As fund-raisers are threatened once again, nonprofits continue to feel pinch

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The Pennsy Trail Art Fair, which benefits Mental Health Partners, was able to proceed as scheduled the past two years because it was held outdoors. Organizers say the 2022 art fair will take place with a similar emphasis on distancing.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

HANCOCK COUNTY — The ongoing COVID pandemic has hit nonprofits in the pocketbook over the past two years — canceling many fundraisers that are crucial to sustaining operations — but local organizations are optimistically forging ahead into 2022.

Hancock County nonprofit leaders have been keeping a close eye on the latest guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control in planning their events.

With guidelines and infection rates ever-changing, many say it’s been a challenge to keep up.

“In 2020, we knew that programs and events would simply require cancellation. In 2021, it seemed that everything changed by the minute… and if you were able to have an event you had to prepare to lose volunteers right before the event,” said Sara Cummins, executive director for FUSE, or Families United for Support and Encouragement, which supports families of children with disabilities.

“We are assuming 2022 will be very much like 2021,” Cummins said.

To keep things flexible, FUSE has offered its supporters alternative ways to take part in fundraisers. Those who wished to take part in last year’s bowl-a-thon or golf outing, for example, but didn’t want to attend the event, were given event T-shirts and a certificate to bowl or golf on their own at a later date.

Rather than scheduling in-person events, some nonprofits have opted to go virtual.

Hancock County Senior Services created a new event last year called the Great Hancock Hunt, a mobile scavenger hunt that leads participants on a race throughout the county to complete missions and answer trivia questions.

“The first annual event was created because it was COVID-friendly and we had so much fun, we’re doing it again,” executive director Suzanne Derengowski said.

This year’s hunt is tentatively set for June 25.

Debra Weber, executive director at Love INC of Greater Hancock County, is moving forward with hosting the nonprofit’s Love Thy Neighbor banquet this year, but has moved the date from February to April in hopes that the COVID infection rate will drop by then.

To minimize the spread of infection, “there will be a change in how the food is served and the number of people who can attend,” she said.

Meals on Wheels is also keeping the latest CDC guidelines in mind while moving forward with three of its popular purse bingo events this year, as well as the Boots and Bourbon banquet scheduled to take place in the fall.

Board members for the Kenneth Butler Memorial Soup Kitchen are doing the same as they plan to host a National Road Yard Sale booth in June; a Jeep Fest in early summer; a bowling event in August; and a Riley Festival booth in October. The organization also is planning breakfast fundraisers, trivia nights and euchre tournaments throughout the year.

“Whether or not any of these fundraisers actually happen is anyone’s guess right now,” said the kitchen’s executive director, Jill Ebbert. “We are planning events as we normally would throughout the year, keeping in mind that adjustments may be necessary due to COVID.”

Staying afloat

As local nonprofits have lost substantial amounts of money over the past two years due to canceled fundraisers, the need for services has increased exponentially for many, making it an even more stressful time to run a nonprofit.

Meals on Wheels of Hancock County canceled all in-person events in 2020, according to executive director Lynda Kosh, creating a $90,000 deficit in its projected budget and income.

“All events in 2021 were scheduled for the second half of the year, creating a shortfall and cash flow concern for the first and second quarters,” she said. “We were able to gain significant support from donors, funders and grantors to take up the slack and continue to serve our expanding number of clients, (which have gone) up by 50% since the pandemic began.”

Staying afloat while faced with the need for increased services has also been a challenge for FUSE.

“We had to take a hard look at our budgets and the potential lost funds in 2020 and 2021, and come up with a plan to still meet the needs of those we serve,” said Cummins. “With an increase in those needs, that plan had to be developed quickly.”

Cummins said the continued global health crisis has brought an air of uncertainty surrounding all the organization’s programs and fundraisers, since COVID first started closing down schools and businesses two years ago this March.

“That is one of the biggest challenges; the inability to plan,” she said.

The leaders at Mental Health Partners of Hancock County have never let COVID cancel their biggest fundraiser of the year, the Pennsy Trail Art Fair &Music Festival, in no small part because the event takes place outdoors.

This year’s festival will take place July 30 on the Courthouse Plaza in downtown Greenfield.

The nonprofit’s executive director, Kim Hall, saw a huge drop in attendance for the 2020 event but a huge increase in attendance last year. Only a couple of vendors canceled due to COVID in 2020, while an increased number signed on for the event last year, she said.

