For 18 years, PAWS Chicago has held its annual Fur Ball fundraiser at posh venues, where donors and their pets gather in formal wear to laugh, bark and fete the nonprofit animal shelter.
This year, the dogs can dress down.
PAWS is transforming its Fur Ball, scheduled for Nov. 13, into a virtual affair, with catered meal delivery, an online auction and small remote gatherings — black tie optional. It is a pivot many Chicago nonprofits are making amid the pandemic, as they seek to secure a crucial source of revenue.
Donors paid at least $400 a plate to attend last year’s Fur Ball at the Drake Hotel, which raised $1.2 million, or about 10% of PAWS’ annual operating budget. Next week’s event is projected to fall about $500,000 short of that total, said Paula Fasseas, who founded PAWS in 1997.
“It’s a big deal,” Fasseas said. “We are dependent on special events for funding, and it’s really hitting us hard this year.”
Nonprofit organizations depend on fundraising to meet annual operating budgets, and it’s often built around a single large in-person event. Shifting those annual fundraisers from ballrooms to Zoom, nonprofits are giving up some glitz, but keeping desperately needed donations flowing during the pandemic.
Most virtual fundraising events retain corporate sponsorship and cast a wider potential donor net by making admission free. Costs are lower too, helping nonprofits keep more of what they raise.
But for many of the virtual events, revenues are down, the sense of community is diminished and the organizations are left scrambling for funding.
“We’re very worried right now about the survival of a lot of nonprofits,” said Rick Cohen, spokesman for the National Council of Nonprofits. “We’re seeing a lot of nonprofits running into this place where the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) money has run out, the rainy day fund has run out and the people who usually donate to them aren’t able to.”
The nonprofit sector has the third-largest workforce, behind the retail and hospitality industries, with 12.5 million employees in the U.S. as of 2017, according to a recent study by Johns Hopkins University.
Nonprofits were not immune to the economic disruption of the pandemic, shedding 1.6 million jobs between March and May, putting “significant pressure on the crucial services” the organizations provide, according to the study.
PAWS, the city’s largest no-kill animal shelter, is completely dependent on donations for its $12 million annual operating budget, Fasseas said. Much of that comes from individual donors.
The Fur Ball is PAWS’ biggest fundraising event, so the projected loss of revenue from this year’s virtual version is going straight to the bottom line.
“We’ll be down at least $1.5 million at the end of the year,” Fasseas said. “It’ll be our first time in the history of PAWS that we didn’t meet our budget in 23 years.”
Fasseas said cutting services was the “last resort.” Instead, PAWS will tapits cash reserves to make up the shortfall, and step up fundraising when the pandemic is over, she said.
The Chicago Urban League was projecting similar revenue declines for its 59th annual fundraising dinner Saturday, originally planned for the Hyatt Regency Chicago. When the pandemic hit, it was re-imagined as a limited attendance, socially distanced masquerade gala for 200 top sponsors, with other donors participating virtually by hosting small dinner parties.
Last month, with COVID-19 cases rising, the in-person element was canceled.
“We traditionally have one of the largest galas in the city,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. “But after seeing COVID cases trending upward, we made the decision to go 100% virtual.”
Last year’s event raised $1.5 million, with tickets running $600 per person or $6,000 per table. Dozens of major sponsors are participating in this year’s virtual event, but revenue expectations have been scaled back to $700,000, Freeman-Wilson said.
At-home parties will feature dinner from Black-owned caterers at $150 per meal. Entertainment will be staged and streamed from the Hyatt, with gospel singer/songwriter Jonathan McReynolds performing live.
Coordinating a virtual fundraiser has proved hard, Freeman-Wilson said, from the technical aspects of livestreaming to the timing on sending out catered meals. It’s a skill set she may need next year as well.
“Frankly, I don’t know if we’ll feel comfortable hosting 1,200 people again anytime soon,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That’s just the reality of what we’ve seen.”
The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago shifted its annual leader luncheon, this year on Nov. 19, from the Hyatt Regency to Zoom. The luncheon typically draws about 1,200 people and raises $750,000 to $800,000, said Molly Silverman, who heads up marketing and development for the YWCA.
Silverman said the virtual luncheon is on track to match last year’s revenue through corporate sponsorships, and that lower expenses may make it more profitable. The biggest savings is a $100,000 check to the hotel, she said.
“We don’t have any of that expense this year,” Silverman said.
It’s also a much cheaper ticket for attendees. Last year, sponsorships started at $5,000 for a table of 10, with some individual tickets selling for $300 each. This year, anyone with a YWCA membership, which starts at $25, gets access to the virtual luncheon, Silverman said.
The YWCA is hoping to have several thousand people attend to raise additional donations. So far, registrations have been lagging, Silverman said.
“I think people are getting to the point of Zoom fatigue,” Silverman said.
Misericordia shifted its annual Heart of Mercy Ball, which had been scheduled for Nov. 13 at the Hilton Chicago, to a virtual event last month, falling short of the $1.2 million it raised last year.
Lois Gates, chief development officer at Misericordia, a 100-year-old nonprofit that provides a residential community for the developmentally disabled on Chicago’s North Side, said the event fell short in other ways too.
“Nothing takes the place of being with your community,” said Gates. “They’re more than donors after all these years. They’ve just become like family and friends.”
The virtual ball raised about $1 million. Fundraising events help close an annual $20 million gap in Misericordia’s $80 million operating budget, Gates said. The organization also relies on grants, foundations and donations.
Gates looks forward to a return to in-person fundraising, and has tentatively booked the Hilton for next year’s ball, with a COVID-19 cancellation clause.
“When you greet somebody that just wrote you a very generous check, it’s hard not to reach out and touch them,” she said. “And right now you can’t. So it’s probably better that we’re doing all this virtual.”
Friends of Prentice, a 37-year-old nonprofit supporting research at Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women’s Hospital, shifted its annual fundraising event to a “virtual gala” on Oct. 24, raising nearly $600,000.
Last year’s event at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel drew 450 donors and raised over $750,000. The net income was comparable because of lower expenses associated with the virtual event, said Kristen Field, executive director of Friends of Prentice.
Produced at Frost studios in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, the livestreamed event featured a full roster of Chicago talent, including a DJ, a sommelier and a band.
“It was just a lot of fun,” Field said. “I had board members sending me photos of their grandkids dancing in the living room.”
Tickets to the 2019 event started at $300 per person. The virtual event was free and reached more than 1,000 viewers, Field said, relying on an online auction and the largesse of donors to generate revenue.
While it is harder to raise money with a free event, Field said the gala will be livestreamed next year to reach a broader audience, even if it returns to a hotel.
“No matter what we do, I think there will always be a virtual component going forward,” Field said.
The Adler Planetarium, which has been closed by the pandemic since March, held its annual Celestial Ball fundraiser in September as a virtual event streamed live on YouTube. It was, like other fundraising pivots, a radical departure from the 2019 event, which featured a seated dinner, dancing and a cosmic jazz lounge in the planetarium’s sky theater.
In 2019, tickets costs $850 per person. This year, the streaming event was free.
Revenue fell from $1.8 million in 2019 to $1.45 million this year. But with lower expenses, the 2020 event generated only $50,000 less, organizers said.
“It was a big shift, but it was also still very successful for us this year,” said Ann Kora, senior director of development at the Adler.
(Article written by Robert Channick)