The coronavirus outbreak changed everything for the Williamson County nonprofit Retrieving Independence.
The organization teaches people incarcerated in Tennessee prisons to train service dogs, and places those dogs with people who need them.
The Retrieving Independence staff usually meets in churches or library meeting rooms to save money, but the coronavirus forced the organization to make those meetings virtual. The group was planning a large event at the Factory in Franklin for September, which is National Service Dog Month, but that event will now be virtual.
The prisons where the dogs normally live and train with inmates were not admitting visitors during the spring, and the dogs had to temporarily live with volunteers.
“Suddenly we had people that are used to having the dog for two days who had them 24/7," CEO Jessica Petty said. “Normally, we would have hosted a training at a church or something and we couldn't do that. We hosted three times per week virtual Zoom trainings.”
As the coronavirus upends the plans of nonprofit organizations in Williamson County, many are updating their tech capabilities to adapt to the new environment. Employees are working from home, donors are giving online and leaders are using technology to keep advancing their missions.
Retrieving Independence was one of several nonprofits in Williamson County that received a small grant from the Center from Nonprofit Management in Nashville to help them transition to remote work.
The nonprofit used the grant to purchase iPads so staff could attend Zoom meetings. The iPads also allowed the group to organize virtual trainings for volunteers temporarily housing dogs and remote follow-up meetings for people who recently received a service dog.
Petty said she thinks many of these new technologies will stick. Many volunteers are enjoying the high level of engagement through virtual events. Video calls could also help the organization communicate better with service dog recipients who have mobility issues that make it hard to meet in person.
“We've realized, OK, we think we can really interact and give them good feedback this way. It's not our preference,” Petty said. “When everything opens up, we'd still like to be in person, but it's definitely taught us that that that we can approach things in different ways and still be successful.”
Graham Honeycutt, the Executive Director of the Franklin nonprofit Tucker’s House, also used a grant from the Center for Nonprofit Management to transition his office to remote work. The organization, which retrofits the homes of children with disabilities to make them more accessible, has continued work on many construction projects, but also purchased cloud based accounting and bill pay software so that vulnerable employees wouldn’t have to come into the office.
“I think the technology changes will stay. I think we'll just become more adept at doing some of those things,” Honeycutt said. “I think we're just working on embracing those things even more.”
Jeremy Bolls, CEO of the Brentwood-based tech company Kindful, which provides fundraising data and analytics tools for nonprofits, said he believes that the coronavirus outbreak is accelerating technology trends that were already gaining momentum before the pandemic.
“If you're running an organization, you're really on your toes trying to figure out new ways to raise virtually, or new ways to engage with your constituent base virtually,” he said. “If you're trying to do that on a dime … you don't have time to think about how do I connect this new tool that I've never really used before.”
Bolls said his company is seeing a steady stream of new customers during the pandemic. Existing customers are looking for new ways to use data and organizing more online fundraising events.
In May, Retrieving Independence hosted an online fundraiser in the final hours of the Big Payback, an annual 24-hour giving drive for nonprofits across Middle Tennessee organized by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
During the event, a dog trainer taught viewers to make a themed cocktail and answered questions about dog training. The group raised about $30,000 during the Big Payback — more than twice the amount raised last year — and most of those donations came during the virtual event. Overall, the Big Payback in 2020 raised almost $4.4 million for local nonprofits, more than any previous year.
Events are the most important way to raise money for the Brentwood nonprofit Love One International. The group, which provides medical care for children in Uganda, is still hoping to host a benefit concert featuring country musician Thomas Rhett later this year, but the organization is also trying to push other fundraising efforts online.
"We're focusing everything we're doing right now on our merch sales online, and all the clothes that we sell," Love One International’s Director of Marketing Alex Banks said.
The organization already has a well developed e-commerce site selling branded T-shirts, sweatshirts and water bottles to support operations in Uganda. A predecessor to Love One started as an apparel company that used its profits to support charities before growing into its current mission. The company relies heavily on social media, especially Instagram, to market its clothing online.
Derrick Solomon, the executive director of the Hard Bargain Association, said his organization is using a grant from the Center for Nonprofit Management to help move the organization’s biggest fundraising events online.
The group, which focuses on preserving the Hard Bargain neighborhood by renovating existing homes, building high quality affordable housing and providing community services, has already rescheduled the year’s biggest fundraiser, the Celebration Dinner, twice. Now Solomon expects that to become a virtual event.
In June, the association livestreamed the Blackberry Jam Music Festival on Facebook. Musicians performed live on the porch of Boyd Mill Farm and viewers made donations using PayPal links, QR codes and text messages.
Solomon said technology and social media has been an incredibly important tool over the last several months, but he has also rolled out some new in-person services to meet community needs during the pandemic.
The group started a drive-thru food pantry to help neighbors who lost jobs and a program providing period products, especially to people who would usually get those products from school. The nonprofit is also setting up individual appointments to help community members trying to track down stimulus checks or apply for unemployment benefits. That’s in addition to continuing their neighborhood rehabilitation work.
The new computer he purchased using grant money and a strong social media presence have helped Solomon navigate the pandemic. He said he plans to keep using those tools going forward, but there’s no replacement for in-person connection.
"I feel like I make a bigger impact out on the streets with people than I am trying to deal with the technology, but I know we need both," he said. "Those things help. They're great. But they still want personal contact. They still need somebody to say everything's going to be all right. We're going to make it through this."