Every spring, the nonprofit adoption service Miriam’s Promise hosts a fundraising event with dinner and a live auction. This event this year was supposed to be a Back to the Future themed party at the Factory in Franklin.

“We had some fun things planned. We were going to have some characters dressed like Marty and Doc [from Back to the Future],” CEO Dietz Osborne said. “We were encouraging guests to wear their best ’80s attire. We were going to have an ’80s cover band to dance to.” 

The organization is sticking with the ’80s theme, but moving that experience online. Osborne is encouraging participants to post pictures of their outfits on social media, and plans to share ’80s themed cocktail recipes ahead of time.

Miriam’s Promise expects to stream the event on YouTube, and the group is partnering with an outside company to host silent and live auctions online. 

Normally, the fundraiser covers about 20% of the organization’s operating budget. In the online format, Osborne said he’s not sure what to expect. The nonprofit has managed to keep operating by dipping into a reserve fund and securing some federal assistance, but that won’t last forever. 

“If you take three to four months of no adoption fees coming in, and no fundraising dollars coming in, then it gets scary,” he said. 

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the work of many nonprofits across Middle Tennessee. Some have scaled back services to prevent the virus from spreading. Others have seen huge increases in need.

At the same time, the outbreak has made it harder to raise money. Individual donors may have lost a job, business supporters are likely struggling and fundraising events have been cancelled. That’s forcing many nonprofits to develop new strategies to fund their programs.  

The Franklin nonprofit Waves provides services to people with disabilities in Middle Tennessee. The group had to close two day centers that provide recreation, arts and cultural programming for adults.

That’s taking a large bite out of the nonprofit’s budget. Waves doesn’t charge participants for its services. The state government pays for services it provides, and those payments stop when services end.

“We've struggled with that because we do have other parts of our services that are still in operation,” said Staci Davis, Director of Development and Community Relations.

The organization is still operating seven homes for adults with disabilities, which require 24/7 staffing, and staff members can still provide some support to parents with young children via video calls. While day centers are still closed, the organization still has to pay basic costs like rent and utilities. 

Unlike Miriam’s Promise, Waves was able to hold its spring fundraiser on March 10. The group raised about $27,000, but government funding makes up the biggest portion of the budget. Davis said that means the organization has to start looking for more money from individual donors.

“Since we're not receiving that money from government, we're having to really diversify who we get money from,” Davis said.

However, asking for money is especially hard right now because hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans have lost work and many organizations are asking for financial help. Kathryn Bennett, with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, calls that “donor fatigue.” 

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee already raised $3 million from 20,000 donors for a tornado relief fund, and the United Way of Greater Nashville raised $4 million for a coronavirus response fund. Those are huge numbers that will provide needed services, but many nonprofit leaders worry that level of giving isn’t sustainable.

“It's hard to know how to make an appropriate ask,” Bennett said. “Nonprofits can't exist without funds raised. They can't carry out their programs and serve the community, so it's vital to their work. They have to fundraise, but it's figuring out the best way to do that.”

Jennee Galland, the Chief Communications Officer for Habitat for Humanity Williamson-Maury, said finding the right words to ask for money has been a huge challenge. 

“At this point it's a very soft ask. We know everyone has a lot on their plate. But if you can give, we need you help right now, just like 100 other nonprofits,” she said. “We've talked with some of our bigger donors, but honestly, it's kind of been crickets.”

Habitat for Humanity usually raises most of its funding from businesses or churches that make a big financial contribution and put together a team of volunteers to build a home.  

Right now, construction projects are on hold because of the need for social distancing. A few professional contractors are making sure homes currently under construction will withstand the elements until volunteers can come back. 

Without group build days, it’s hard for Habitat for Humanity to find organizations who want to give. Like Waves, Galland said Habitat for Humanity is turning to individual donors. The group recently launched a new fund to help homeowners struggling to pay they their mortgage. 

“What many people may not realize is that (Habitat for Humanity) is a direct lender for our qualifying homebuyers; we carry the loans on homes purchases through our homeownership program,” Chief Operating Officer Wayne Weaver said, according to a press release. “Like lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who are providing a forbearance for families that cannot afford to pay during this crisis, HFHWM has also developed a plan to assist its homeowners.”

However, Galland said the group had gone over a month without an individual donation, and no new organizations have volunteered to build homes in the fall. The nonprofit postponed a major fundraiser that was scheduled in May.

Another major blow is the closure of the Franklin ReStore, a home improvement store selling donated or used items. Galland said that store pays for much of the organization’s overhead. 

The Franklin nonprofit GraceWorks, which operates a food pantry and offers financial assistance with rent and utilities, has a similar problem. The organization’s thrift store is an important source of income, but has been shut down for weeks.

That comes at a time when demand for the group’s services is surging. Normally, the food pantry would dole out about 37 carts full of food over the course of seven hours. Earlier this month, the group distributed 143 carts of food in three hours. Requests for rent assistance have increased, too. 

“Imagine the resource strain that has been on our food pantry,” CEO Valencia Breckenridge said. “It literally emptied it out.”

Empty GraceWorks Shelves 2.jpg

GraceWorks supplemented its food supply with purchases from big box stores and even received a cow from a local farmer as a donation.

Empty GraceWorks Pantry.jpg

During the coronavirus pandemic, GraceWorks routinely cleaned out its food pantry.

The food pantry is buying extra food from Second Harvest Food Bank and supplementing further with trips to big box stores, which is much more expensive. Breckenridge said a local farmer recently donated a whole cow, but the meat was gone in about two hours.

Thankfully, Breckenridge said donors have stepped up giving tremendously. Still, she’s looking forward to reopening the thrift store, one of the most consistent streams of funding. However, Gov. Bill Lee is recommending retail stores limit their capacity as they return to business, which means sales will likely be slow.

For GraceWorks, the Paycheck Protection Program, the federal program providing cash to nonprofits and small businesses, has been an important lifeline. GraceWorks was approved for a $265,000 loan to cover payroll and some operating expenses.  

Breckenridge applied through the Memphis bank First Horizon, and described the process as incredibly easy. Miriam’s Promise and Waves were also approved for a paycheck protection loan. Other nonprofits have struggled to get approved for funding. 

Galland said Habitat for Humanity applied for the Paycheck Protection Program and another loan from the Small Business Administration, but never heard back about either one. Kathryn Bennett at the community foundation said nonprofit leaders in rural areas have had an especially hard time with the process..

“If you're in Franklin or Brentwood or Nashville, you have WiFi in your home most likely, and you're pretty well versed on the computer,” she said. “So many of the nonprofits I work with in rural communities have to go to the library to get online and fill out forms and right now you can't go to the library.” 

For many local nonprofits, a true test of fundraising capabilities during the coronavirus outbreak comes early next month. On May 6, the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee is launching The Big Payback, a 24 hour period dedicated to fundraising for Middle Tennessee nonprofits. 

Bennet said the community foundation discussed postponing the event because of the economic hardship inflicted by the coronavirus pandemic. The group decided to continue, and a record number of local organizations — nearly 1,000 nonprofits — are participating in 2020. More than 100 of those organizations are participating for the first time. Last year, the event raised a record $4 million in a single day.

“In normal years, we would assume we would match or beat that number this year,” Bennett wrote in an email. “With everything that has happened it’s hard to predict how this year will go.”

The Big Payback starts on May 6 at 6 p.m. and donors can make a gift through TheBigPayback.org. Donors can search and select organizations based on location and focus area.

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