Nonprofits are struggling to raise funds in a new world of virtual events

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Ordinarily, thousands of walkers clad in hot pink accessories, and holding signs with breast-centered puns would gather at Memorial Field this weekend for the annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer fundraiser.

Families would walk arm-in-arm, survivors of breast cancer would hold each other in teary embraces and participants would belt whatever 80s anthem blared over the speakers – a scene that would make anyone 6 months into a global pandemic shudder.

Like many health-focused fundraisers across New Hampshire, organizers of the walk had to quickly change the format of the event that was held on Friday. In a matter of months, they shifted the event to a drive-in, during which participants stay safely in their own cars. The hope was they’d create a familiar feel to a beloved event.

Except, the normal flow of donations didn’t follow.

Nancy Mathis, the community development manager for the Northeast region of the American Cancer Society, said there was a slight uptick in donations in October for breast cancer awareness month, but overall the fundraisers this year have raised just a fraction of what they ordinarily would. On the day of the event, they had raised about $112,000 of their $450,000 goal.

“We are nowhere near where we normally are,” she said.

Nationally, she said the American Cancer Society is expecting its operating budget to shrink from $700 million to $500 million. The organization has already laid off 1,000 workers across the country as a result.

“Our mission, for the first time in history, is in jeopardy,” Mathis said.

She says the loss can be attributed to a couple of factors. The number of teams participating in the fundraisers has slightly decreased. Given the state of the world, she says people just don’t have the bandwidth to take on another responsibility right now.

For those who do participate, many may feel awkward asking others for donations during a time of financial challenge.

The challenges facing Making Strides have been felt by other organizers as well.

Jane Driscoll, the vice president for development, marketing, and communication at Future in Sight, a nonprofit dedicated to the needs of those visually impaired or blind, is expecting similar losses.

The 2020 Walk for Sight, one of the organization’s largest fundraisers that usually takes place one day in August, was quickly adapted to a 20-day virtual event.

“It sounded like a good idea in April,” Driscoll joked.

Adapting the event took hours of extra work and a completely new skill set. In less than three months, the organization had to build a mini-website for the event, programming to fill 20 days, and a way to make sure sponsors were getting advertising opportunities.

The event was successful but ultimately, they saw an 18% decrease in the amount of money raised from last year. Future in Sight had planned on increasing its revenue by 20% in 2020.

Driscoll isn’t sure how this will affect her organization long-term. She said her team will have to get creative to continue to serve their constituents with a limited budget.

Her organization may become more strained as the year proceeds without their ordinary fundraising events.

All of the events that require in-person attendance, like the organizations’ “Dinner in the Dark” event in which attendees eat blindfolded, have been canceled.

“We don’t have a choice,” she said. “The people who go to these events are elbow to elbow.”

For many nonprofits, the transition to socially distant events doesn’t just jeopardize income, it jeopardizes community.

There won’t be a survivor’s tent at this year’s Making Strides against Breast Cancer (though survivors will be honored from their cars) or tearful embraces, or arm-in-arm walking.

“When we go remote, we lose the opportunity to be together, to get to know supporters,” Driscoll said.

Those interested in donating to either organization can submit donations to cancer.org or futureinsight.org.



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