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COVID-19 Poses Fundraising Challenges For Peoria Nonprofits

The annual Festival of Trees raises around $120,000 for the child welfare nonprofit Crittenton Centers. This photo was taken at the 2019 Jingle & Mingle event. It's not yet clear if this year's festival will take place in-person.
The annual Festival of Trees raises around $120,000 for the child welfare nonprofit Crittenton Centers. This photo was taken at the 2019 Jingle & Mingle event. It's not yet clear if this year's festival will take place in-person.

Limitations on social gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic are putting nonprofits in a tough position. The organizations have canceled, rescheduled, or moved on line nearly all spring fundraising events, with mixed results. This comes as many organizations are wrapping up their budget year. Some expect the effects to last far longer than the pandemic itself.

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April is usually a big fundraising month for Crittenton Centers, a Peoria-based child welfare organization that provides emergency childcare, maternity supplies, and educational support to families in need.

Development and Marketing Director Sandy Garza said Crittenton's month-long "Fill the Crib" campaign usually brings in enough donations of diapers and formulas to last up to half a year. Two other ticketed events bring in additional fundraising dollars to sustain services.

In the shadow of the novel coronavirus, none of that was possible this year.

“We were gearing up for all of this and it all went flat," Garza said.

At the same time, she said, Crittenton is handing out more than triple the supplies they normally would, as families grapple with the stress of being out of work and at home.

“Not only have we lost our fundraiser, but the need of the people we serve has significantly increased," she said. "Even if I were to say, ‘We lost X amount of dollars,’ it’s probably double that because of what we actually have to come up with now.”

Garza said they hope their biggest fundraiser of the year will make up some of the difference. The annual Festival of Trees brings in about $120,000 for Crittenton, largely from bidding on intricately decorated trees, wreaths, centerpieces, and other holiday decor.

The Festival of Trees also takes the most time to prepare. Garza said collection of supplies and the creation of auction items is a year-long process — this year disrupted by the shutdown.

She said they're trying to get creative with virtual options, in case the state still discourages large gatherings come November.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve actually moved our Festival of Trees event to have mobile bidding," Garza said. "With that, we have seen our customer base expand, in terms of people who were purchasing the items and having them delivered, because even if they weren’t able to attend the event, they were still able to see the items and bid on them. So we decided to see how far we could take that option.”

Crittenton isn't the only Peoria nonprofit hoping to recoup for fundraising losses in the fall.

CASA of the Tenth Judicial Circuit had to push back their Sip-Savor-Smoke whiskey and cigar tasting fundraiser due to social distancing restrictions.
Credit CASA of the Tenth Judicial Circuit
CASA of the Tenth Judicial Circuit had to push back their Sip-Savor-Smoke whiskey and cigar tasting fundraiser due to social distancing restrictions.

CASA of the Tenth Judicial Circuit is a volunteer organization that advocates for children in abuse and neglect court cases.

CASA's Sip-Savor-Smoke whiskey and cigar tasting fundraiser was supposed to be this week. Executive Director Pam Perilles said It's now slated for August — maybe.

"There's just so much uncertainty about even pushing things back a couple months," she said. "Is there going to be a limit on the size of attendees you can have for events? We don't know all those answers."

Perilles said what they do know is fundraising dollars have dried up for the rest of CASA's budget year, which ends in June.

She said this year, grants cover a large chunk of employee salaries and the second round of Paycheck Protection Program loans helped. But that only gets them through the next two months.

Perilles said the biggest challenge is in November.

"We have our big event, 'CASAblanca: Dancing With the Local Stars.' That usually draws 500 or 600 people," she said.

Perilles said it also generates a couple hundred thousand dollars — a huge portion of the budget for her small staff.

She said they're considering virtual options, but the scale of the event would make it challenging to pull off. And she worries too many other nonprofits will try to rally support at the same time.

“Our concern is that there so many events that are already at that time of year and if you just pile them all up, I don’t think anybody’s going to do really well, because donors are going to be hit really hard by all of these events at one time," Perilles said.

Easterseals Central Illinois is one nonprofit that has already tried virtual fundraising.

Rather than cancel or reschedule last month's Run Walk Roll 5K, Easterseals Central Illinois moved the event online.
Credit Easterseals of Central Illinois
Rather than cancel or reschedule last month's Run Walk Roll 5K, Easterseals Central Illinois moved the event online.

Vice President of Development Katie Musisi said they apprehensively moved last month's "Run Walk Roll" 5K online.

“With that decision, I think we were expecting to not see as many registrations, that maybe some of our sponsors wouldn’t be in a position to follow through with their sponsorship, and we likely were going to have lower revenues than we had budgeted," Musisi said.

But she said flexibility in when people could participate — paired with warm weather and cabin fever from quarantine — yielded promising results.

“At the end of the day, we actually made the budget goal that we had set for the event," she said. We came really close to getting the same number of registrants, we retained all of our sponsors, we saw an increase in donations."

That's a relief, Musisi said, as nonprofits often operate on razor-thin margins. And the need for services nonprofits provide is only expected to grow as the pandemic runs its course.

In the interest of disclosure Katie Musisi is married to WCBU announcer Daniel Musisi and WCBU's Kristin McHugh is involved in Crittenton's Festival of Trees.

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