Pandemic hits nonprofit groups hard

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Pandemic hits nonprofit groups hard

Covid-19 forces cancellations of events that charities, civic organizations rely on to raise the money they use to help others, support communities

INSTEAD OF ITS traditional summer golf fundraiser, Mel’s Charities of Grafton hosted a scaled-back mini-golf outing at Missing Links Golf Course in Mequon last weekend. Wearing masks and standing by to help were volunteers Caroline Bay, Grace Tuttle, Greta Hinke and Natalie Epperson. Photo by Sam Arendt
By
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Summer is supposed to be the season of runs, galas, festivals and golf outings that nonprofit organizations and civic groups host to raise the money they need to support their operations and the causes they support.

It’s a time when fun and fundraising are almost synonymous.

But this year, the calendar of events is almost blank as event after event has been canceled due to the coronavirus.

“We’ve never had adversity like this,” Tom Stanton, executive director of Grafton-based Mel’s Charities, said. “All our events either had to be canceled or changed according to the times.”

For example, the group’s annual golf outing was replaced.last weekend with a mini-golf outing aimed at families.

Mel’s supports a variety of area nonprofit agencies, depending on six signature events and 13 or 14 other fundraisers annually to fund.

“We want to see if we can still do this,” Stanton said, adding that while the group has increased its giving annually for 21 years, the pandemic may temporarily put a halt to that record.

“We’re figuring things out,” he said. “Has it affected us? Sure. But we’re not going anywhere.”

The agencies they support provide important services to the community, and their fundraising abilities have been hit by the pandemic as well.

“Those guys are in the trenches. They are working with the people who are really hurting,” Stanton said. “What they have to go through on a day-to-day basis is far more than what we go through, so if we can help them out, we will. We’ll figure out a way to get this done.”

Jim Johnson, past president of the Port Washington Lions Club, said it’s a tough time for service organizations.

“Fish Day was a big fundraiser for us,” he said, noting the club gets about one-third of its revenue from its fish and chips stand. “It’s understandable the Fish Day Committee didn’t want to hold the event this year with all that’s going on, but we missed Fish Day.”

The club held a downsized Lions Fest that Johnson said went well, and it still plans to host its Aug. 22 beer garden. The group is also looking at alternative ways to raise money so it can continue to give back to the community, he said.

“Our motto is ‘We Serve,’” he said. “No matter what the conditions, we will be there.”

The same holds true of other organizations, such as the Rotary Club and American Legion posts, Johnson said.

“There are some groups trying to get back to normalcy. That’s important,” he said. “The community looks to that as a gauge.”

For the Port Washington Historical Society, the pandemic has been a double whammy. Not only has the organization had to replace its annual gala with a virtual event, it has seen far fewer visitors to the Port Exploreum and Light Station.

“We had a full calendar of events,” Executive Director Dawn St. George said. “We had programs, speakers who would talk about our exhibits. All that had to be canceled.”

The society will likely extend the run of its two exhibits at the Port Exploreum — “From the Coal Dock to the Soo Locks,” which showcases the photos of lake freighters taken by the late Paul Wiening, and “Port Washington’s Brewing History: A Long Tradition,” which showcases the city’s breweries from the mid 1800s to today — and reschedule the speakers and beer tasting events, St. George said.

“We’ll just push everything back,” she said. “Hopefully by late spring we can bring some of those things back.

“But what I can’t change are the visits to the Exploreum and Light Station. The tourists just aren’t there.”

Seventy-five percent of the visits to those facilities are from people who are from out of the area, she said.

“We’re not going to make that up,” St. George said.

More local residents have been visiting, she added, but the numbers aren’t the same.

The Exploreum also hosts a number of parties, such as wedding showers and anniversary parties, St. George said. Most have been canceled for this year, she said, but many of them are rescheduled for 2021.

“We’re very appreciative of that,” she said.

The Society’s annual gala, which St. George said generates about a third of the Society’s annual revenue, will be held online this year.

“It’s our one big event each year. First we postponed it, then a few weeks ago we changed to a virtual event,” St. George said.

To support the event, she said, the Historical Society will air a number of videos about the organization, its volunteers and exhibits.

The Society’s silent auction, which is part of the gala, will begin Sept. 8 and run through 6 p.m. Sept. 18, with volunteers calling major donors to ensure they’re aware of the event.

“I think everyone’s crossing their fingers,” St. George said. “We’re hopeful. This year, with admissions down and rental income down, it’s even more important than in other years.

“This is where the passion of your members comes into play. The relationship you have with them is important. They want to help.”

She noted that while most organizations only have half their members return each year, the Historical Society sees a roughly 90% return of members.

“They still support the Port Washington Historical Society — as well as groups like the Food Pantry — even though times are tight,” she said.

Habitat for Humanity Ozaukee has also had to cancel or postpone most of its fundraisers, and work on its Grafton project has also slowed down, Diana Eggold, the group’s vice president, said.

“We have a lot of people who don’t want to be at the building site right now,” she said, noting that many of the group’s volunteers are retired.

Habitat is working on the Grafton duplex one day a week, not the normal two days, and its work crew is down from 15 people a day to about 10.

Even the number of applications from prospective homeowners has fallen as fewer people have the financial means to meet Habitat’s requirements, Eggold said.

“It (the pandemic) isn’t crippling us, but we’ve definitely felt the effect,” she said. “We had hoped to be done with the project in December, but there’s just no way we’ll hit that.”

Now, she said, they hope to have the building enclosed for winter.

To support its current homeowners, Eggold said, Habitat has delayed some mortgage payments during the pandemic.

“We feel for people in that situation,” she said. “We know its hard.”

The organization postponed or canceled most of its fundraisers, Eggold said, including a 30-in-30 fundraiser it holds in April.

“We thought it would be disrespectful of people who are having financial issues right now,” she said.