By JEFFREY REYNOLDS //
If this were any other year, our mailboxes would be overflowing with charitable-event invitations and we’d spend the next three months sprinting between Crest Hollow Country Club, Oheka Castle and the Garden City Hotel.
There’d be small talk, speeches, swag, silent auctions and a nice chicken, fish or vegetarian entrée. Every night of the week.
But this year isn’t like any other. Most charities, on Long Island and across the nation, spent the summer on Zoom – committee meeting, conference calls, all agonizing over the fate of their fall galas.
Now, with Labor Day behind us and no end in sight to the COVID-19 mess, catering hall contracts are being canceled and cash-strapped nonprofits are scrambling to reconcile an increased demand for services with deepening revenue gaps.
According to the Charities Aid Foundation of America, about 88 percent of 544 global and local charities surveyed said they’ve canceled major events, with 68 percent reporting a decline in contributions – attributed in part to the inability to effectively reach supporters during the coronavirus crisis.
More than 40 percent of nonprofits expected their funding to drop more than 21 percent in the months ahead, with several organizations anticipating reduced funding of 50, 70 or even 100 percent, according to the CAFA – obviously, a serious threat to their survival.
Some nonprofits – including heavy-hitters like the New York City-based Metropolitan Opera, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and St. Jude’s – have pivoted to virtual events. Local organizations like the Interfaith Nutrition Network and Long Island Red Cross moved their 2020 galas online; Girls Inc., LI and several others will do the same in November. A cottage industry of slick fundraising platforms and digital-content consultants has emerged.
Nobody talks openly about their numbers, probably because it’s impolite, but also because – with fewer attendees, slashed ticket prices, revamped sponsorship levels and “Zoom fatigue” running rampant – these events are likely generating mere fractions of what host charities budgeted at the start of the year.
That has real consequences for programs, communities and families that rely on those dollars. But special events have always been among the least-effective ways to raise critical funds.
A portion of every precious dollar raised in a ballroom goes to renting space and AV equipment, paying caterers and printing invitations – and while experienced event planners know how to minimize those expenses, staff time and opportunity costs further dent the ROI.
It’s true that special events – if executed properly and with the right follow-up – have intangible and downstream benefits that go beyond the cash raised that evening. They give organizations a chance to showcase their mission and celebrate their success, to cultivate existing relationships and build new ones, to boost their profile in a crowded field.
Dinners, luncheons, auctions and golf outings – particularly those with a catchy theme or some reach beyond the stale, five-hour formula – can be fun for donors and meet their own needs. Sponsoring (and attending) a popular event for a well-regarded charity often comes with prestige, respect, camaraderie and what economists call the “warm glow” of giving, which can be enhanced by peer pressure and an open bar.
Nobody wants to lift a glass while wearing a mask. And while it’s tempting to chalk up this year and focus on 2021, nobody knows exactly when large gatherings will return, how the recession might impact charitable giving and whether weary folks will be anxious to return to a dinner circuit that was already ripe for disruption.
There’s got to be a better way.
Some charities began to recognize this pre-COVID, announcing “un-galas,” where virtual attendees pledge donations in return for not having to attend. Others were already boosting their social media activities, launching online-giving campaigns or moving to smaller house parties – more casual events, trying to engage a new generation of supporters
The most innovative nonprofits won’t completely abandon their special events, but they’ll recall begging honorees to hound their friends. They’ll remember lying awake the night before, praying for good weather. And they’ll take all the lessons of COVID and find new ways to build stronger, deeper and longer-term relationships with individual donors, corporations and foundations.
In the meantime, leave the car in the driveway, the tuxedo in the plastic and the expensive dress at the store. Enjoy a great dinner at home with family and close friends, flavor it with a healthy dose of gratitude, and send your favorite charity a check for the money and time you’d have otherwise spent.
Encourage your friends to do the same. And assure them that their dollars will go even further this year, because there won’t be any hors d’oeuvres.
Jeffrey Reynolds is the president and CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.