Philanthropy During the Coronavirus

Guest Correspondence

BY DR. LARRY THOMPSON SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY FEB 27, 2021

The Gulf Coast is an incredibly philanthropic community. The donors in this region support innumerable non-profit organizations focused on arts, culture, sports, health and well-being, homelessness, food insecurity, education, children and families, animals and a host of other worthy causes. Before COVID-19 changed our world, I, like so many of you, spent much of my time attending events and activities supporting many of these organizations, including my own, Ringling College of Art and Design.

Beginning in mid-March of last year, however, we all saw the bevy of fundraising events that usually fill Gulf Coast social calendars cancelled. Here at Ringling College, for example, our much-loved annual spring event, Evening at the Avant-Garde, had to be postponed. Canceling or postponing those events meant losing major streams of fundraising dollars.

According to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s 2020 First Quarter Report, giving to charitable organizations in the U.S. was down by 6% in the first quarter of 2020, compared to the same time in 2019; extrapolated for the year, that is a decrease in philanthropic giving of more than $25 billion. A survey conducted by the Women’s Philanthropy Institute at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy showed that “more U.S. households said they were likely to decrease than increase their giving as a result of conditions present during the early months of the pandemic, in part due to uncertainty about the spread of the virus and further economic impacts.”

We are also very fortunate in this community to have a number of committed foundations, including the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, The Patterson Foundation, Community Foundation of Sarasota County and Gulf Coast Community Foundation to name a few, that have focused their resources to help even more during this pandemic.

But it’s not just about revenue; it’s also about viability of programming. The national YMCA organization, for example, has seen its revenue plummet $1.5 billion since March, in large part due to closure of its facilities during coronavirus-related shutdowns. And for organizations, like so many of those in our community, that rely on grand fundraising events, it’s about reimagining those activities to maintain connections with donors to raise the funds so crucial to sustaining their work.

Nonprofits were required to become entrepreneurial and innovative like never before. They had to find new ways to engage, excite, and inspire their donors and supporters. During the pandemic, instead of abandoning their main fundraising events, they looked at them in brand new ways, creating some truly amazing virtual events that have been incredibly successful.

Some events have included a form of live streaming for years; however, that effort was secondary to the live experience. These new virtual events are completely different, crafted and produced to create a meaningful and fun experience for people at home. They have become highly sophisticated, with guests able to take part in charity auctions, enjoy interactive experiences, and even having shared meal experiences through catered delivery to their homes on the day of the event. We at Ringling College, for example, incorporated all of these ideas into our virtual An Evening at the Avant-Garde: Game On!, which was held in October after COVID forced its postponement from the original March date. That event netted over $500,000 for scholarships for Ringling College students. We are also planning this year’s An Evening at the Avant-Garde: Let Us Entertain You as a virtual event in March. The Hospital Gala, benefiting Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation, is another example. That event raised in excess of $900,000, an amazing result for a virtual event.

In short, as nonprofits have added creative, out-of-the-box thinking to their marketing tool kits, they have been able to mitigate some loss of revenue. They have also been able to do something so important: Help us all maintain a sense of community during a time of incredible isolation.

David Maurrasse, research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and adjunct associate professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, tells us, “Philanthropy can bring people together, and stimulate the human spirit.” The greater Sarasota-Manatee community, and the entire Gulf Coast region, believes in this value of philanthropy. These donors and supporters don’t just give funds – they engage, advocate, and educate. They not only stimulate, but also inspire, the human spirit. We need the generosity of this community now more than ever, not just for funds, but for the sense of togetherness that philanthropy fosters.

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art & Design.

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