Pandemic forces United Way to adapt as campaign goes virtual

Pandemic forces United Way to adapt as campaign goes virtual
Dave Faries

It’s the same every year. The United Way of Audrain County takes applications from local nonprofits in need of funding. They host a kick off for the organization’s fall fundraising campaign. United Way volunteers – there is only one employee, and she is part time – meet with business owners and local clubs as part of that effort. And every year they set a fundraising goal, in this case $100,000, to be allocated to those local charities.

But this is 2020, a year that has created challenges.

“Fundraising has changed drastically due to COVID,” observed Kensey Russell, president of United Way of Audrain County’s board of directors and director of Mexico’s Public Works Department.

A year ago, volunteers could connect with people face to face and hold public events. For example, the organization partnered with KXEO and KWWR for a downtown wine walk. When the United Way’s board targeted $100,000, it was January. Coronavirus and related phrases – social distancing, shelter in place – had yet to become part of the nation’s vocabulary.

Fundraising in the wake of COVID-19 looks different. For the United Way there will be no festivities and only limited in-person interaction. Instead, volunteers are reaching out by mail and making phone calls.

The virtual approach has yet to hit its stride. While it is still early in the campaign, the local United Way had raised just $27,000 as of last week. In 2019, they received almost $90,000 in donations.

It’s a situation most nonprofits now face. A recent nationwide Gallup poll found that donations from households earning less than $40,000 a year fell 17 percent this year compared to 2017. Those in the $40,000 to $99,999 range are giving 12 percent less. And giving is event down in higher income brackets.
If donations fall short of pre-pandemic expectations, the fallout will not be felt locally until next year. But the toll may be significant. United Way contributes to 17 local nonprofit organizations, including the Mexico Senior Center, the St. Joseph Early Learning Center, Rainbow House and the Rugrats 4-H club – groups that in turn support local residents. The funding helps deliver meals to the elderly, provides therapy and educational services for children, creates employment opportunities for people with disabilities, aids victims of abuse and much more.

“The need hasn’t gone away,” Russell said. “If we don’t raise the money, it’s going to be pretty lean.”

Even before the pandemic struck, fundraising was becoming more difficult. A study by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University found that 20 million fewer households had donated to nonprofits in 2016 compared to 2000. And while corporations and large foundations stepped up charitable offering over the past few years, it hasn’t offset the drop in individual contributions.

Yet things might not be as bleak as numbers suggest. Although reaching out to potential donors may be trickier under social distancing conditions, Russell says the public’s impulse to give has not gone away. The Audrain Cares program just released $250,000 for local charities to help cover pandemic-related losses. The Mexico City Council approved funds to support the Senior Center and Laura Miller George Help Center. And 100 percent of city employees in Mexico pledged to the current United Way campaign.

“From a philosophical point of view, the freedoms we have in this country helps foster that helping spirit,” he explained. “We don’t want to lose that.”

The United Way takes donations throughout the year, but the organization makes its big push in the fall. People can send checks, but many contribute through a company payroll deduction plan. Because outreach is limited this year, United Way of Audrain County added a rollover option to the payroll deduction plan. This allows the gift to continue for three years, keeping personal contact to a minimum.

According to Russell, 99 percent of money raised is returned to the community.

“One dollar makes a difference,” said board member Bethany Collins, who works for the Mexico School District. “The agencies provide so much support to the community.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, United Way’s local board has been meeting through Zoom. If there is one silver lining to coronavirus, Russell observes, it’s that most virtual board meetings have seen 100 percent attendance.


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