The familiar red kettles of the Salvation Army were out again across Berks County this Christmas season, but they weren’t as full as in years past.
Like other local nonprofit groups, the Salvation Army's fundraising effort was hit hard by COVID-19.
The pandemic cut traffic at the stores where the bell-ringers set up and dropped donations from more than $100,000 in Berks in 2019 to about $75,000 this year.
This year’s campaign goal had been raised to $150,000 to account for the sharp increase in demand for services due to the pandemic, so just half of that goal was raised, said Maj. Darren J. Mudge, the commanding officer and pastor.
In addition to fewer people venturing out to drop money into the kettles, many are less able to give this year because they too are struggling financially in the pandemic, he said.
Other Berks nonprofits have experienced the same problems — social distancing requirements have made in-person fundraising tougher, and some donors are having a more difficult time giving, said Tammy White, president of United Way of Berks County.
Coupled with the heightened demand for services, the pandemic has resulted in a rough 2020 for most organizations trying to help those in need, she said.
Many fundraising events such as dinners, concerts, road runs and scavenger hunts were canceled.
What’s helped to keep the nonprofit organizations going, though, has been the generosity of the many individuals and businesses in Berks who have continued to give what they can afford even though their own circumstances may be difficult, officials said.
“This is a very generous community,” Mudge said.
Helping Harvest has relied on that giving as the need for food in Berks and Schuylkill counties has skyrocketed this year. The organization typically distributes about 560,000 pounds of food a month, but since March that amount has climbed to nearly 1 million pounds.
It’s been mostly up to individuals to cover that difference, and fortunately there are many in Berks who care enough to do so, Helping Harvest officials said.
“We take care of our own,” said Jay Worrall, president.
Still, the pandemic continues to make it difficult for many organizations that have had to rely on ingenuity to make up for lost funds, either trimming services considered less essential or being creative enough to raise money in other ways.
The Reading Hospital Foundation had to stop donor gatherings, and the Friends of Reading Hospital couldn’t hold its Reading Hospital Road Run as it usually does because participants would have been too close together, said Katherine Thornton, foundation president.
That has made it harder to raise the $2 million needed to buy a mobile mammography unit to help provide routine screenings for women who might not otherwise have access to that service, she said.
So instead the event was held virtually, with participants running and recording their times individually, helping to reduce the fundraising loss, she said.
Some foundation donors are giving less than before as they’ve had to tighten their own budgets, but others are donating for the first time as they realize there is an increased need, she said.
And hospital workers appreciate how the community has contributed in other ways such as making masks or buying food for staff or donating other equipment to help protect them from COVID.
“Berks County never disappoints,” Thornton said. “They always come through with wanting to help however they can.”
Local nonprofits are also partnering as much as possible to help those who need it most, she said.
“We want to make sure everyone is taken care of,” she said.
Arts community hit hard
For performing arts groups that rely heavily on ticket sales and sometimes don’t have much of a safety net, the pandemic has cut into their funds, Berks County Community Foundation President Kevin Murphy said.
“It’s a whole year lost for them,” he said.
But the Reading Symphony Orchestra has relied on a combination of sources to help it survive after canceling or postponing a half-dozen performances this year, including the New Year’s Eve concert that is one of its biggest shows.
Several local foundations have supported the RSO, including some that did not contribute in the past but now know the orchestra's need is especially dire, said David Gross, executive director.
The state also provided some funds made available to performing arts groups. And many RSO patrons who had bought subscriptions to the 2020-21 season before the pandemic chose to donate that money to the group instead of requesting a refund, Gross said.
Now in its 108th year, the orchestra is hoping to perform for a small audience Jan. 23, but that will depend on state and federal health guidance at the time, he said.
Gross noted that the work of RSO and other performing arts groups is important not just for their fans but for the economy of downtown Reading, where concert-goers dine in restaurants and pay to park.
So Gross encouraged people to support their favorite performing arts organizations to make sure they come out on the other side of the pandemic.
“Now more than ever, it’s critical,” he said.
Murphy said he’s hoping that as COVID-19 vaccinations become more available in Berks that things will return to relative normal for local nonprofits and that in-person fundraising events will again be possible.
A need for innovation
Until then, nonprofit groups need to continue to adapt, officials said.
“The pandemic has impacted every single way that nonprofit organizations typically raise dollars," said Jane Morrow, United Way senior vice president of resource development and board chairwoman of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Berks Regional Chapter. "We have all had to rethink how to bring money in.”
Co-County Wellness Services in Berks funding was drastically affected this year when it had to call off A Good Thyme For Life, its annual dining out event, said Carolyn M. Bazik, chief financial officer and director.
A number of local restaurants typically donate 20% of their revenue from that week to the organization, but with so many of those businesses struggling, they couldn’t be expected to give up that money this year, she said.
While the nonprofit community in Berks is great at working together, they are competing for dollars from the same donors, Bazik said.
People who may have given $50 in the past now may only be able to afford to give $25, she said.
“So we’re all being inventive and finding ways to keep helping people,” she said.
Olivet Boys and Girls Club President and CEO Christopher Winters said telling the organization’s story and value to families in Berks has always been the key to fundraising, which is harder when face-to-face meetings are so limited.
So instead of those personal interactions, Winters relies more on phone calls, text messages, emails and social media posts to get the word out about efforts like the educational support the clubs offer for students learning virtually.
Those methods are less personal and make it harder to get the passion across, but they can still be effective, he said.
“Constant communication is the key, so I’m always on the phone now, day and night,” he said. “We have to keep our grant providers and our donors and the general public informed about all that we’re doing, but in a different way.”
In Zoom meetings with other United Way chapter leaders from the U.S. and Canada, Morrow learned there is a shift in focus to virtual platforms for drawing donations.
“In March we didn’t know how long it would last, so we postponed March and April events to August and September,” Morrow said.
But as the pandemic stretched on, restrictions remained in place for gatherings, so United Way events such as its annual gala went online instead.
The response was good, Morrow said, but even so, the event drew two-thirds of the donations a live gala would typically attract.
“We’re all looking ahead to 2021, and for the most part no one is confident about scheduling in-person events for the first quarter,” Morrow said.
The United Way typically visits businesses throughout the county, with its ambassadors telling employees about how donations can help people in need.
Now that fundraising is done through video appeals and by building relationships with donors through phone calls.
“It’s not the same as the person-to-person approach,” Morrow said. “But we have to make it tangible for people. We have to show the changing needs because of COVID impacts, and how we deliver services to help.”
That approach seemed to work, as the United Way exceeded its 2020 campaign goal of $10 million by raising a little more than $10.5 million.
That is in addition to its new COVID response fund created to address the increased community needs for food, shelter and other essentials, which also raised more than $1 million.
There also was the recent $10 million gift from author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, the largest received in the organization’s 95-year history.
When Morrow is looking at things optimistically, she thinks about how much people want to give back and provide others with help and hope.
“We’re overwhelmed sometimes by the generosity of people and their willingness to say, ‘We’re going to make this happen,’” Morrow said. “It’s so touching that people here are saying yes to taking care of our own community.”
The fact that so many nonprofit groups in Berks are still providing such quality services is a testament to the skill and commitment of those organizations, said Heidi Williamson, Berks County Community Foundation’s senior vice president for programs and initiatives.
“We have some really smart and innovative leaders here,” she said, and the county as a whole benefits from them.
“Hopefully," she said, "people will continue to be generous to those organizations so they can still be here when the pandemic is over.”