Jill Evenocheck was looking forward to finally dressing up again for her nonprofit's fundraiser in October. But that likely won't happen now until 2022.
The summer upswing in COVID-19 cases, owing to the rapid spread of the delta variant, has forced some Minnesota nonprofits to scale back plans for in-person events and revert to virtual gatherings for the second autumn in a row — a key time of the year to raise revenue.
"I didn't expect this, but it's where we're at," said Evenocheck, CEO of the Ronald McDonald House Charities, Upper Midwest in Minneapolis. "This isn't looking very good to get in-person together."
More than 500 people were expected to attend the Ronald McDonald House gala Oct. 9, which promised to be its biggest in-person indoor event since 2019. Now everyone will be sitting at their computers, due to the rise in COVID infections and deaths in Minnesota.
Other nonprofits still are planning in-person events but adding new safety protocols. The Animal Humane Society in the Twin Cities is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test for its Sept. 30 gala.
In Minnetonka, Secondhand Hounds will require 250 attendees at its gala to show similar proof within 72 hours of the Sept. 24 event. The animal rescue group is moving the cocktail hour outside and spacing out indoor seating.
Guests also may attend from home online, part of a trend in hybrid fundraisers. But Executive Director Rachel Mairose is bracing for the possibility she will have to move the entire event online despite her fears it would draw only half the number of donations.
"It's like a balancing act ... it's hard when you're talking about community safety and nonprofit survival," Mairose said. "People are fatigued. ... Saying 'come to a virtual event' doesn't have the same punch as in 2020."
Even if Mairose meets her goal of $250,000, she expects the nonprofit still will end the year in the red with fewer donations than in 2020, when groups saw an influx in generosity from individuals and foundations. The number of people adopting pets this year also has dipped. "It makes me concerned," Mairose said.
In St. Paul, leaders of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis nixed their annual December gala, opting instead for small Zoom events with donors and an outdoor event with food trucks at the Mall of America.
"It's a challenge for every nonprofit to step up their game," said Joe Schwei, executive director of the Minnesota-Dakotas chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
His group had hoped to bring together 700 people in December, spacing out white linen-topped tables to maintain social distancing. But leaders scrapped those plans for a virtual gala like last year's. Cystic fibrosis tends to isolate people so it's important to bring them together — but only when it's safe, Schwei said.
Louise Matson has moved the Division of Indian Work's only fundraiser of the year online for the second year in a row. Supporters can log into the Sept. 27 event for free, but Matson hopes virtual attendees will be moved to donate a total of $100,000 to support the Minneapolis nonprofit's food shelf and youth program.
"We'd much rather be in person," said Matson, executive director. "Hopefully we'll be able to do it in 2022."
COVID is affecting nonprofit programs as well.
At Catholic Charities, indoor events like bingo have been replaced with outdoor activities. At the Division of Indian Work, programs such as parenting classes went online at the start of the pandemic. Now they're in hybrid formats. "This is a setback, that the delta variant is surging," Matson said. "It's been a roller coaster."
The latest surge also deters volunteers that organizations like Bridging, a furniture bank for people in need, rely on.
Nonprofits also may delay a return to the office. Greater Twin Cities United Way was to reopen Minneapolis offices to 150 employees on Sept. 13, when the plan was to work at least a day a week there. That return likely will be in January.
"There's nothing like in-person interactions," CEO John Wilgers said, noting remote work affects relationships with stakeholders and work culture.
Nonprofits are getting creative in appeals to donors in an effort to overcome online fatigue. During its fundraiser, the Division of Indian Work will encourage donors to follow along with a chef in a virtual cooking class.
Environmental nonprofit Metro Blooms, which canceled plans to welcome 80 people to its new Minneapolis offices in October for a hybrid event, will keep its virtual event capped at an hour and host online breakout rooms for small group conversations.
"People are kind of sick of being online," said Laura Scholl, director of development at Metro Blooms.
On the plus side, virtual fundraisers mean fewer costs, she said, cutting the expenses of catering, event centers and decor. And they can draw more people.
At the Ronald McDonald House, organizers scaled back the usual three-hour program to a 20-minute video. They're encouraging donors to turn the ticket price for their canceled gala into meals for families with ill or injured children.
"We didn't want to do the old virtual way that we did last time because we think people are getting fatigued," Evenocheck said. "It's just going to look a little bit different than it did in 2019 and 2020."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141