Can Virtual Fundraising Save Our State’s Nonprofits?

Online events help nonprofits raise money, but for many cultural and charitable institutions, pandemic-related revenue shortfalls are staggering.

virtual fundraising

Illustration by Daniel Fisher

NJPAC is promising the best seat in the house to every guest at its annual fall gala. And why not? Those who attend this year’s fundraiser for the performing arts center in Newark will be doing so from front row center in their own homes.

Just as many businesses have gone virtual during the Covid-19 pandemic, so too have New Jersey nonprofits like NJPAC—especially when it comes to fundraising.

The pandemic has hit nonprofits hard. Those that provide services—food, shelter, health care and counseling, for example—are seeing more people in need, while donations decline. Nonprofit cultural institutions and entertainment venues are missing out on ticket sales and other on-site revenues. And the fundraising galas and fun runs, walks and rides that typically provide much of the financial support for nonprofits have become impossible to hold—at least in the traditional manner.

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The Center for Non-Profits, with the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, surveyed more than 280 Garden State charitable organizations in July and found that 166 of them had lost close to $200 million in revenue, due in part to cancelled programs or events and reduced donations in the early months of the pandemic. Nationally, 83 percent of nonprofits have lost significant revenue because of the pandemic, according to a survey from Independent Sector. 

With the pandemic continuing to keep New Jerseyans at home, virtual fundraisers have become a lifeline for nonprofits. Some have found that these benefits have unique benefits of their own—especially when the organization shows a strong creative streak.

Consider Womanspace, an organization that provides services to Mercer County domestic-violence victims. Womanspace held an ongoing No Show Event Fundraiser this summer. Attendance was strictly forbidden. “What sounds better than NOT going to an event, not having to figure out what to wear, who will watch the kids?” read the invitation. “Hope to NOT see you there!” 

Thanks to such innovative approaches, some nonprofits have found that virtual gatherings may raise more money than in-person events while getting their message across more deeply and more succinctly.

Almost 60 percent of the groups in the Center for Non-Profits survey modified their fundraisers into virtual events. Linda Czipo, president and CEO of the center, says several factors can dictate an organization’s success at virtual fundraising, including the quality of its donor relationships, its technical expertise and its ability to create easily accessible online activities.

Virtual events have their advantages. Supporters of some organizations appear to welcome the chance to attend virtual events rather than a live event to which it might be too far to travel. Others are happy to skip a round of time-consuming dinners and galas. Still, says Czipo, “there’s nothing like the energy of being in a room rallying around a really important cause.”

Some organizations have found it relatively easy to reach new donors during the pandemic, says Czipo. The situation is tougher, she says, for performing arts venues and museums, which are sitting empty or have adjusted their programming to virtual or outdoor events.

“The arts have been absolutely hammered,” says Czipo. “It’s horrible.”

NJPAC has furloughed some employees and has been hosting virtual performances, says Sarah Rosen, managing director of Women@NJPAC, a group that hosts the center’s largest fundraiser. Traditionally, the event would include a sit-down dinner for 1,000 patrons, performances and an after-party under a tent—and could be counted on to raise about $2 million. This fall’s virtual event—which will take place October 3 online and on NJTV, with an after-party live on Instagram—will have a similar fundraising goal. Event sponsors had already pledged $1.6 million by midsummer; some increased their support over last year. The event will honor governors Tom Kean and Phil Murphy and First Lady Tammy Murphy. Performers had not been announced by deadline.

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While October is typically prime time for fundraisers, many virtual events took place as early as the spring, during the height of the pandemic’s assault on New Jersey. 

The Breast Cancer Research Foundation’s Virtual Hot Pink Evening, held May 20, met its financial goal with $5.2 million raised. The event featured a performance by actress Mandy Gonzalez from the cast of Broadway’s Hamilton. Gonzalez had recently finished chemotherapy for breast cancer. New Jersey–based performers, including Norbert Leo Butz, Jessamyn Blakeslee and Adam Dannheisser, showed “incredible generosity,” giving their time and talent to record songs and voiceovers for the fundraiser, says event executive producer/director Steven Tabakin, of South Orange.

