comscore Hawaii nonprofits turn to virtual fundraising amid pandemic
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Hawaii nonprofits turn to virtual fundraising amid pandemic

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                                The American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, like other large, in-person fundraising events, was transformed into a digital campaign this year due to COVID-19 concerns. Supporters walked on their own instead of in a huge crowd and online content was offered. Above, participants in the 2018 Oahu Heart Walk gathered for a Jazzercise session.


    The American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, like other large, in-person fundraising events, was transformed into a digital campaign this year due to COVID-19 concerns. Supporters walked on their own instead of in a huge crowd and online content was offered. Above, participants in the 2018 Oahu Heart Walk gathered for a Jazzercise session.

                                <strong>“I told the girls that sounds like something we can do, where you just do it on your own.”</strong>
                                <strong>Margaret Jones</strong>
                                <em>Pictured above leading her group on a walk Friday on Kaihoolulu Street Access Road in Maili. The 61-year-old had never done the Heart Walk before but took advantage of this year’s “digital experience.”</em>


    “I told the girls that sounds like something we can do, where you just do it on your own.”

    Margaret Jones

    Pictured above leading her group on a walk Friday on Kaihoolulu Street Access Road in Maili. The 61-year-old had never done the Heart Walk before but took advantage of this year’s “digital experience.”

The American Heart Association Hawaii Division kicked off its annual Oahu Heart Walk fundraiser Saturday — and some of the participants are still walking.

Last year’s one-day event drew a crowd of 3,500 to Kapiolani Park and raised $690,000 for research and programs. But this year, COVID-19 restrictions have shut down traditional fundraising activities for many nonprofits, and the newly renamed Oahu Heart Walk Digital Experience was transformed into a weeklong virtual event.

Instead of the informational and activity booths set up at previous walks, sponsors are providing videos and live Zoom sessions each day, including opening and closing ceremonies, a Frank De Lima video on using humor for stress relief, musical performances, hands-only CPR instruction and kid-friendly cooking demonstrations.

Walking is still a part of the Heart Walk, but it’s not required, and rather than gathering in a crowd, many participants have been strolling on their own or with their friends and families while physical distancing.

“We’re trying to provide what we normally provide, but in order to keep people’s attention this has to be interactive, it has to be fun,” said Don Weisman, Hawaii government relations/communications and marketing director for the local Heart Association. “We developed this so that instead of a one-morning event we’re doing it over seven days, with a different theme for every day.”

Already struggling to maintain operations and provide services amid the pandemic, nonprofits big and small are also facing the challenge of how to keep revenues flowing — difficult even in good times — when they can no longer count on golf tournaments, dinner galas and other charity events.

It’s been a quick learning curve, and just as in every other segment of the economy battered by the COVID- 19 pandemic, outside-the-box thinking will be the key to survival, according to nonprofit leaders interviewed by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Even the Girl Scouts are on board. When the organization had to cancel more than 1,100 cookie sales locations, it launched a Virtual Cookie Booth program that allowed supporters to pick up the treats at City Mill and affiliated Simply Organized locations. More than 28,000 boxes of cookies were sold, and on Thursday, City Mill presented $145,000 to the Girls Scouts of Hawai‘i, including a $5,000 donation from the local hardware company.

“Some of the innovation that we are starting to see from the nonprofits is really exciting to me in that they are looking for new ways of connecting with donors,” said Michelle Kauhane, senior vice president of community grants and initiatives with the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a leading philanthropic institution that manages 900 charitable funds and tracks industry trends. “So while we’re not doing dinners or events and most of it is virtual, I think that what nonprofits are doing is giving donors a deeper look into their organizations. They are talking now via Zoom about their impacts and the kinds of work that they’re doing and how their work is shifting.”

Aloha United Way, which partners with 1,500 corporations, organizations and government groups to support more than 300 charities, is a few scant weeks from the start of its primary fundraising campaign that works with employers to encourage employees to donate to the agency via automatic payroll deductions.

Of the $9 million generated by the workplace campaign last year, half came from payroll deductions and the rest through one-time gifts and corporate matches, according to AUW. Now, with 14% unemployment statewide in June, there’s a far smaller workforce to draw from and the agency’s pitch will be much harder to deliver with physical distancing and so many people working from home.

As a result, AUW officials anticipate workplace donations will be down 20% to 30% by the end of the year.

“We do expect less money coming in from workplace donor campaigns,” said John Fink, who was named CEO in May. “Remember, our abilities to reach people have changed dramatically because we can’t do the big rallies anymore, we can’t do the big Downtown hoolaulea, we can’t do the ‘show up in the lunchroom and show the great video’ and have 150 people say ‘sign me up.’ So we are preparing various models for our board.”

In the meantime, Fink said, AUW has launched a “full-court press” via mailings to corporate donors and has been talking one-on-one with business leaders via Zoom “just to try to get a feel for where they’re at.”

AUW is in the process of upgrading its digital systems to provide more in-depth research and track donations in real time, and some of those tools will become evident in its fundraising campaigns, he said.

“We are about to get into a much more personalized, digital donor situation where we can give you information about where your money has gone, show you stories and vignettes about the areas you care about and make it much more personalized as opposed to just being companywide,” Fink said.

Come holiday time, The Salvation Army’s iconic Red Kettle campaign may be going digital as well. Bell ringers collected approximately $700,000 in Red Kettle donations last year and the agency distributed more than 30,000 Angel Tree gifts to children and elders in need, according to Marcy Schorsch, executive director of development for The Salvation Army Hawaiian & Pacific Islands.

