EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Shuttered doors. Canceled productions. Empty, dark buildings. Workers laid off and furloughed.
COVID-19 has hit all businesses, and nonprofits are among those being significantly challenged, both financially and socially. Organizations still have to pay rent, insurance and utilities, but with no visitors or performances, the revenue of most nonprofits currently hovers just above zero. Nonprofits shut down in mid-March, and some leaders worry if their entities will ever return to pre-coronavirus levels of engagement.
Many people said uncertainty is the most challenging part, since they can only plan ahead so much without knowing when their operations will reopen and how much public interest there will be.
"This is the most trying and resiliency-testing experience we've all had," said Jason Jon Anderson, Pablo Center at the Confluence executive director.
Ann Sessions, executive director of the Chippewa Valley Theatre Guild, has spent 19 years in her current role but has never faced the obstacles posed by COVID-19. The guild had just completed the first weekend of shows for "Morning's at Seven" on March 15. The next day, all operations stopped, the first time in CVTG's 39-year existence that it closed for an extended period of time.
The Pablo Center is closed until at least May 17. Anderson believes people will want to socialize in public when allowed, but he isn't sure how much disposable income people will be willing to spend because of the economic impacts of coronavirus.
Children's Museum of Eau Claire Executive Director Michael McHorney worries about people's willingness to return after restrictions on public gatherings are lifted, saying they will more likely go to outdoor attractions.
Carrie Ronnander, director of the Chippewa Valley Museum, shared similar sentiments.
"I just don't think people are going to return (and) have the same kind of attendance this summer as they did last summer," Ronnander told the Leader-Telegram. "People are going to feel hesitant to be inside."
Nonprofits are researching loans, grants and other creative fundraising opportunities, but sources of income are far from guaranteed. To aid with finances, a new nonprofit coalition, Together Chippewa Valley, was announced Thursday. It is composed of eight organizations, with more nonprofits encouraged to join, that combined to create one fundraising campaign to help with immediate financial concerns like payroll.
Donations can be made through May 31 and will be split evenly among coalition members.
"The overriding purpose is to help nonprofits stay alive," said spokesperson Kerry Kincaid, who noted the importance of local organizations working together "in times of chaotic challenges."
The Chippewa Valley Museum is part of the coalition, and Ronnander appreciates the solidarity shown.
"To talk to other organizations who are all feeling the same stress and insecurity and just unknown of what's happening in the future, there's some kind of weird comfort in that," Ronnander said. "Sometimes when you're running an organization and there are issues, you're alone because those are issues specific to the organization. When it's a shared miserable experience … it's a little bit easier."
Separately, nine nonprofits serving residents disproportionately affected by the coronavirus received a total of $75,000 in grants on April 3 during the first week of the COVID-19 Quick Response Community Fund, which was established by the Eau Claire Community Foundation and United Way of the Greater Chippewa Valley.
Most nonprofit leaders hope some activities can return in June, otherwise the costs could be severe. Anderson estimated losses of $767,000 due to the cancellation of shows and exhibits through June 1, about 20% of the $3.7 million budget for the 2020 fiscal year. If the Pablo Center is still closed at the end of July, Anderson said it will be difficult to pay its 18 core staff members and keep the lights on.
While its operations are on hold, the Pablo Center is assisting in workforce development areas and 3-D printing face shields and masks to local hospitals, doing whatever it can to help different communal aspects.
Sessions said 40% of CVTG revenue occurs between March 15 and the end of July, and all of that is now in jeopardy. The CVTG also canceled its largest fundraiser, several smaller fundraisers and at least one production.
"The monetary uncertainty is certainly a hard truth," Sessions said. "The potential negative impact is heavy."
The 2020 budget for the Chippewa Valley Museum is $416,000. Ronnander estimated that the museum will lose $46,000 from April to June, and that number could be much higher if its Fourth of July Fun Fair is canceled.
The closures could also lead to a decrease in awareness about nonprofit offerings. From May 15 to June 5 of last year, about 2,500 students from 59 school groups visited the Chippewa Valley Museum, according to Ronnander. That number could be zero this year.
Ronnander said one of the most challenging aspects involved eliminating the museum's spring newsletter and program calendar mailing, which will result in older members not knowing what is happening with the museum.
"The more we reduce our presence, the more you get forgotten," Ronnander said.
McHorney said the Children's Museum is preparing for minimum losses of $135,000 from earned income, nearly 25% of its 2020 budget. He said about 81% of its annual budget comes from earned revenue, which is money from daily admissions and memberships.
McHorney said the Children's Museum has enough liquidity to operate under closure for 75 to 90 days. But when the museum reopens, it will need money to cover costs right away, and it will take time for revenue to return to normal levels.
If it is closed into July, the museum will have to consider things like extending its line of credit, using its board-designated endowment fund or taking out an equity loan against the current building. The third option is complicated by a capital fundraising project to build a new museum facility, for which the sale of the current building is earmarked.
