How serving the community looks different for nonprofits in a pandemic
Beginning in mid-March of 2020 and spanning out over the course of the following months, one might recall a dramatic pandemic-induced pet boom in the United States.
Throughout the last year as COVID-19 made its way up in numbers, many Americans wanted furry companions for the unprecedented circumstances to come. The KC Pet Project saw the effects of this almost immediately. The nonprofit shelter’s early adoption special resulted in almost 500 adoptions in just two or three weeks, while the rest of the animals headed into emergency foster homes.
“We’ve had to adapt in so many ways throughout this whole process,” says Tori Fugate of KC Pet Project. “We didn’t really know what was going to happen in the beginning, of course, like everybody else. So our biggest goal initially was to move every animal that we could out of the building.”
KC Pet Project’s urgency to get animals out the shelter doors as quickly as possible marked one of the first of many rapid changes nonprofit organizations across Kansas City had to make at the pandemic’s start. The months that followed took away in-person events, changed the nature of volunteering, and added new obstacles to fundraising.
Different organizations in the nonprofit sector in Kansas City weathered the effects of COVID-19 and the events of the last year in different ways. Hospitals and senior living homes, many of which have nonprofit status, were placed on the frontlines almost immediately. In addition, many nonprofit organizations in the education and the arts sector had to find new ways to reach students and maneuver the performing arts in a pandemic.
In March of 2020, Nonprofit Connect found that the Kansas City area’s nonprofits had already experienced a range of effects from COVID-19 after only a month, with the cancellation of programs or events and a resulting decrease in revenue reported as the top challenge. By November of 2020, this was still a primary concern for the majority of responding organizations, along with an overall strain on budgets because of the strain on the economy. This meant something different for almost everybody- as demand for services went up, funding, donations and volunteering numbers have moved all over the map.
“It’s been all over the place, from really rolling up their sleeves and being extremely busy or trying to figure out how to survive this,” says Luann Feehan, President and CEO of Nonprofit Connect.
One consistency for many nonprofits, though, has been the increased presence of technology. Feehan says figuring out what it means to turn fundraising and events virtual has been a notable change across the board.
“Many organizations do their fundraising through bringing people together,” Feehan says. “To shift virtually has been a game changer for, I would say, nearly all organizations.”
Even Nonprofit Connect itself has seen the effects of this firsthand as the organization, which serves as a Chamber of sorts providing nonprofits in the Kansas City area with resources, had to quickly find ways to turn events virtual when in-person events became dangerous. Events manager Jen Newell took on the challenge of creating engaging virtual events to honor and celebrate the city’s nonprofits, such as Nonprofit Connect’s annual holiday party and awards luncheon.
Aside from the obvious new hurdle of relying entirely on technology, transitioning events into the virtual space presented new challenges and raised new questions, such as rearranging budgets to make way for added expenses and finding ways to get awards in the hands of people who normally would have received them as soon as their name was called onstage, says Newell. But if there was ever a time to experiment, why not now?
“If you’ve ever wanted to try something new, 2020 or 2021 is the year to do it,” Newell says. “People have grown their expectations of what an event is in the traditional sense and opened up their minds to new ideas. You should respond to that and see what happens. If you had an off the wall idea, well, 2020 was a little off the wall.”
During a time when there might have been an instinct to put events on hold entirely, Newell knew it was important to find ways to keep them going in the capacity they could exist this year. Especially in the case of the Nonprofit Connect’s Philanthropy Awards Luncheon, they served as a chance for nonprofits to be reminded of their contributions when a year of remote work and isolation made it harder to see the effects their work had in person.
“I think that working from home has really made people feel separated and really made people question, ‘Does this work matter?’” Newell says. “It’s a way for nonprofit organizations especially to recharge their batteries and realize, ‘I’m doing a good job, my organization is doing a good job, we’re making an impact on the community.’”
Planned Parenthood Great Plains has been hosting The Event for 85 years, but Oct. 13, 2020 marked the first time this annual gala benefit had taken place online. For Maggie Haynes, development and events coordinator for Planned Parenthood Great Plains, switching gears for events took some innovation. Although they were met with a skeptical audience at first, Haynes says virtual events like the gala have been met with a positive reaction from the community.