“We are looking at a variety of options,” she said in an email. “Changes will likely include additional online efforts with online kettles, online Angel Tree and other activities such as peer-to-peer and virtual events.”

Wider digital reach

It’s difficult to say whether this year’s Oahu Heart Walk will meet its $830,000 goal by the end of the week — as of Sunday $350,347 had been raised — since many participants are collecting pledges on their own social media accounts, according to Weisman.

Revenue from the 2019 event represented 35% of the Hawaii Division’s overall income, making it the association’s second-biggest fundraiser behind the Heart Ball in February.

After using the digital model for its Heart Walks on Maui and in Hilo earlier in the year, Weisman said the benefits of the approach became more obvious.

“With the neighbor island walks we found out that once the week started our core supporters were participating on a daily basis, sharing pictures and selfies of their family doing the different activities and using the hashtags,” he said. “Friends started to see that and join in as the week went on, and participation grew.”

Participation also expanded geographically. In- person walks mostly draw participants from nearby communities, Weisman said, but virtual events can be done anywhere, anytime. In the case of the Maui walk, normally held in Kahului, “by doing it virtually we can make it an entire Maui County event, including our outreach to Molokai and Lanai.”

That’s proving true on Oahu too. Margaret Jones of Waianae had never done the Heart Walk before, but the convenience of being able to participate in this year’s “digital experience” is one of the reasons she signed up and invited 12 friends to join her via social media. An active 61-year-old who runs marathons and loves to hike, Jones said she also wanted to promote awareness of heart health and stroke prevention.

“I told the girls that sounds like something we can do, where you just do it on your own,” she said. “We could take photos when we start and when we finish, and when we’re done we can say, ‘Yeah, we did it.’ And, anything for a little exercise to stay healthy, especially during this time.”

Another benefit to moving away from large-scale, in- person fundraising events: lower overhead costs.

“We may not hit the same financial goal, but if we come close, you can factor in the reduction of overhead costs,” Weisman said. “Tent rentals, table and chair rentals, park fees, snacks and water — there’s a lot of different things that cost money when you put on these things.”

Going forward, “I think we’ll see a combination. We’ll have live events, but some of the things we learned from doing digital events, we’ll stick with that.”

Strength in numbers

The focus on COVID-19 relief aid for urgent needs has come at the expense of smaller nonprofits, officials said, especially those supporting the arts and environment.

“It’s more complicated for the arts, which is about the experience,” Kauhane said. Although many arts groups have been able to broaden their audiences by live- streaming performances or through digital exhibits, online donations from such efforts often fall short of the usual revenue from ticket sales.

“The smaller groups are going to struggle, but again the silver lining is that we do see a lot of folks reaching out to talk about greater collaboration and how they might be working together to get through this … . People are really leaning into what has to be done to make it through this pandemic,” Kauhane said.

With $110,000 in income for the year ending July 31, the nonprofit Bamboo Ridge Press, founded in 1978, is one of those smaller groups. Nearly three-fourths of its income was from grants and donations, and included a one-time payment of $9,000 from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, according to business manager and published poet Wing Tek Lum.

Rough projections show Bamboo Ridge collecting only $65,000 in total income in the coming year, he said. Book sales and marketing efforts have been curtailed and are not likely to recover anytime soon, so the publisher is busy planning a series of virtual fundraisers.

In an example of the kind of collaboration Kauhane mentioned, Bamboo Ridge and Manoa Valley Theatre are hosting a joint fundraiser Sept. 12 featuring poet Cathy Song. Thirty tickets at $35 each are being sold for limited in-person seating at the theater, with free streaming of the event on Facebook Live. Tax- deductible donations can be made at any time on the organizations’ websites.

The two groups worked previously together on their Wine & Words fundraisers usually held in November and were planning a conference for August that was canceled due to the pandemic. COVID-19 restrictions also kept Bamboo Ridge from scheduling book readings and other promotional events when Song’s new collection of short stories, “All the Love in the World,” was released in April.

“We felt really bad that we couldn’t do anything to celebrate it,” said Managing Editor Joy Kobayashi-Cintron. “We’re trying to move into the 21st century now that everything we’ve ever done in terms of events can’t be done now.”

Three other virtual events are planned for the remainder of 2020, including a two-day writer’s institute, Oct. 24-25, with a mix of free and fee events such as master classes in fiction and poetry.

“We’re very excited about that. The one thing this has done is made it possible to reach out to people who are farther away and hear from authors and see them virtually that we have never been able to involve in our events before because they live on the mainland and in other countries,” Kobayashi- Cintron said.

Lum said another upside to the pivot toward virtual fundraisers is that Bamboo Ridge has been able to engage younger supporters.

“There is a group of younger people who are leading these four events because they have the experience and the gumption, not like us old folks, to work in a virtual way,” he said. “They know how to handle live streaming and are very fluent in the modern IT ways of communicating and also trying to fund-raise via social media.”

But the old ways can still be effective. An email blast and “snail mail” campaign at the end of July brought $5,000 in donations, and although contributions could be made online via PayPal, many fans preferred to mail in their checks along with a personal note.

“A lot of our constituents are in the kupuna group because we’ve been around for so long and have a faithful following who are as old as we are,” Kobayashi-Cintron said.

While encouraged by what she’s been seeing in terms of new fundraising initiatives, Kauhane acknowledged that some nonprofits will not survive the COVID- 19 era.

“I hate to say that, but it’s no different than the businesses. … There are definitely going to be nonprofits that can’t weather the storm but those who do are going to come out thriving because some are really rethinking the way they do their work and pivoting to address needs.”

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