“We do not plan on changing anything for 2022. We will continue to add space between vendors and encourage distancing,” said Hall.

The money raised from the annual event is crucial to keep Mental Health Partners running, she said, especially since donations have decreased while the need for services have increased over the past two years.

Hall knows she’s not alone, as many nonprofits throughout the county are facing the same dilemma.

Weber, director of Love INC, credited the Hancock County Community Foundation for helping nonprofits make ends meet through its Heart for Hancock fund, created in 2020 to assist nonprofits since the start of the pandemic. More than $278,000 has been granted so far.

The grants “have helped us to fill the gap from canceled fundraisers, which has allowed us to continue with our programming,” said Weber.

Ebbert credits the soup kitchen’s faithful donors for keeping it afloat over the past two years.

“Our incoming funds throughout this pandemic period have almost entirely been from donations,” she said.

The funding has been essential to support the kitchen’s new carry-out method of serving meals, which creates the need for a continuous supply of carry-out containers, utensils and bottled water.

Ebbert said the hardest part has been the fact that the soup kitchen remains closed to patrons who typically took refuge at the kitchen, which is now only handing out food to-go.

“We are and always have been more than food for our people. Our daily goal is to give them the love and respect we all like to receive, but the pandemic has dramatically decreased our interaction with the patrons. In short, we miss them and they miss us,” said Ebbert, who dreams of a day when life returns to normal.

Arts groups feeling pressure, too

Nonprofits everywhere have been feeling the strain from canceling in-person fundraisers over the past two years due to COVID-19.

For cultural arts nonprofits, canceled shows means canceled income.

Alice Hedden, president of the Hancock County Arts Council, said the council has been in a rebuilding phase ever since the onset of COVID in March 2020 prompted the board to close its Twenty North Gallery for the remainder of the year.

“That stopped much of our income, but memberships came through,” said Hedden. “So 2021 was simply a rebuilding year. We’re hoping 2022 will continue to build.”

The council now encourages the use of masks in the gallery, and is moving forward with scheduled events this year, including its annual meeting at the gallery on Feb. 18.

“We have a wonderful program planned, but we’re being watchful (of local COVID trends). We may be able to use Zoom for some who are unable to attend,” said Hedden.

The council is also planning an outdoor car show in March, an outdoor plein air event in June and its annual Diamonds and Denim Gala in October.

“We will continue to plan hoping, the healthiness of the county improves,” Hedden said.

Joanna L. Crump, director of finance for the Hancock County Children’s Choir, said the choir is also hoping to move forward in 2022 after a tough couple of years.

“The pandemic negatively impacted HCCC’s fundraising and programming efforts with the cancellation of our spring 2020 concert, along with multiple other events,” she said.

The choir quickly responded to the pandemic by going virtual for it’s 10th anniversary show, pre-recording performances at the Palladium at The Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. Last month, the choir returned to live performances with its annual Christmas production.

Chris Schaefer, director of KidsPlay, the local youth theater troupe, held off on performances in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. To get kids performing again, she held virtual auditions last week for a series of 10-minute plays to be performed online.

“I chose a collection of 10-minute plays with the idea of rehearsing each of the small casts individually, and if someone got sick, we just pull that particular one-act without having to cancel the whole show,” she said.

She intially hoped to perform them live, “however, after watching our positive case numbers go up and up and up and actually exceed anything from 2020 or 2021, I decided that maybe we should start virtual,” she said.

Fifteen kids auditioned last week, about a third of the number that would typically audition for a play in-person.

“Hopefully we can resume face-to-face rehearsals by the end of February,” Schaefer said.

The nonprofit group Friends of the Theater — which supports the H.J. Ricks Centre for the Arts in Greenfield — also went virtual last year, switching its annual Christmas at the Ricks talent show to a virtual format.

“Each entry had a chance to gain votes with dollars from their fans,” said board secretary Amy Studabaker.

“We met our fundraising goal to get a new wheelchair lift for the stage at the theater, raising over $6,000 from our supportive community. This was a terrific win for our organization after canceling Christmas at the Ricks altogether in 2020,” she said.

Board members hope to return to an in-person holiday event this year, but Studabaker said last year’s virtual show was still a great experience.

Doing something in a different way gave us a new creative approach and perspective to the event, and gave us some ideas for the future,” she said.

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