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McLean County Nonprofits Hope Generosity Prevails In COVID-Laden Holiday Season

Dana Vollmer
Volunteers load a truck at the Midwest Food Bank on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

'Tis the season of giving and all around McLean County, nonprofits hope generosity is living.

Organizations that rely on community dollars say they've been fortunate throughout the pandemic—and hope that continues into the busiest time of year for fundraising: the holidays.

Keeping food on people's tables is a community endeavor. When Midwest Food Bank needed donors the most, people stepped up, said Development & Relations Director Jada Hoerr.

She said the food bank has seen an increase in the number of new households giving money. In part, she said that's probably because donors want to see direct aid going to families hurt by the pandemic.

"Anything linked to health and human services—and food being core to that—has had an increased general awareness across the U.S., and really around the world this year," Hoerr said. "I think that we've been fortunate to have a mission that was really well designed for this pandemic."

Hoerr said the biggest jump in first-time donors was in March and April, with a number of households handing over part of their COVID-19 stimulus check.

Now, she said, the goal is to reconnect with those households and develop an ongoing relationship to ensure those able to lend support continue to do so.

One of the ways Midwest Food Bank is doing that is through virtual fund drives that remind prospective donors that cash is the best way to help make an impact for their neighbors in need.

"For every dollar that Midwest Food Bank receives, we can turn that into $30 because we have greater purchasing power and because we receive so many shipments of donated food," Hoerr said. "So we can spread the consumer's dollar further than they could at the grocery store themselves."

Individual contributions make up the majority of the food bank's budget. Hoerr said about 10% comes from local business partners who may be facing money troubles of their own.

She said that means getting creative about the ways the food bank asks for help.

"We have shifted some of our sort of smaller or mid-sized business sponsorships. Instead of asking for dollars, knowing that some of the small businesses are going through hardships as well this year, asking for promotions," Hoerr said. "This is just as valuable as it is to receive a financial contribution--sharing the message of Midwest Food Bank through social media, through employee announcements or even customer announcements."

With Giving Tuesday around the corner, Hoerr said Midwest Food Bank wants to promote charitable contributions to organizations like theirs. But they're also trying to avoid the dreaded "donor fatigue."

"I think that there's probably a lot of heightened needs in the community, so we want to make sure that we're not over-asking. But also, we don't want to under-emphasize the impact and the potential that our donors have the chance to participate in," she said.

Luckily, there may be enough cash to go around. A data analysis by the financial tech company SmartAsset ranked McLean County residents among the most generous donors in Illinois.

McLean County ranked ninth in the state for charitable giving, based on IRS data. The study found nearly 8% of McLean County tax filers itemized a charitable contribution on their returns. Those contributions, on average, accounted for 1.35% of the person's salary. That's not just McLean County generosity. It's also a sign of a high average income. Lower income people usually don't itemize because they rarely pass the threshold above the standard deduction.

While some may need to pinch pennies after the pandemic financial blow, others make a point to continue supporting causes and organizations they care about—even if they can't give as much as usual.

Norris Porter is the new director of development at the McLean County Museum of History. Porter has had a long career in fundraising—most recently handling business sponsorships for the Baby Fold's Festival of Trees. He said he's seen charitable giving remain mostly steady.

"Everybody has been affected by the pandemic in some way, shape or form," he said. "But many of the sponsors were able to continue at the same or similar levels as in past years."

Porter said museums and other nonprofits that drive incomes through memberships are having a harder time. Many have tried to find new ways to offer services virtually.

The history museum, for example, successfully held its annual Evergreen Cemetery Walk virtually. Norris said that provided schools and nursing homes with safe, accessible education despite the constraints of the pandemic.

But the museum does so much more: collection, preservation, and archival work continues, even when it's not open to the public.

"Membership dollars go into all of that," Porter said. "I belong to a lot of different preservation (groups)—the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Gettysburg Foundation. I don't go to those places often, but through my membership, I know that I'm supporting the work that they do—and that's important."

The same is true for the arts.

Jessa Hendricker handles development for the Community Players Theatre, a volunteer-run performance group.

Hendricker said the theater has seen a decline in charitable donations, especially because it hasn't been able to produce plays for in-person audiences.

"It's primarily individual contributions where people would maybe give once a year, or would donate because of a production," she said. "We were lucky to have a (corporate) sponsorship for our last show, so we're continuing to look out and engage with those opportunities in the community."

Hendricker said the theater has held two performances this fall—one ticketed, one livestreamed. The next show, "Home for the Holidays," also will be livestreamed.

These virtual performances are free to watch, but not free to produce. There's licensing for scripts, camera equipment, set pieces, hair, makeup and so on.

Still, Hendricker said, Community Players is holding off on significant pushes for donor support.

"Knowing that we were in a financially OK place, we just decided not to have a hard-hitting fundraising drive, like we normally would," she said. "We just decided as a group that it would be better to encourage people to donate other places and not to ask for money."

The federal government also has  taken steps to encourages support for nonprofits in need this giving season.

The CARES Act allows people who don't itemize to deduct $300 on their 2020 tax returns for cash donations. It also raises the limit on cash gifts for those who itemize from 60% to 100% of their taxable income.

For corporations, that limit goes from 10% to 25%. Nonprofits say these steps encourage donors to be a little more generous.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.