Cathy Maes canceled her annual fall gala due to COVID-19, instead banking on donations this week through Give to the Max Day.

“We felt there were too many virtual events,” Maes said about some nonprofits shifting to virtual galas.

Thursday is the 12th annual Give to the Max Day, the statewide giving “holiday” for nonprofits and schools run by GiveMN, which drew a record-breaking $21.6 million last year.

The pandemic has strained nonprofits with rising costs and depleting revenue — from wiping out admission fees when theaters closed to canceling benefit walks.

Give to the Max is perfectly poised for the pandemic since it’s always been a primarily virtual event — with most nonprofits and schools peppering donors with e-mails and social media posts asking for money.

“Give to the Max Day ... is the original social distance fundraiser,” said Jake Blumberg, executive director of GiveMN. “We’ve been doing what the world needs now since our founding — the idea of giving digitally and not having to be in person.”

The big question for nonprofits: will those who would have given money during galas and fundraisers scuttled by the pandemic give more money during year-end fundraisers or just shift giving to this month?

Maes, executive director at Loaves & Fishes, a Minneapolis-based free meal program, hopes donors will make up both the money normally raised in a gala and during Give to the Max Day, totaling more than $150,000. She set a goal to raise $85,000 this month, and if she reaches that, it will be doubled by matching grants.

Food shelves are seeing double or triple the normal levels of visitors during the pandemic, especially first-time users. Loaves & Fishes dished up more than 3 million meals so far this year — triple the number of meals in 2019.

“There are many people new to poverty who never thought they’d be here,” Maes said.

Donors ‘digging deeper’

Some nonprofit leaders fear the influx of donations in 2020 — first when the pandemic hit, and then after George Floyd’s death spurred a boost in giving to racial justice and businesses damaged in civil unrest — will lead to donor fatigue for critical year-end fundraisers.

So far, Blumberg said, he’s not seeing that trend at GiveMN, which has hauled in a record $20 million in 2020 — nearly three times as much as this time last year. More than $5 million came in for GiveMN’s special Give At Home MN campaign for nonprofits and schools in May in response to the pandemic. Then in June, after Floyd’s death, more than $9 million was donated.

“Donors are going deeper into their virtual pocketbooks to support causes knowing that those causes are being asked to do even more than they normally would in a typical year,” he said. “If there was ever a year to dig deep, it was this year.”

In Princeton, Minn., Azure Davis, executive director of Ruff Start Rescue, is seeing donors give smaller amounts in 2020, but more donors are stepping up. She canceled her gala in March and nixed the usual in-person event for Give to the Max, her largest fundraiser of the year. Instead, she’s livestreaming puppies and kittens playing on Facebook to draw donations.

“It’s so important, more than any other year,” she said, adding she hopes to raise $100,000 to back her $1.3 million budget. “These next two months will be vital for our organization.”

Disparities in donations

This year, GiveMN is highlighting organizations on the front lines of the pandemic as well as those led by Black and Indigenous leaders and other people of color. The new list of causes advancing racial equity helped new donors discover the Native Governance Center.

The new focus “really helps the playing field level out,” said Wayne Ducheneaux II, executive director of the St. Paul-based center, which serves Indigenous leaders in Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. While the center relies more on grants from foundations, Give to the Max still boosts awareness for the small organization with nine staff members and a $1.5 million budget. He hopes this year’s fundraiser brings in $10,000.

“It really helps us raise our visibility. And one of the largest issues we face is invisibility,” he said of the funding disparity for Native American nonprofits. “Indian County is severely underfunded in the philanthropic field. There’s a long road to get to parity.”

Give to the Max Day is pegged as a 24-hour fundraising blitz, but the total tally counts donations since Nov. 1. Last year, $21.6 million poured in for more than 5,000 nonprofits and schools, a record amount since the day was launched in 2009.

Last year, about a third of nonprofits in the state solicited donations through GiveMN’s site, though some nonprofits said donors gave afterward to avoid a 6.9% transaction fee (GiveMN says about 85% of donors chose to pay that fee in addition to their donation).

While COVID has eliminated many in-person events, some organizations are finding COVID-safe tactics. In Minnetonka, Reach for Resources, Inc., which provides mental health services, is luring donors with the chance to win a sleigh ride with apple cider and cocoa. In Minneapolis, Open Arms of Minnesota, delivering meals to those with life-threatening illnesses, will host a live chat with local chefs.

And Huge Improv Theater in Minneapolis normally held a 28-hour “Improvathon” but moved this year’s event to YouTube with TV stars and comedians Colton Dunn and Colin Mochrie. The theater hopes to collect $50,000 to pay for costs that didn’t end despite revenue evaporating when it closed.

“One of the things that traditionally brings all of us together across differences,” Blumberg said, “is generously supporting those who are making the world a better place in our communities,”