BELFAST, Maine — Hundreds of drivers lined up in the Athena Health Care Systems parking lot for a free box of milk, eggs, turkey, ricotta cheese and fresh fruit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The mass turnout for the distribution, which was organized by area nonprofits Waldo County Bounty, Belfast Soup Kitchen and Waldo Community Action Partners, illustrates how needs in the community have been amplified during the pandemic.
But nonprofits around the state question whether their fundraising efforts will be able to keep pace with demand this year.
Dorothy Havey, development director for Waldo CAP, said every year the agency serves about 1,200 families in need with food boxes. It also supplies toys for children who have wish lists that can be heartbreaking.
“We have kids who ask for blankets. We have families that ask for diapers and wipes. We have a homeless girl who has asked for a home,” Havey said.
This year, the agency is having a hard time keeping up, she said.
“We would have asked small local businesses for help, but they are struggling themselves,” she said. “So our donations are down, absolutely, but the children’s requests for Christmas gifts have not gone down.”
‘Volatile and uncertain’
The disparity between needs and resources is evident across the state right now, as Maine nonprofits and charitable organizations navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic. Ordinarily, this time of year is critical for fundraising — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving has even come to be known as “Giving Tuesday.”
Last year, more than $500 million was raised online for U.S. nonprofits on that single day.
But this year, it’s hard to predict what will happen. For nine months, people have lived with economic uncertainty and fear about the pandemic. Many have lost jobs and struggle with stability. There are questions about whether another federal relief package will come.
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Nonprofits across the state also are facing instability, declining revenues — and in some agencies — skyrocketing needs, according to Laura Young, vice president of philanthropy at Maine Community Foundation. It may be a fatal combination.
“It’s possibly the end for some nonprofits. They’re really nervous about the outlook for the future,” she said, adding that the situation is even more acute than it was in the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. “That was a tough time. This is much tougher. That was primarily stock-market focused, and this just impacts all aspects of our lives.”
Her group is encouraging donors to give to their favorite organizations, because they are all struggling right now, and not to restrict money to a particular program.
“What they need is general, unrestricted support to do whatever they want,” she said.
Maine is among the states with the highest number of nonprofits per capita, according to Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Maine Association of Nonprofits, who said one in six Maine workers are employed by a charitable organization, compared to one in 10 nationally.
She said it’s a volatile and uncertain time for them.
“It’s unlike what we’ve ever seen before — it’s hard to predict or understand the trends,” she said. “I know nonprofits are really worried about what charitable giving will be.”
Many have stepped up to help organizations that provide food and emergency essentials to people suddenly in need because of the pandemic, she said.
Kristin Miale of Good Shepherd Food Bank, the largest hunger relief organization in Maine, said before the pandemic, nearly 13 percent of Mainers were estimated to be living with hunger. That number is expected to go up by nearly 25 percent by the end of the year, she said, and remain elevated for a couple of years.
“We are obviously seeing the needs going up, and our need to respond going up,” she said. “Fortunately, we are also seeing the generosity of Mainers has been strong and has kept up. That is good news so far.”
The food bank has doubled its food budget because of increased need and rising costs, she said, and is on track to donate 35 percent more food than it did before COVID. But she is concerned about keeping up that pace.
Typically, the food bank raises the majority of its funds in November, December and January. But this year, many Mainers began giving generously to the agency months ago.
“We’re kind of holding our breath,” she said. “Are we going to be able to sustain it? That’s everybody’s fear. That the need will maintain at this heightened level, but the giving isn’t going to be able to keep up.”
Preserving the landscape
Many arts and cultural groups in Maine are in more precarious positions because they’ve been forced closed for months now, Hutchins said.
“They’re trying to figure out how to survive,” she said. “What happens to those organizations that might not be considered front-line and essential? Regular donors are saying, ‘I’m really sorry, but I had to give my gift to the food pantry, or the health care clinic.’ Will they continue to give and overall give more, or is it a shifting in their priorities?”
Brian Hinrichs, executive director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, wonders that too. With no performances during the pandemic, the orchestra has lost ticket sales, which is a big hit to the group’s revenue. The absence of performances has had another unfortunate trickle-down effect.
“The whole series of events that leads somebody to give a contribution starts with the feeling of being moved by the work that we’re doing,” he said. “When we can’t do that, it puts our fundraising in question.”
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The Bangor Symphony Orchestra has had to pivot and get creative this year. It recently announced a whole digital season, which Hinrichs said will allow the group to fulfill its mission “in a really important way.” Symphony officials also are being very upfront with their donors.
“Because we are facing shortfalls due to lost ticket revenue, we are telling our donors that. We are asking our annual campaign donors to perhaps give a little more, if they can, and also give a little earlier, if they can.”
So far, they’ve had a lot of success with that approach. But they’ve also heard from some funders who have shifted their philanthropic strategy for the time being to frontline causes.
“What a year,” Hinrichs said. “We’re definitely as an organization looking at depressed revenues for some time … I think it’s really hard to put an orchestra or theater company next to a food bank, or an organization that’s sponsoring PPE for nurses. Those are very different goals.”
But, he said, arts organizations play a critical role in the community all the same.
“If you don’t want the landscape to change very dramatically, now is the time to help arts organizations as well,” he said.
Russell Werkman, the new CEO of the Waldo County YMCA echoes that.
Membership at the Y provides the majority of the nonprofit’s revenue, but that has declined nearly 50 percent since the pandemic began. The Y cut $300,000 from its nearly $2 million annual budget, but even that isn’t enough. Fundraising will be critical through next year, he said.
“We’re looking for ways to bridge that gap so that we’re here when COVID ends,” he said. “Everyone’s in tough shape. How do you get the message across, that we all need help? … I’m sure there’s fundraising fatigue, but the thing is that the need has not ended.”
The YMCA, which in ordinary times is a place where people come together to work out, socialize, take classes and more, is especially challenged by key elements of the pandemic. Lately, leaders there have been trying to focus more on blood drives, food drives and doing things outdoors.
“We’re kind of reinventing ourselves,” Werkman said.
But it’s been a challenge to “strengthen the community” when the community remains distanced during the pandemic.
“How can you do that in a world where you’re not really allowed to get together?” he said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated Russell Werkman’s first name.