Postponed. Virtual. Canceled.
One by one, nonprofit event organizers reluctantly made the call to push back, change format or cancel fundraising events during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canceled fundraisers meant lost donations for nonprofits of all types and sizes at a time when their services were needed most.
Many nonprofits were already struggling to stay afloat. In a 2018 survey of 3,400 nonprofits, half said they were operating with only three months of cash on hand or less. Almost one in five reported having a month or less, according to the Nonprofit Finance Fund.
So when the pandemic hit, canceling their fundraisers wasn't a viable option for many nonprofit organizations. With uncertainty around every corner, they had to pivot.
The crisis forced many nonprofits to engage in tremendous innovation and creativity, and in some cases, doing so with fewer resources and less staff. Nonprofits went virtual with their fundraising and asked that event funds be re-allocated as direct donations. They re-thought the metrics used to measure success and leaned into increased transparency and communication. For many, it was an invitation to reinvent the wheel, a reminder that the old way isn't always the best way.
Before COVID-19, Junior Achievement of Oklahoma was an active, successful fundraiser with regular, highly-anticipated events. The organization hosted a golf tournament, a dinner, a bowl-a-thon and a couple of student-centered events, JA Inspire and JA Investor Challenge, said Erica Irvine, the organization's vice president of operations.
Many of the fundraisers were shifted to online programs in 2020, while the golf tournament went ahead with enhanced safety protocols since it was outdoors.
"Fundraising was undoubtedly more difficult in 2020," Irvine said. "JAOK shifted several events to virtual, some with decreased revenue and others generating revenue similar to previous years."
Corporations were forced to shift as well.
BOK Financial's® Colorado market president and CEO Bill Sullivan said a long-running corporate fundraising effort, Biz Bash, which had an annual goal of raising $150,000 for multiple nonprofit organizations through client partnership, was forced to pivot as well.
In April 2020, when in-person events were out of the question, sponsors were asked to make donations directly to the nonprofit beneficiaries. "Events were being canceled, postponed and moved to virtual platforms," Sullivan said.
"Things were in flux, and I was blown away by the willingness of our sponsors to show up in a different way and provide direct donations instead of supporting an event," he said. "It was inspiring to see."
Sullivan said during this transition it became increasingly important for nonprofits to have open, transparent communication with their donors and the communities they served. As standard operating procedures gave way to a new normal, nonprofits were called on to give regular updates about operations, funding usage and changing needs.
No "business as usual"
The experience has led nonprofits and corporate donors to rethink their approach to raising money.
“The pandemic was an invitation for everyone to drop 'the way it's always been.' Our clients may not feel comfortable with in-person events for some time. And people got a little virtual meeting fatigue. It's also hard to achieve the same emotional resonance with a virtual event.”- Bill Sullivan, Colorado market president and CEO
"But, on the flip side, virtual opens the doors to reach a larger, more diverse audience," Sullivan said. "There are pros and cons both ways, and a hybrid approach might be the right fit for a while."
Irvine said the transition showed that supporters of JA Oklahoma believe in the mission of the organization and stand ready to support it—not just a specific fundraising event. Many longtime supporters said they trust the organization to do what's best for Oklahoma students, even if that means their funding is allocated differently.
"Our JA Inspire event in June showed an increase, so virtual wasn't a total dud," said Irvine. "I think this unprecedented time provides a perfect opportunity for organizations to analyze what is most effective and to not automatically go back to business as usual."
Going forward, Irvine thinks JA will be back to primarily in-person events, with some hybrid or virtual components, especially if those components allow for a broader audience and reach students outside of the metro areas of Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Nonprofit events serve many purposes, including increasing awareness about the organization and mission, broadening interest, and recruiting volunteers, Irvine said. "Success isn't just measured in funds raised," she said.
"We also heard from our donors that in addition to changes with COVID, social justice is of tremendous importance. This, too, is a priority for JA as a key part of our work is to address the economic equity gap that exists for the students we serve."
Dig a little deeper
Irvine said the pandemic gave nonprofits a chance to research, talk, brainstorm and reinvent.
"I couldn't be more proud of the way JA of Oklahoma embraced our need to pivot to remain a relevant partner for schools and impact students' lives," Irvine said. "I encourage donors to dig deeper with the organizations they support and look for increased opportunities to support the meaningful work that is happening while embracing the changes these organizations have made."
The same goes for corporate philanthropy, Sullivan said. He hopes that current donors maintain their commitments to community organizations, recognizing that attracting new donors might continue to be challenging in the second year of what feels like constant transition and lots of competition for giving.
"What might have felt like a forced pivot for both nonprofits and companies may be an opportunity for innovation and growth—which may result in some really creative and meaningful community partnerships," he said.
Corporate philanthropy and employee giving can have a profound impact on nonprofit organizations and the community as a whole, added Leslie Paris, director of community and employee engagement at BOK Financial.
"Research shows that when a company is acting on its values by engaging with the community they serve, it contributes to key business goals through a more engaged workforce, employee and customer attraction and retention, and enhanced reputation among stakeholders. In particular, 80% of millennials say they want to work for a company that cares about how it contributes and impacts society," she said. "They're excited to be a part of something larger than themselves."