Charity Chase

By Paula M. Bodah / Newport Life magazine

Posted Jun 29, 2020 at 2:32 PM

With fundraising events on hold, nonprofits are getting creative.

In 2003, Jonathan Stone made the first of his 15 (and counting) swims from Newport to Jamestown, joining hundreds of other intrepid souls who have braved the waves for Save The Bay’s annual Swim. The competition is the organization’s largest single-event fundraiser of the year, says Stone, Save The Bay’s executive director since 2009. Last July, some 600 swimmers from 25 states took the plunge, raising almost $300,000.

This year, Save The Bay is going to have to find another way to get that money. Because of COVID-19, the 44th annual Swim is among the scores of fundraising events that Newport County’s nonprofit organizations have had to cancel.

For Child & Family, the cancellation of the spring Townsend Luncheon and autumn’s Taste of Newport means the loss of some 30 percent of the organization’s annual fundraising dollars. The Potter League will lose out on the $80,000 it typically nets on its LoveBash for Animals, a gala that draws several hundred supporters of the group’s efforts to shelter and care for Aquidneck Island’s homeless animals. And on the arts and culture front, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum’s executive director, Benedict Leca, says that the cancellation of the annual Redwood Gala and other events has left the venerable organization scrambling to make up about $250,000 in income.

Anyone who has ever worked for a nonprofit knows it’s not for the faint of heart, however, and Newport County’s community organizations are finding creative ways to face the crisis. “We’re a scrappy lot,” says Betsy Akin, cheerfully. Vice president of development for Child & Family, Akin is working with president and CEO Marty Sinnott to come up with ways to compensate for a roughly $600,000 shortfall for the 2019 fiscal year. Grants from the Rhode Island Foundation and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation, as well as a Small Business Paycheck Protection loan, have helped. Child & Family also participated in 401Gives, part of United Way’s COVID-19 response. The one-day online fundraiser netted more than $1 million — $15,843 of which went to Child & Family.

The year 2020 will forever be remembered for social distancing and virtual connection. Zoom cocktail parties and FaceTime reunions are keeping friends and families in touch. Newport County’s nonprofits are going virtual, as well, both to raise money and to keep in touch with the people they serve. The virtual version of Save The Bay’s Swim is a multisport event. Besides the usual 2-mile swim, it includes a separate half-mile swim, a 5-mile kayak paddle, a 2-mile paddle board paddle, a 5K run/walk, a 25-mile bicycle ride, and a 5K row that can be done on a rowing machine in the comfort of your home or local gym. People register online, then map out their routes and run, swim, paddle or pedal at their own convenience.

“It’s an honor system,” Stone says, “but we’re encouraging people to send us photos and send in their times so we can rank them. We’re hoping for a bit of a competitive dynamic.”

The Potter League plans to combine two popular events—the LoveBash and Yappy Hour—into a single Virtual Yappy Hour. Typically, says executive director Brad Shear, the LoveBash includes live and silent auctions. Not this year. “We’ll have an online silent auction for two weeks, and a live-streamed presentation on July 12 on Zoom or Facebook Live,” he explains. The day-long event will offer videos showing the shelter’s animals, as well as clips of the staff at work. Shear also hopes to be able to livestream a visit with an animal or two. “If someone logs in for five minutes, we hope they’ll enjoy it, and maybe be engaged and entertained enough to stay on for a while,” he says.

The pandemic creates special challenges for cultural organizations like the Redwood Library. “Our DNA is that we gather people together for cultural experiences,” says director Leca. “The minute you remove the communal from cultural institutions, you’re severely hampered.”

Nevertheless, he says, Redwood has been part of the fabric of Newport for 300 years, and will continue to be. “We’ve been through the British occupation, the influenza in 1918, the hurricane of ’38,” Leca says. “Our building stands for civic pride and resilience.”

Like other organizations, the Redwood has turned to the internet, with online musical events, lectures and exhibits. Leca and his staff are working on putting together an online auction of artworks that will include lithographs by Ed Ruscha, photographs by Peter Barclay and Russell Lee, and other artwork.

Save The Bay is also focusing on online content to mitigate the fact that it has had to close its Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport and cancel its seal tours. Breakfast by the Bay, a 30-minute educational program that’s livestreamed every weekday and archived for later viewing, has resulted in an enormous increase in the number of people—especially students, parents and teachers—engaging with the organization, Stone says.

As crucial as fundraising is, staying engaged with the community is paramount for those who work in the nonprofit sector. For Child & Family, watching people in the Newport area step up to help is especially gratifying. Naffeesatu Massaquoi, the organization’s director of foster care, tells of a couple who, for their first placement as foster parents, welcomed an immuno-compromised transgender young person living in a group home where several staffers had tested positive for coronavirus. “We needed to get that youth out of that environment immediately,” Massaquoi says. In a happy postscript, the youngster tested negative. “Our foster parents are walking saints,” says CEO Sinnott. “Their hearts know no limits.”

For the summer and fall, at least, the galas and other fundraising events people have come to look forward to and organizations have come to rely on are on hold. Francesca Campo, an event planner who says 80 percent of her clients — including the Redwood — are nonprofits, remains optimistic about 2021. “Human nature is that we’re social creatures and we want to be able to celebrate,” she says. The events may need to be on a smaller scale, unless a vaccine becomes available. But until then, she says, “we’re resilient, we’re smart, we’re creative. We’re all working on how to hold events within this new normal.”

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