“Working in the virtual space for many of our events in 2020 has allowed us to be a little bit more creative and innovative during a difficult time,” Haynes says. “There are definitely growing pains whenever you’re learning how to do something new, but I think in a good way.”
Plans for The Event this fall are still in process, but it will likely be virtual again. Keeping the community healthy is a central factor in Planned Parenthood’s services and events are no exception, Haynes says.
“As a healthcare provider, keeping our community safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is definitely a top priority for our organization,” Haynes says. “We just have to keep going, no matter what. And our supporters and our board have been so helpful in this ambition to figure out how to operate in the COVID world.”
Keeping the community informed about the risk of COVID-19 quickly became a focus for the National MS Society. This spurred the organization to create weekly online content providing clarity to COVID-19 risk concerns for people living with multiple sclerosis, including an Ask an MS Expert series.
The organization’s MS Navigators were suddenly answering unique concerns, such as how people with MS who hadn’t disclosed to their supervisors should handle risking themselves to COVID-19 in the workplace. Jenna Washnieski, president of the Mid-America office of National MS Society, says this surge in demand for information put these employees on the frontlines.
“Our COVID-19 response fund helped to filter even more money to our navigators who are really serving as frontline social workers for people living with MS,” Washnieski says. “We tried to respond to the changes in calls that were coming in and how we could quickly support our MS community in those needs.”
It wasn’t just the services that the National MS Society offers that made a shift in the year of pandemic operations. It was the overall morale of the Mid-America office itself. As employees moved to remote work, it became easier to get a glimpse into the real lives of the people behind the work being done there.
“I think the pandemic has humanized people in a different way,” Washnieski says. “As a staff team, we’ve seen more from each other. Not only are we operating as colleagues, but we’re operating with this understanding that we’re all a bunch of humans trying to make it through. I think it’s brought us closer together because we’re all connecting with each other on a very human level.”
As remote work and sitting at home became a consistency over the past year, many jumped at the opportunity to participate in events and fundraisers that involved physical activity. The Walk MS event became a walk that everybody could do on their own while still raising money for the MS Society, and when the time came for 2020’s virtual Bike MS event, people were eager to hop on their bikes and use their legs not just in Kansas City but across the country.
“We exceeded our target,” Washnieki says. “Everyone was just stir crazy. I think people were eager to do something, and I also think that the people who we have doing our rides are so invested in our mission and so invested in the programs and services and research that we deliver.”
Many Kansas Citians were invested in the work nonprofit organizations were doing for animals too. Fugate says the KC Pet Project’s Keep ‘Em Together program resonated with donors this year as many families faced obstacles throughout the pandemic that made it more difficult to provide for a pet. In a year where health has been at the forefront of many minds, the program has worked to make sure medical costs and financial hardships don’t have to mean the loss of a pet.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who are wanting to help people and pets stay together,” Fugate says. “The animals don’t stop coming, even during a pandemic. Animals don’t have a voice. They don’t have a choice if they’re here or not.”
The KC Pet Project saw a dramatic spike in animal intake after initial stay-at-home orders lifted, Fugate says. The shelter got to work on new ways of getting the word out about pets looking for homes, such as launching virtual adoptions and making a name for itself on TikTok.
Keeping the shelter on its feet is more hands-on than ever for KC Pet Project volunteers, Fugate says, as the volunteer program has expanded to allow volunteers to take on more of the tasks that shelter staff normally maintain. While volunteering in general has drastically changed over the past year, Fugate says KC Pet Project volunteers have been a crucial component of the shelter’s adaptation to operating under a pandemic.
“We would not have been able to get through 2020 without the support of our volunteers, our donors, and really just the community embracing everything that we were trying to do,” Fugate says.
It’s been a tumultuous year for members of the community, and in turn, for the people who serve them. But nonprofit organizations have risen to the challenge, Feehan says. After all, it’s why they exist in the first place.
“I think our sector is known for doing a lot with very little,” Feehan says. “If there is a sector that knows how to endure the test of time, while none of us could have seen this lasting as long as it has, I do think our sector is kind of built for this. We are built for helping people in need and providing services and equity in times of need. I think our sector has really risen to that occasion.”