A volunteer distributes food from the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin. ic Hinterlang/shutterstock

A volunteer distributes food from the Central Texas Food Bank in Austin. ic Hinterlang/shutterstock

This year’s coronavirus pandemic and declines in the oil and gas industries are wreaking havoc for charities in the Southwest, as nonprofit organizations in Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas struggle to raise money.

Spring and summer fundraising events have been canceled or postponed indefinitely. Attempts to move events online have yielded mixed results. Layoffs and furloughs of fundraising staff are not uncommon. And for fundraisers who still have jobs, Zoom meetings with donors are getting old.

“We have to rely on the phone or Zoom, or some other tech-based meeting. You cannot hand the donor a proposal or go with a colleague and meet donors,” says Monica Champ, chief development officer at the Tulsa Community College Foundation. “It is not that same face-to-face conversation. It’s harder to read facial expression and body language. They’re at home, so dogs are barking or the kids take center stage, and you’ve lost your meeting.”

Zoom “is so one-dimensional, it is so flat,” agrees Chris Miller, an Oklahoma planned-giving consultant. “Working with donors on Zoom, it is a hard hill to climb. People crave personal interaction but can’t have it, so it becomes frustrating.”

In Texas, Junior Achievement of Dallas, which recruits volunteers from area businesses to train schoolchildren in finances and entrepreneurship, is bracing for a decrease in corporate giving this year, a decline of up to 30%. Companies, which provide three-quarters of Junior Achievement’s budget, are struggling in the diminished economy with no end in sight.

“A lot of companies cannot afford to give what they did,” says Jan Murfield, the Dallas charity’s president, who spends most of her time raising money. She doesn’t see much chance of getting individual donors or foundations to make up for the loss in corporate support: Unlike food banks, hospitals and other frontline charities working in the health crisis, Junior Achievement “is not on the radar” for those donors now, Murfield says. In Oklahoma City, United Way of Central Oklahoma is another charity facing a drop in corporate giving.

With many of the region’s largest companies hard pressed financially, United Way fundraisers fear losing the corporate matches that accompany employee donations in workplace giving drives. Companies often provide a dollar-for-dollar match for employee contributions, which average $456 annually among individuals who agree to have money withheld from each paycheck, says Lexi Skaggs, director of major gifts. Of course, employee donations will also decline, or disappear altogether, among United Way supporters who are furloughed or laid off.  

According to nonprofit wisdom, charitable organizations need fundraisers in good times, but they need them even more in a bad economy. But with contributions plummeting, many Southwest charities have been forced to let development staff go. “I know at least two organizations that have cut fundraising staff,” says Beth Wilson, a senior fundraiser at the University of Texas Health Science Center, who also leads the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Houston chapter. Arts groups, added Wilson, are especially likely to lay off or furlough fundraisers.

In Texas, where unemployment topped 11% last month, up from a previous high of 9.2% in 1986, the Texas Ballet Theater in Fort Worth is in crisis mode. Frustrated dancers stuck at home are unable to practice normally, and the annual budget has been slashed by $2 million. Compensation for employees, including fundraising staff, is being reduced by at least 5% and up to 20%, with senior staff seeing the largest reductions.

After spending decades working in the arts, this virus and bad economy are “the worst thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Ben Stevenson, the ballet’s artistic director, in an interview with Texas Monthly. “It’s been very catastrophic.”

In Arizona, a coronavirus hotspot where cases surged to nearly 190,000 this month, fundraisers at the University of Arizona Foundation are resisting the university’s request that they return to the office. Even a plan to open only 30% of the foundation’s office space does not reassure some development staff. With the virus rapidly spreading, “why now?” asks one fundraiser who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Even before this year’s twin health and economic crises, Southwest nonprofits faced fundraising challenges, says Jim Anderson, a global fundraising consultant based in Arizona. “People come here because they have an idealized vision of the Southwest,” he says. “The home they have here may not be their only one, and they are often more loyal to charities in the area they came from.”

Hard times are forcing some fundraisers like Champ at the Tulsa Community College Foundation to try new ways of generating funds.

“Like so many organizations, we depend on events,” Champ says. “We are moving to an annual fund campaign instead. Going through hard times forces you to take a risk.”

Despite the stress from the deadly virus and its economic fallout, this year’s gloomy fundraising climate does have a few sunny spots in the Southwest.

“My primary focus is major donors. It has never been easier to get in contact with folks—that is a nice part about these times,” says Emily Reed, an executive director of advancement at the University of Oklahoma. “Some donors have even decided this is a time they want to increase or make gifts sooner to have impact now.”

Another thing the university has done: find new ways to stay in touch with donors, says Reed. For example, when an April fundraising dinner was canceled, the university decided to hold an online “thank a teacher” campaign instead. For a gift of $25 or more, the university emailed each teacher named by donors to tell the instructors they’d been honored. Then it emailed all the donors a “care package,” a digital recognition tool that included a certificate of appreciation for being “inspirational,” instructions for creating videos that were subsequently posted publicly, and graphics such as a trophy that donors can display on social media and other online venues. 

Because of the lower cost of the teacher campaign, Reed says, “we raised about as much as we net with the live event.”

An Arizona public radio station also had good results with an online event. Before the coronavirus, KAWC had planned to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a music festival featuring four or five live acts. But when the virus shut down bars, restaurants and other venues, the station decided to celebrate with a nine-hour virtual music festival featuring 31 performances. Broadcast on five radio stations and streaming live on Facebook and YouTube, the festival generated record levels of distribution and engagement from the 15,000 to 20,000 people who tuned in, says Anderson, the Arizona-based consultant who works with the station. That’s more than 10 times the number of people KAWC has drawn in the past. 

KAWC also found record fundraising success by practicing transparency when staff members were stricken by the coronavirus, Anderson says. After four of its five on-site employees tested positive for the virus, KAWC decided to be honest with donors. “We told everyone that COVID hit home,” he says. “We told them not to give if they were impacted. But we encouraged those who could to give more.”

And they did. “Donors came out of the woodwork” to make major gifts of $500 or more, breaking revenue records, Anderson says. In other good news, he adds, all four staff members with the virus recovered and none were hospitalized.

“For organizations with boards or staff who wail about this being a terrible time, and you cannot ask, we have said that nature abhors a vacuum, and those organizations will suffer,” Anderson says. “You do have people deeply impacted by these crises because they live paycheck to paycheck, but many others can give—even now. If you are not inviting their participation and support, you are doing your organization a disservice.”

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