Michelle Douglas had a plan.
Douglas is the chief executive officer of the Emergency Food Network (EFN), a Pierce County nonprofit. She met with her team Tuesday, March 10, to discuss their options. Their Recognition Breakfast, a fundraiser and celebration, was set for Thursday, just two days later.
Washington Nonprofits, an organization that advocates for charitable organizations, had held a webinar the day before informing groups of the risks. Douglas took notes frantically, knowing EFN would soon have a choice to make: cancel the breakfast now or chance it.
EFN decided to go forward with the breakfast. That evening, Douglas got a text from a friend.
“He said the governor is going to shut down events over 250 in the morning, and here’s a link to the Seattle Times article,” Douglas said.
On March 11, Gov. Jay Inslee stood with King, Pierce and Snohomish county officials and declared an end to gatherings of more than 250 people in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The move shut down sporting events and artistic performances, sending a cascade of corollary businesses spinning as their customer bases dried up.
It also meant cancellations of fundraisers critical to the region’s nonprofit community, delivering a financial blow at the very moment a deadly virus would force them to go into overdrive.
In the nonprofit world, there are two main fundraising seasons: the spring and the fall. People tend to vacation during the summer and spend disposable cash during winter holidays, making spring and fall the time to ask for support.
The coronavirus’ rapid spread meant that many nonprofits throughout the region had to cancel events.
“It’s a big challenge,” said Laura Pierce, executive director of Washington Nonprofits. “I’ve been hearing from a lot of nonprofits. This is fundraising high season.”
EFN has several fundraisers each year raising roughly $750,000 in total, Douglas said. The Recognition Breakfast often raises $50,000. That might seem small in comparison to EFN’s overall budget, but the organization, like so many nonprofits, runs lean.
“There isn’t that kind of flex in our budget,” Douglas said. “There isn’t in any nonprofit.”
The impact of the coronavirus on the region has been extreme. In the weeks that followed, all schools shuttered as did restaurants — except for takeout — and other gathering places. That escalated on March 23 when Inslee announced a “stay at home” order, demanding that most Washingtonians stay indoors.
The sudden loss of customers caused many businesses to shut their doors, laying off workers in the process. Douglas’ brother, restauranteur Tom Douglas, laid off hundreds of people when he closed most of his locations for at least two months.
The result is a deluge of people who need access to a social safety net that’s largely outsourced to nonprofits, locally and throughout the United States, without commensurate resources to make it stable. As much as 18 percent of working adults either lost their jobs or lost hours because of the impact of coronavirus according to a recent poll. That’s a massive addition of need to an already strained system.
When recommendations for social distancing became mandatory in mid-March, it forced some nonprofits to get creative.
Solid Ground, a nonprofit housing provider, was set to hold its 20th Annual Community Luncheon at a downtown hotel March 24. The event brings in unrestricted funds that allow the organization to extend its services past what government contracts provide.
To prepare for the event, the group paired young people who live in the Sand Point apartment complex with James Beard award-winning Chef Edouardo Jordan to devise a menu consisting of meatballs and a broccoli salad; the chef invented the latter based on the young people’s preferences, while the meatballs represented the commonalities between cultures — nearly every culture has a meatball.
That plan quickly went pear-shaped, said Mike Buchman, the spokesperson for Solid Ground.
“We had a unique Chef Jordan meal that would have to be prepped by the [hotel] folks, but were his recipes,” Buchman said. “How do we deliver that without showing up?”
Solid Ground pivoted, turning the single lunch into a week of online events featuring videos and interactive features that kicked off on March 24, as planned.
Keeping the event in the spring meant not having to compete with people in the fall when groups with canceled events might try again, Buchman said.
“The competition is going to be worse than normal,” Buchman said.
Whether or not fall will be an option has yet to be seen. A report from the White House anticipates widespread shortages and suggests the United States may be living with the pandemic for 18 months, according to The New York Times.
That’s a long time for underfunded agencies supporting thousands of Americans to hold out. Public officials have to start thinking about the operational strain on these organizations, Pierce said.
“We need to help nonprofits figure out what to do — now,” Pierce said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Mar. 25-31, 2020 issue.