‘It’s a Blow’: Nonprofits Get Nimble When Their Fund Raisers Are Canceled

Here's how some organizations are pivoting.

By Ilene Denton March 30, 2020

Choral Artists of Sarasota

Image: Barbara Banks

COVID-19 has temporarily upended life as we know it. For nonprofit organizations that rely on fund raisers as their life blood (and isn’t that all of them) it means being nimble, getting creative, or simply postponing their events to 2021. Michael's On East alone saw more than 100 events canceled by mid-March.

Choral Artists of Sarasota had planned a blockbuster series of April events in honor of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It included the world premiere of a new choral work it commissioned from composer James Grant called “Listen to the Earth” with an appearance by acclaimed actress Jane Alexander. When the organization canceled its Going Green Gala, scheduled for March 28 at a private home on Casey Key, they quickly set up a virtual online silent auction with all 11 items available for bidding until Monday, April 6.

“It’s our major fund raiser of the year, and we were expecting to raise $90,000,” says executive director Susan Burke. “Instead we’ll raise $40,000. We’re getting some response to the virtual silent auction, but not the same as in person, and most of the people who purchased gala tickets have donated that to the organization. We’re grateful for that.” Still, says Burke, “It was a blow.”

The April 19 concert, which was three years in the planning, says Burke, has been postponed to next year, and Jane Alexander has committed to participating. “We’re calling it ‘50 plus 1’ because it will be the 51st anniversary of Earth Day,” she says.

Choral Artists will decide by June 1 whether it can perform its annual July 4 concert with the Sarasota Concert Band at the Opera House. “We really want to,” says Burke, “because aren’t people going to be ready for a celebration?”

And “just to keep the family together,” Choral Artists this Sunday, April 5, will present a livestream concert on Facebook, pulling together pieces from the recording of its October concert. Music director Joseph Holt will introduce it live.

Designing Daughters, an all-volunteer group of young women who call themselves “the next generation of philanthropists,” were able reschedule their Moulin Rouge-themed gala to the fall. Their biggest money maker of the year had been scheduled for April 18 at the Universal Flight Training hangar at the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. “We decided that even if everything’s back on track, people wouldn’t be comfortable in a big group setting, so we postponed it to Oct. 24,” says Jennifer Matteo, event co-chair. Matteo, an event planner by profession, was able to act quickly to make sure all the vendors are onboard for that new date. Designing Daughters holds four fund raisers each year in order to grant about $100,000 to some 30 area nonprofits. “We usually get 250 attendees at the gala,” she says. “This is the big one.”

Meanwhile, the Taylor Emmons Scholarship Fund has canceled its only fund raiser of the year, its 9th annual charity golf classic and poker tournament, which had been scheduled for May 2 at the Country Club of Lakewood Ranch. Some 240 to 280 golfers had been anticipated to play, says Mike Emmons, with 350 people expected to attend the evening party and 125 to participate in that evening’s poker tourney.

In its eight-year history, the golf and poker tournament has raised $2.5 million, distributing well over $500,000 of it in scholarships to financially needy students at Out-of-Door Academy. The Emmons family started the scholarship fund in memory of their son, 2009 ODA grad Taylor Emmons, who died tragically at the age of 19 when he was hit by a car walking back to his home near the University of Miami.

The scholarship fund has been working steadily toward its goal of a $2 million endowment, which this year means that a scholarship can be bestowed despite the cancellation of the fund raiser. And Emmons says they’re full steam ahead for spring 2021. “We’ll just move forward,” he says. “Some people had already paid towards this year’s and we told them we’d be happy to refund it, but most are saying keep the money.”

And more than 700 area nonprofits are still making plans to participate in the Giving Challenge April 28-29. In 2018, the last year the 24-hour online event sponsored by the Community Foundation of Sarasota County was held, $11.7 million was raised for 636 nonprofits.

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