Significantly, recorded performances can be used over time on social media to generate additional donations long after an event, says Tabakin. However, he adds, you have to know what kind of material will succeed in the digital milieu. “Attention spans are shorter,” says Tabakin. “You can’t have somebody standing at a podium for 15 minutes. You have to keep it snappy.” 

Also in May, Jersey Battered Women’s Services raised more than $400,000 with a Grand Tastings dinner that included video from past events; a live auction; and prerecorded segments with the president, CEO, committee chair and chef chairs. Helen R. Le Frois, vice president of development, says all but one of the event sponsors (who needed to delay due to hardship because of the pandemic) was willing to convert gala tickets bought earlier into a direct donation. The dinner usually raises $500,000 or more, but the in-person event has about $100,000 in overhead. 

“On a net-net basis, we’re close,” says Le Frois. About 1,000 people logged in for the event, compared to 400 who usually attend in person.

The NJ Sharing Network Foundation, which supports transplant research, usually raises $1.1 million annually through two 5K walk/race events, in Long Branch and New Providence, where the group is based. For its Long Branch walk in May, 1,000 people logged in from 34 states and 18 countries to watch the online show, says Elisse E. Glennon, the foundation’s executive director. Then they ran or walked 5 km by themselves, in their own neighborhoods. Usually, 5,000 people participate in the event. 

Until two days before the Sunday event, the group called it a “virtual 5K,” and people incorrectly thought they were supposed to walk while listening to the web program. 

“The world of virtual events is so new,” says Glennon. “Friday night we changed all the language to instruct attendees to tune into the program.” The organizers called it a “celebration of life” and asked people to first watch the event online.

“Probably we will net either the same or even more than in a regular year,” says Glennon. “But we would much rather be in person … We would never want to give that up.”

Covenant House NJ, which provides housing and support for homeless youths, found one of its usual fundraisers became more meaningful online. The organization, with six New Jersey locations, has raised funds with large groups of supporters collecting pledges and sleeping outside, usually in cardboard boxes. During the pandemic, participants slept out in their own yards and posted about the experience online. For some, it gave a better understanding of the pain of homelessness, says development manager Jacqueline Murphy. “When you’re by yourself,” she says, “it really does help to give that sense of isolation.” 

Lunch Break, which provides food, clothing and support to Monmouth County–area families, postponed its annual gala due to Covid-19, but TV personality Jon Stewart committed to helping host the August 27 online gala, Virtual Evening of Community and Hope; he also agreed to host the live gala in October 2021. Lunch Break’s virtual fundraiser will include video of the group in action. 

“When you actually see the people that are being financially impacted by virus and everything that has happened, it becomes a reality,” says development manager Jill Govel-Gwydir.

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For newer organizations, moving to online fundraising has perhaps come more easily. Angel Energy, founded in August 2019 to fight domestic violence, raised $1,200 in May through an online workout class. The event benefitted an organization called WomenRising in Jersey City. Another workout class raised $1,000 for the United Nations fund to End Domestic Violence Against Women. In July, Angel Energy held a DJ party on Instagram Live that raised almost $1,500 to help the three children of a Bergen County victim of domestic violence, with the DJ playing her favorite songs. 

“A lot of these would be in-person events,” says Sarah Ripoli of Hoboken, who runs the group. “But we never got to experience that because of the pandemic.” 

No one can tell if virtual fundraising will be a sufficient life preserver for the state’s nonprofits. Almost 30 percent of the organizations surveyed by the Center for Non-Profits have laid off or cut staff, eliminating more than 13,000 jobs for now.

“At the end of the day,” says Czipo, “if the people you ordinarily count on for donations have lost their jobs or are in dire economic straits, it’s going to affect your ability to raise funds.” 

Tina Kelley is a frequent contributor. She lives in Maplewood.
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