Pandemic forces nonprofit organizations to find alternate ways to fund services

Blue Angels fly over the Indian River Lagoon

The Blue Angels fly in formation over the Indian River Lagoon and the eastern part of the city during their 2018 appearance at the Vero Beach Air Show. JOE SEMKOW


Nonprofit organizations typically rely on one major event to raise the bulk of funds needed to support their services for the upcoming year. And the month of March is the most popular time to hold those events. But March of 2020 will forever be remembered as the year the world shut down due to COVID-19. Businesses were closed, events were canceled and people were asked to stay at home to contain the spread of the virus.

As the state reopens, businesses implement new pandemic policies and apply for government loans to help them recoup some of the losses. Nonprofits, however, rely on the generosity of donors and those that were denied fundraising galas and other events are scrambling to make up for the shortfall without cutting back on services.

The Veterans Council of Indian River County shares the proceeds from the biyearly air show with the Indian River, Treasure Coast and Vero Beach Exchange Clubs.

“The big draw to the air show is the appearance of the Blue Angels,” council chairman Martin Zickert said. “We had worked on this event for two years and now we’ll have to wait until 2022 to hold it again. The Blue Angels canceled all of their appearances across the globe in early March and we knew we had to make the same call.”

The decision to cancel the show was made by the board of directors just a few days before the governor banned all large gatherings in Florida. To further complicate matters, all other stunt performers had been paid, corporate sponsors secured and tickets sold.

“Literally everything was ready to go when the bottom fell out,” Zickert continued. “So, we’ll really have to start from square one again. We will honor all of our presold tickets for the upcoming event in 2022.”

Fortunately, the council was able to hold its annual fundraiser in February, enabling it to continue all its services.

“We were able to continue helping veterans financially through our Upward American Veterans program and assisted others with home repairs through our Veterans Helping Veterans program. The United Way came to our aid and we were able to get a PPP loan to keep our two staffers employed.”

Dr. Philip Cromer

Dr. Philip Cromer, a psychologist with the Mental Health Association of Indian River County, conducts a telehealth session during the pandemic.

The Mental Health Association of Indian River County knew that people would need its help more than ever due to the anxiety that has surfaced during the quarantine.

“We never shut our doors,” CEO Nick Coppola said. “We made a quick switch to telehealth so that our clients could still consult with our homebound therapists and we kept a skeleton staff in the office to accommodate walk-in clients and keep operations running. We were very fortunate to secure a PPP loan which allowed us to keep our staff of 28 working full from home without ever missing a paycheck.”

MHA managed to hold its major fundraiser at the end of February, giving it enough capital to sustain all of its services for a while. Unfortunately, its yearly donations fell substantially short, so it will be hosting a few small events in the future to raise additional funds.

“Our services are needed more now than ever,” Coppola said. “We are social creatures and isolation is uncomfortable and stressful. We estimate 91 percent of the population was affected by the stay-at-home orders, and if you add the rioting and civil unrest on top of it, it becomes overwhelming. That’s why our drop-In centers will always be accessable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and our walk-in and counseling center continues to offer same-day screenings for anyone in crisis.”

Stacey Watson-Mesley, CEO of Big Brother/ Big Sister of St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee, said nonprofits are most prepared for this disruption because they are always used to juggling.

Caleb Dumercy

Big Brother Michelet Boursiquot looks on with pride as Little Brother Caleb Dumercy graduates from St. Lucie West Centennial High School.

“As soon as word of a pandemic shutdown emerged, we looked at creative ways to expand our programs virtually and were able to retain nearly 100 percent of our clients,” she said. “The children were being supplied with computers by the school districts in all three counties, so we could implement our virtual programs immediately.

“Our one-on-one relationships actually strengthened because what used to be a 15- minute check-in turned into a two-hour visit as children were starved for interaction. Our volunteers stepped up to deliver books and puzzles to shut-in families so there was always new material to discuss.”

It will be an uncomfortable year for the organization because its major fundraiser, Taste of St. Lucie, was canceled, leaving it with a deficit of several hundred thousand dollars.

A Paycheck Protection Program loan enabled it to retain the staff with insurance benefits and a generous $50,000 gift came through before the loan was secured. It also received an Impact 100 grant for its new mission project that pairs veteran mentors with children.

“We serve 1,700 local children and they need us more than ever,” Watson-Mesley said. “Our volunteers are dedicated and won’t let a little pandemic get in their way.”

Sue Rice and her pet therapy dog, Enzo

Sue Rice and her pet therapy dog, Enzo, volunteering with Misty’s Pals, make a window appearance at Symphony of Stuart, an assisted-living center.

The pandemic might have been a blessing in disguise for the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast. During the two-month COVID-19 restrictions, it adopted out 183 animals and fostered 450 pets.

“This community has shown nothing but amazing support during this time,” president and CEO Frank Valente said. “We had to close our thrift stores completely and limit shelter visits by appointment only. We implemented a virtual adoption program which proved very successful and the animals thrived in homes where they were fostered. Many of those fosters turned into adoptions.”

Luckily, the organization’s gala took place in February so only a couple of smaller fundraisers had to be restructured to a virtual platform. A PPP loan was secured and a grant from the Bissell Foundation underwrote some of the adoptions. Hill Science Diet donated food to the HSTC as well as to the House of Hope pet pantry. In May, volunteers with Misty’s Pals, the humane society’s pet therapy program, took pets to window visits with the residents of Symphony of Stuart, an assisted care facility.

The humane society’s two thrift stores in Stuart are open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Customers are required to wear masks and the number of people in the store is limited. All services at the Palm City shelter, including adoptions, are by appointment only.
What has become overwhelmingly evident is the spirit of volunteering only accelerated during the pandemic.

Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens

Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens lost a portion of its annual revenue when weddings had to be canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the PSL Botanical Gardens, volunteers still came out, decked in masks and gloves, to pull weeds and trim bushes. The garden is supported 100 percent through philanthropy and has no paid employees, so it relies on revenue generated through gift and plant sales and rental of the grounds for special events and weddings.

“Obviously weddings were canceled and brides were disappointed, but most of them simply postponed their big day because the garden was their venue of choice,” board member Judy Nash-Wade said. “We are optimistically rescheduling for the fall and working diligently to keep the gardens in pristine condition.”

Nonprofits need help now, more than ever, both financially and physically. It’s time to dig a little deeper into hearts and wallets to make sure that these organizations continue to thrive during these difficult times.

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