Charities getting creative as fundraising gets harder during COVID-19 pandemic

Organizations looking for alternatives to large, in-person fundraising galas — which have been postponed to slow the pandemic’s spread

Dr. Stan Oleksinski (right) receives a painting from Victoria Hospital CEO Sherry Buckler during the 2019 Doctor's Gala.

“Okay, now what do we do.”

Jessica Gale remembers the mood settling in as the number of COVID-19 cases climbed, and health restrictions rolled in back in March. Social distancing, face masks, bans on public gatherings—every new measure the provincial government announced made her foundation’s task more and more difficult.

That task? Find a way to raise funds during a public health crisis for an care home that relies entirely on donations to replace old and outdated equipment.

“There was some upheaval,” says Gale, the resource development coordinator for the Mont St. Joseph Home in Prince Albert. “There was some concern at first as to how we were going to move forward with this, especially considering we weren’t sure about what the longevity of these restrictions were going to be.”

Like many charities, a lot of Mont St. Joseph fundraising activity comes from large events. The biggest is their annual gala, which drew roughly 200 attendees last November, and usually raises close to $40,000. This year the foundation had to cancel it.

Other events, like their annual Grandparent’s Day Celebration, were altered to conform to the new public health measures. A newly created radio ‘tub-a-thon’ was in. The annual barbecue and walk was out.

Despite the uncharted territory, Gale remains optimistic.

“Our funds aren’t going to be the same as they normally are,” she says. “But, I feel like we’re treading water.”

Mont St. Joe’s had to get creative to with their fundraising efforts, but they’ve had plenty of help doing it. Now, more than ever, the organization has had to rely on regular individual donors who make monthly contributions, or leave planned gifts in their wills and estates.

The foundation started organizing smaller monthly events, like online 50/50 draws, but realistically, individual donors are what’s going to keep Mont St. Joe running as usual.

“Our one-off events, our annual events, those are fantastic, and if we can hold them, we know they’re so much fun,” Gale explains. “We know there’s support there and that is always great, but really, we know they only way we’ll be able to continue to do the work we do is if (with) monthly donors, and those folks who put in for those planned gifts. That’s really what’s going to carry us.”

Mont St. Joe’s isn’t the only organization that’s had to get creative. Even organizations that receive some government funding are affected.

The Prince Albert Community Service Centre’s (CSC) Seniors Transportation Service gets about half of its operating budget from the City of Prince Albert. The rest comes from donations and ride fares, which fell off dramatically when stores closed, and doctors began seeing patients online or over the phone.

Pre-COVID, the Seniors Transportation Service ran anywhere from 500 to 600 trips a week. Now, they’re averaging about 100. That dramatic loss in revenue makes donations and fundraising campaigns even more important. As with Mont St. Joe’s, COVID-19 restrictions have forced the Community Service Centre cancel or alter regular events, but not all changes can happen overnight.

“It’s kind of like steering a big boat,” CEO Bill Powalinsky says. “It takes time to turn it around or to navigate in a different direction. There’s a lot involved in setting that up.”

The big challenge is connecting with their donors. Powalinsky says they’ll try to be more active over the internet, but the majority of their supports aren’t online. Unlike larger charities, the CSC doesn’t have a full-time, year-round fundraising coordinator. Instead, someone comes in on a part-time basis to help out with major campaigns.

The organization already made the difficult decision to raise fare prices a few years ago, and Powalinsky doesn’t want to do it again. Instead, they’ll rely on a scaled-down version of their annual Two Miles for Mary Radiothon. Volunteers will still answer calls from prospective donors, but the in-person aspect is gone. No pancake breakfast. No coffee with senior celebrities. No donated baking.

“We know already that we’re going to be looking at some shortfalls,” he explains. “I think this is going to be a very lean year for a lot of fundraising venues.”

Despite those challenges, Powalinsky is still optimistic. Seniors Transportation has been around 33 years, and he’s confident they’ll be around for at least another 25. There’s no doubt though that the organization faces a crunch. They have reserve funds to keep the service going, but only for a limited time.

Still, Powalinsky says it’s no different from what charitable organizations across the city have to deal with. He hopes every organization finds a way to pull through.

“I really feel for anybody that’s working in an industry right now that relies on fundraising,” he says.

Even highly visible charities are suffering. There’s no more important building than a hospital during a public health crisis, but the Victoria Hospital Foundation has felt the pinch just like the Community Service Centre and Mont St. Joe’s.

Typically, the foundation employs three full time staff, but when the pandemic hit they dropped down to two. Now, they’re planning a major fundraiser with reduced staff, and relying on volunteers more than ever.

“We wanted to make sure we’re using donor dollars in the most responsible and efficient way possible, but that’s not easy,” CEO Sherry Buckler says. “Like I said, we’re launching a big campaign … and there’s just two of us.”

Charities, though, see a silver lining to the COVID-19 outbreak. For Gale and Powalinsky, it’s forced them to find new ways to connect with their donors, something they believe will benefit their organizations in the long run. Buckler sees a slightly different benefit. She thinks the pandemic will teach charities to be more diverse in their fundraising efforts.

“Obviously, this pandemic has taught us that gathering in large groups sometimes can be impossible and even inhibited, so if most of your fundraising activities rely on gathering in large groups, then you’re vulnerable,” she says. “The key is to always be thinking outside the box, and always be thinking of other ways to raise money, build relationships and simply talk about opportunities within local healthcare.”

“I think this actually speaks to a larger issue for non-profits, and that is to not always put all of your eggs in one basket,” she adds. “Fundraising is very complex work. Many people think it’s simple, but it’s not and events are one part of that. The rest of it is other programs and other avenues.”

Those other programs and avenues include things like focusing on monthly donors, legacy gifts and in Victoria Hospital’s case, a very successful staff 50/50 lottery. COVID-19 hasn’t hurt that event, and that’s good because they’ll need every penny.

They’ve already cancelled their biggest fundraiser, the annual Doctor’s Gala, which could cost them anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 in funding. Buckler says they won’t know for sure until they complete their annual report.

As with her counterparts, however, she remains optimistic.

“Our foundation has been blown away by the fact that there are still many donors and many people in the community who are still passionate about local healthcare, and they continue to make donations to the Victoria Hospital and our foundation,” she says. “I do believe that it’s because healthcare is their biggest priority … and we appreciate that.”

“We know that the economy is tough and we know that people are suffering. The fact that they’re thinking of something bigger than themselves is absolutely heartwarming.”

Once conditions return to normal, she’d like to see local residents treat charities the same way they treat local businesses. Will Prince Albert residents make it a priority to shop local? If so, she hopes they’ll donate local too.

“It’s almost ironic in a way, when you think about it, that the worst public health crisis in 100 years coincides with one of the most severe economic crashes at the same time,” she says. “If we suffer, then our hospital also suffers and the same can be said for every other non-profit and the good work that they’re doing in our community.”