[Editor’s Note: Every year Noozhawk renews its commitment to supporting the Nonprofit Community by promoting #GivingTuesday in our Good for Santa Barbara nonprofits section. We’d like to encourage you, our readers, to support local philanthropy on #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving, by making a donation to one or more of the following local organizations. Click here for Noozhawk’s #GivingTuesday Guide to Giving.]
Local nonprofit organizations are beginning to emerge from one of the most challenging periods in history.
As luncheons, awards ceremonies and galas resume, it’s clear that the pandemic’s impact on the nonprofit sector was variable, with ongoing residual effects.
“The pandemic shone a light on the social inequalities and structural inequities in our communities,” said Geoff Green, CEO of the Santa Barbara City College Foundation. “Organizations that responded to the needs highlighted by the pandemic tended to do better, while others, such as arts and performance venues, took a greater hit.”
As trauma experts, CALM was at the forefront of the pandemic, addressing the growing needs of the families they serve (requests increased by 50%) while also becoming a resource for the greater Santa Barbara community.
Offering an educational series called “CALM Together: Community Conversations,” the organization helped the community navigate pandemic challenges, including isolation, mental wellbeing, and dramatic changes in education.
“CALM is a relationship-based organization,” CEO Alana Walczak said. “Our focus over the pandemic year has been on building those trusted relationships with families, supporters and partner agencies. Our strength is our mission and what we learned during the pandemic is that zoom calls with one or two supporters, email conversations, or inviting people to smaller educational sessions really mattered.”
Walczak attributes the strength of those relationships with the extraordinary success of her organization’s recent, “CALM at Heart” luncheon.
The signature event was canceled last year, but held outdoors and in person earlier this month, with an audience cap of 250 guests. The luncheon brought in over $300,000, more than has ever been raised during the event’s nine-year history.
“The pandemic helped people think critically about what they hold dear, and realize that as difficult as it was for many, it did not impact us equally,” Walczak said.
The most vulnerable who were already suffering faced even greater obstacles, and the global trauma heightened awareness and empathy, impacting giving.
For membership-based organizations such as MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, the year-long shut-down posed incredible challenges for the nearly 5-year-old institution.
Striving to remain relevant, MOXI developed new programming, including Virtual Design Labs (school programs), free MOXI@Home online activities and videos, a virtual Thanksgiving camp, a virtual Spring luncheon, and the cardboard “Curio-city” project.
In addition, MOXI acquired its museum store, introducing an online shopping component expanding its branded merchandise as well as its bottom line.
“A lesson learned for us is that we were able to take the time and move beyond throwing one heck of a party and focus more on our mission and impact,” said MOXI CEO Robin Gose.
That insight inspired the museum’s fall fundraiser, MOXI@Night, which the organization hosted on their rooftop with fewer people and a greater focus on the mission.
The farm-to-table seated dinner was held over two nights to limit capacity to 100 guests per night, and the programming emphasized MOXI’s focus on education, featuring a panel discussion with Gose, award-winning documentarian John Chester of “The Biggest Little Farm,” and Pablo Ortiz, climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“During COVID, people realized where their hearts and passions are, and we are so grateful to supporters who helped their beloved cultural institutions survive,” Gose said.
AHA! similarly showcased the power of their mission – giving teens the tools to feel safe, seen and emotionally connected – by replicating their “Heroes Assemblies,” a COVID-developed program now operating in a hybrid format in select schools, for an adult audience.
To date, the assembly has reached over 4,000 local students, providing connection during an extremely isolating time.
“We find the best way to demonstrate what we do is by having people visit in person, and since this wasn’t an option, we adapted the Heroes Assembly for supporters,” said Molly Green, AHA! senior director of development.
It was a fusion of live studio presentation and videos with a board member and an AHA! alum leading guests through an overview of programs, celebrity video segments, and interviews with student participants.
In true AHA! fashion, there were two break-out sessions where small groups shared what being a hero means to them. In the midst of the programming, there was a paddle raise and Green said the results exceeded her expectations. The organization plans to resume their annual Sing It Out fundraising event in person this spring.
“The bright side of COVID is forced creativity and experimentation,” said Rebecca Anderson, executive director of Lotusland. “We are like a living laboratory, trying new things, adapting and learning as we go.”
Anderson said the organization’s survival depends on groups coming through and with a global shutdown and permit limiting capacity to 15,000 guests per year, Lotusland pivoted, adopting new programming and fundraising initiatives to supplement lost revenue.
Last year Lotusland hosted an online fundraiser featuring nearly 60 silent auction items versus the typical six large items or experiences presented live. Although Anderson said the event netted about the same amount of money, the fulfillment and administration were tedious.
She was thrilled to re-imagine this year’s event in person and on site.
In July, the organization hosted “Petal to the Metal,” an outdoor exhibition featuring a curated collection of Italian automobiles and fine art.
“We constructed private dining areas throughout the garden and staggered arrival times with a daytime-only admission and a higher-priced evening dinner experience.”
The event drew 500 guests with sensitivity to social distance.
In addition to offering off-site art events at local galleries and a film screening, Lotusland appealed to select supporters to help the nonprofit pivot to self-guided tours with QR codes, and new web content enabling virtual tours. Lotusland also adapted its fourth-grade life science curriculum, inviting families in lieu of full classes to tour the gardens.
“It’s interesting to think about what events will look like going forward,” Green said.
While many think that the hybrid model will remain popular, Green said it may not be sustainable.
“In many ways, hosting hybrid events is even more challenging because you essentially have the cost of running two parallel events.”
While Walczak admits that nothing replaces the magic of being in a room together, she said CALM, like many nonprofits, is rethinking the role of events.
“The shift we are experiencing is putting the event in a context that it’s the starting point from which to build connections,” she said.
National data show that the vast majority of donations come from individuals, not foundations or corporations, according to Green.
“There are plenty of resources out there,” he said. “The key is building and sustaining those trusted relationships.”
Related Story: Innovation, Back to Basics Made a Difference for Many Nonprofits During COVID-19 Crisis
— Ann Pieramici is a Noozhawk contributing writer.