Forced by the pandemic to cancel the public events that pay most of its bills, the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber of Commerce has asked the community to help keep the organization going.
The chamber launched a fundraising campaign in late July, warning that without contributions it would "be forced to close down all operations and cease to exist."
Its goal is $130,000, which an official said would sustain the organization through December 2021. So far, it has raised about $91,000, enough to get through next August.
"A month ago, we literally didn't know if we could make it through July," said Executive Director Jen Weiss.
In the meantime, the chamber has slashed its budget, moved out of its rented location and laid off three of its four staffers. Weiss, the only remaining employee, operates from her home.
The five cities the chamber represents have pitched in. Excelsior gave $16,000, Shorewood and Deephaven $8,500 each, and Greenwood $4,000. Tonka Bay has given $1,500 and is exploring the possibility of adding another $7,000.
Chambers of commerce throughout the country are struggling, said Darren Noble, executive director of the Chanhassen-based SouthWest Metro Chamber of Commerce. As nonprofit business associations, chambers don't qualify for most government relief programs.
"We're in the early stages of our own fundraising efforts," Noble said.
Chambers of commerce provide member businesses with consulting, training and other services that vary depending on what sorts of companies they represent.
"We often say in our industry, if you've seen one chamber, you've seen one chamber," said Vicki Stute, vice president for programs and business services for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce.
Some can weather the downturn more easily if, for example, their members can conduct business remotely or switch to making pandemic-related products like hand sanitizer.
It's not so easy for the Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Chamber, where more than three-fourths of its budget comes from large annual gatherings.
A St. Patrick's Day celebration called Luck o' the Lake was called off with two days' notice. Next to be canceled were June's Art on the Lake, July's Crazy Days, and now September's Apple Day.
Members are almost all small, independently owned businesses, many of them hard hit by the pandemic.
Many chambers of commerce whose local economies rely on tourism have had a rough time, Stute said. That includes the chamber in Excelsior, which attracts metro-area residents on day trips.
On the other hand, tourism was a help to the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce, which launched its own fundraiser in early July with the same $130,000 goal as Excelsior's.
"Sometimes you have to ask. It's hard. It's a humbling experience to have to do that," said Chamber President Matt Kilian.
Many of Brainerd Lakes' members are resorts, which actually flourished this summer as families fled to cabins and outdoor recreation to escape COVID-congested cities, Kilian said. As the chamber asked businesses for up to $10,000, "I don't think we got a 'No,' " he said. They met the fundraising goal on Aug. 20.
Kilian said he was astounded by the community's generosity. "Honestly, it was one of the highlights of my career to be part of that effort," he said.