"There are multiple layers to every decision," McHorney said. "We're going to have to really think about taking care of what's here and now, but then what's next as well and thinking about how that might happen and play out."
The Children's Museum is doing several things to help the community while it is closed, such as offering "busy boxes" for $40 that include items like kinetic sand and arts and crafts. For every box bought, the museum will donate one box to a family in need.
"Ultimately, for us to all survive and get through this, it's the community that has to come together," McHorney said.
YMCA of the Chippewa Valley CEO Theresa Hillis agreed, saying the Y wants to help the community in whatever capacity is needed. She said YMCA buildings could potentially be used for other things like a voluntary isolation center.
The YMCA closed March 13 and has furloughed more than 600 staffers at its five locations. Hillis hopes summer offerings can happen at the YMCA and said the estimated financial impact from COVID-19 on the YMCA is unknown.
"I couldn't even put a quote on it," Hillis said. "We haven't done the numbers yet because we've been so busy with the people."
Hillis called the decisions to furlough and lay off workers an agonizing choice.
"It's always the people that's the hardest," Hillis said. "Every decision you make, it's like a stake through your heart. We're just trying to navigate as good as possible until we come back to the new normal, whatever that may look like."
The Pablo Center laid off 147 non-essential part-time employees shortly after closing on March 13. Managers called part-timers informing them of the decision and connected workers to unemployment options and other potential local employers.
Anderson called that one of the toughest decisions of his career.
"It keeps me up every single night," Anderson said. "That impacts people's lives dramatically, and it's not an easy choice."
At the Children's Museum, many employees have been laid off or furloughed, and the number of full-time workers decreased from 17 to six. McHorney and employees are working from home and have decreased daily fixed costs from $1,728 to $1,541, but expenses keep mounting as the days continue.
McHorney said morale among current employees appears solid so far because everyone is facing similar challenges, but he worries what will happen if closures continue for a few months. Many discussions are inherently discouraging, but they found a few ways to try to stay upbeat, like singing "Happy Birthday" to one employee.
The Pablo Center core staff of 15 full-time and three part-time employees are working remotely and trying to provide an escape by highlighting people and exhibitions digitally and through virtual tours. Anderson said they create a new music playlist and connect visually with each other every day.
"We might be the only connection that staff member has that day, and boy is that necessary," Anderson said.
The Chippewa Valley Museum employs six full-timers and four part-timers, and Ronnander said they became more flexible out of necessity.
"It's allowed us to explore things that we've talked about but haven't found the time to attempt to try it," Ronnander said. "Taking a risk, what can we possibly lose?"
All full-time employees are working through April, but Ronnander is not as certain about May and beyond. Contingency plans include making sure all essential employees have a backup trained to fill that role.
Ronnander said attitudes appear good so far, but employees are justifiably worried about the budgetary impact of an indefinite closure. Working remotely also makes it tougher to judge morale.
"When you see people every day and you communicate with them face-to-face, you can gauge what's happening, but if they only reply by email or chat every four hours, it's really tough," Ronnander said.
Ronnander misses talking with a volunteer at the museum's front desk and conversing with employees. She worries about the impacts of isolation on the health of the museum's many volunteers.
Sessions is the only full-time employee at CVTG and now splits her time between the office and home. Her days involve video conference calls with the organization's board, researching potential loan applications and working on longer-term organizational projects.
When public gatherings are allowed again, Sessions said there will likely be a gradual return before business goes back to its normal levels.
"I think people are already anxious to be able to see their loved ones, their friends, their colleagues and resume their life," Sessions said. "We'll do our best to provide something so fantastic that attendance will be strong in the next year or two, but I do think all of these financial woes strain right into this next season."
She said the lack of socialization is tough for her personally and CVTG, since its main selling point is a chance for connection.
"The theater arts are about being together, and here we are all separate," Sessions said. "The quiet is hard. Normally at night you have two productions going on, you have a lot of activity, and it's very inspiring watching people come together to work together for a production ... To have that silence is very sad."
The Y has similarly offered camaraderie for all ages, but that is gone for the near future.
"We provide connections, social connections and people getting together and learning how to be stronger together, and I think there's going to be a greater need for that when we come back," Hillis said.
Ronnander is optimistic the museum will continue operating thanks to employees' work ethic and creativity.
"At some point we will open again; I do have faith that that will happen," Ronnander said. "We might look different when we're done, but the Chippewa Valley Museum will still be there for the community."
Hillis concurred, saying the YMCA has a history of providing support during crucial times like world wars, and she believes it can help in the battle against COVID-19.
"It's a war on a virus, and that's what we're trying to do now," Hillis said. "We're going to get through this together. There's a chance for us to be the next greatest generation."
Many people believe the nonprofit community will work together and recover when operations can go back to normal, but uncertainty still lingers over most decisions.
"Everybody is in the same boat, and we're all trying to paddle as hard as we can," Sessions said.