Fall is the time of year when nonprofits across Colorado make their big fundraising pushes through galas, phone drives and letter-writing campaigns. They’re trying to capture donors who want to make end-of-year contributions with their coming tax bill in mind, said Jayne Thompson, president of Colorado’s Association for Fundraising Professionals. But 2020 dramatically altered the tradition, forcing organizations to get creative in connecting with supporters and asking for money.
So far, though, Coloradans have risen to the occasion.
According to an analysis of online giving at coloradogives.org, Coloradans donated $10.1 million online in the first six months of 2020. That’s more than double the $4.3 million donated statewide during the same period in 2019, said Kelly Dunkin, CEO of the Community First Foundation, a Jefferson County-based foundation that supports nonprofits across Colorado.
Donors especially are generous to groups that support food and nutrition, health care and education, Dunkin said.
“The message there is that people recognized COVID has hit nonprofits hard and they recognize nonprofits are the lifeblood that helps people live healthy, safe and vibrant lives, ” she said.
Nationally, donations to nonprofits also rose in the first half of 2020, reflecting a rebound after a severe drop in giving in March when the pandemic began, according to an Oct. 5 report by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. A big driver in the increase was donations from individuals of $250 or less, the report said.
But the report came with a caution, saying warning signs of a drop in giving exist.
Michael Nilsen, a spokesperson for the fundraising association, said there is worry that the pandemic may compare to a natural disaster, after which donations pour in during the early days but taper off as time passes and problems linger.
“I don’t know what we call a pandemic, if it qualifies as a natural disaster or what, but we’re curious to see what will happen,” Nilsen said. “There’s just a collective of we’re all taking our breath. We don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
In Colorado, nonprofits are bracing themselves.
“Sponsorships are down. Corporations are cutting back,” said Ellie Burbee, executive director of Kids In Need of Dentistry. “People don’t have as much to give as they did pre-COVID.”
Burbee’s organization typically takes a twist on the fall gala concept, hosting a happy hour at Bigsby’s Folly, a RiNo winery. In a normal year, the charity, which provides free and reduced-cost dental care to children, raises about $150,000 through sponsorships, ticket sales, a live auction and mystery bag sales, Burbee said.
This year, KIND is hosting a wine dinner with distanced seating and a “soft ask” for money at the end, Burbee said. They expect to raise $60,000, about 40% less than usual.
But KIND is one of the few organizations that chose to have an in-person event. Most switched to virtual galas with paired-down presentations and cheaper admission prices for supporters.
The new virtual gala brings mixed reviews. Representatives of several nonprofits told The Denver Post they ended up bringing in more money because their expenses dropped when they no longer had to rent ballrooms, hire audio/visual production crews and pay for catering. But they missed making those all-important personal connections that happen at galas, golf tournaments and banquets.
“Galas create a shared experience and create a feeling that sweeps around the room so people are motivated to support the cause,” Thompson said. “It’s harder to reach into the living room.”
Plus, organizations that threw virtual balls and banquets in 2020 aren’t sure how long patience will hold up for online events because people spend so much time in virtual meetings during the work week.
“It’s tough. I spend all day on these Zoom calls,” Achity said.
Still, the virtual events are rolling as nonprofits attempt to raise money.
Girls Inc. of Metro Denver moved its annual luncheon from May to August, hoping it could have an in-person event. When leaders realized that wouldn’t be possible, they put together a week-long email campaign that featured videos of girls who participate in the organization’s programs and requests for a donations. The agency also held onto its sponsors and then invited them to watch a live interview with girls who received this year’s scholarships.
Girls Inc. netted $170,000 — about $50,000 more than in a typical year, said Sonya Ulibarri, chief executive officer.
“For us, the more that we can ensure our community can hear directly from the girls we serve, that’s the most powerful thing that exists,” Ulibarri said.
At the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver, the fundraising team considered canceling its big annual event when the pandemic hit.
“We said, ‘No, we need to thank people. We need to honor our kids,’” said Patrick Gaines, the chief development officer.
Rather than charge nearly 1,000 people a $250-a-ticket entry fee, the club opened its virtual programming to everyone free of charge. Typically, the gala’s sponsors foot the bill for the ballroom, food and other expenses. The admission price and auctions bring in the money used to support the club’s programs.
“The biggest hit was not being able to have fundraising the night of,” Gaines said. “All the sponsors stuck with us and said the mission was more important than the party.”
Going forward, leaders of nonprofits don’t know if that trend will stick, especially if the novel coronavirus continues its rampage across the country and further cripples the economy.
Gaines expects giving to slow down as the calendar approaches 2021, in part because of the ongoing pandemic and in part because of the election.
“People might be going into a holding pattern,” Gaines said. “That’s my hunch.”
Corporate giving, another mainstay for nonprofits, remain in limbo for 2021, he said.
“No one’s saying no but they’re just saying, ‘We don’t know if we can commit to an event that we don’t even know is going to happen. Let’s see what other ways we can support your mission,’” Gaines said.
The cancellation of live events has a ripple effect. The already-crippled service industry misses the revenue from hotel rentals and food and drink purchases. Three of the largest convention/meeting hotels in Denver reported losing more than $3.8 million in nonprofit event business due to restrictions on gathering sizes during COVID, said Amie Mayhew, president and CEO of the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association. Her group is lobbying the governor to expand limits on crowd sizes so hotels can once again host events.
Still, Ulibarri has hope. Throughout her career in nonprofits, the most generous givers are individuals even during times of economic, political or social crises, she said. And those individuals who give smaller donations are the ones that have come through amid the pandemic.
“There’s a level of high-end awareness right now that people want to do something that activates their values. Folks are really thinking about how they are intentional in supporting the work they believe in that aligns with their values and reinforces how they are active in this climate,” she said.
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