After months of navigating new rules on social distancing, and learning new technology to move programming and fundraising virtually, nonprofits remain uncertain as they craft strategies to prepare for the post-pandemic normal, according to leaders of organizations that work closely with the community’s nonprofit sector.

“Overall, the sector has been very focused on their mission, and figuring out how they can best pivot operations to still remain true to mission,” said Angie Dethlefs-Trettin, chief community impact officer for the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. “That is a very difficult space for many nonprofits to move into because they’re seeing a surge in needs and not always the availability of the added resources, so they’re trying to find balance as best as possible.”

As the coronavirus pandemic spread across Iowa in March, nonprofits shifted programming and services online. At the same time, fundraising events were canceled or transitioned to online campaigns. Nonprofit organizations were also faced with laying off or furloughing staff as revenue streams declined.

In a survey conducted May 20-29 by the University of Northern Iowa’s Business and Community Services, nonprofit organizations responded that they had experienced revenue losses of about 40% in April and May, with employment losses of about 22% in those months.

The survey also showed that nonprofits projected continued revenue and employment losses in June (36%, 17.5%) and July (33%, 15%).

A major challenge is not knowing when things will return to “normal,” and how that will affect fundraising, said Kristi Knous, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. 

“Things are moving so quickly, but as you look forward [you] don’t know if there’s an end in sight, or when the end will be in sight,” Knous said. “It’s sort of like, when will I be able to have an [in-person] fundraising event, because the non-events, and we’ll see how this all plays out, aren’t raising the kind of money you were having with live galas or that sort of thing.”

Knous said the reality is setting in that funding streams may be disrupted for “quite some time.”

“While it’s moving at lightning speeds in some regards, it’s increasingly apparent that this is a long game,” she said.

While some nonprofits, such as Winefest and Variety — the Children’s Charity of Iowa, have adapted live fundraisers into virtual events, that transition may be a tough sell in the long haul, Knous said.

“Initially, our nonprofit community didn’t know quite how to adapt to that, and now you’re seeing more creative things coming about, but that’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re having to adapt all of your programming and then have to consider we had this planned event and now we have to call it off, and how you’re going to handle that,” she said.

Knous acknowledged that virtual events can expand a group’s reach and maybe draw in donors who otherwise would not be able to attend a live event.

“But we anticipate fully that people are going to want to come back together,” she said. “We also think there will be strategies around technology where we can keep that offering open for those who want to attend in a different way. I think we’re going to find a blend that looks really different than anything we’ve had before, but most likely will be better.”

Michelle Rich, community impact officer with United Way of Central Iowa, agreed that expectations for online campaigns are lower than for in-person events.

“I think it’s hard to substitute an in-person gala, or something like Reggie’s Sleepout. It’s really hard to re-create that virtually,” Rich said. “So I imagine … that we have to be much more conservative in our forecasting for the campaign and our fundraising events.”

Rich said while virtual campaigns can draw a broader audience, they lack personal engagement.

“There’s certainly benefits to reaching more people, but they don’t get the residual benefit of being in-person at an event, networking with others,” she said. “I think we’re going to have to figure out how to make it a good substitute for in-person.”

Despite challenges facing nonprofits in moving programming and fundraising online, donor interest in the needs of the community have grown, Knous said.

The website saw a 173% increase in users, increasing from 850 users in 2019 to more than 2,300 in the same six months this year, she said.

“That tells me they are still hungry for information and to know how they can support our community, and they’re using that technology to help them get connected,” Knous said.

While the foundation may not always know the results of fundraising by local groups, giving from the foundation’s Donor Advised Fund increased nearly 40% this year over last year through June 30. Knous said she expects that support to continue through the end of 2020.

Rich said the pandemic is also causing changes to the United Way’s Live United campaign and its Day of Action activities.

“There’s just an understanding that we probably can’t expect a lot of financial success in our campaign, but rather we can expect this to be a great educational campaign this year,” she said. “So rather than expect that people donate money, we’re hoping that we can get people to donate time and their voice to advocate for our issues.”

The Day of Action, scheduled for Tuesday, Sept. 15, allows businesses to provide employee volunteers who partner with organizations on various projects. That, too, is changing this year to a more virtual focus, Rich said.

“We are focusing on activities that limit interpersonal interactions because people are very wary of that,” she said.

Rich said that strategy will likely continue through the end of the year.

Another challenge is that United Way’s campaign is heavily influenced by contributions collected from employees through their jobs.

“We know people’s employment has changed,” Rich said. “We just don’t know when they might receive sufficient income to donate.”

She said nonprofits also face increased costs of technology needed to move programming online and mileage as staff members make more visits to people’s homes because people aren’t willing to be in a group environment.

According to United Way data, about one-quarter of the 145 programs provided by its 78 partner agencies are operating at over 100% capacity.

Rich said while so much has changed in recent months because of the pandemic, there is one thing nonprofits all have in common.

“Everyone has seen a change in program modification,” Rich said. “I don’t think there’s any partner that’s doing their work exactly the same. It’s all changed.”