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Catalyst Impact Council report: Nonprofit leaders share lessons from the year of Covid-19

Karen Chassin



The Catalyst Impact Council is a group of dynamic local nonprofit leaders who come together to share strategies and undertake special projects that grow our community capacity.  The Catalyst Impact Council will periodically publish useful thought leadership and research findings.

“The story of philanthropic giving in 2020 is as complex as the year itself, which saw a global pandemic upturn daily life, prolonged but uneven economic fallout, and renewed attention to civil rights and social justice.” So begins a June 15, 2021 story in the Chronicle of Philanthropy that attempts to make sense of a year like no other.

What we do know is that charitable giving increased in 2020 – an unusual occurrence during an economic downturn or recession. Americans gave a record $471 billion to charity. More than half of all Americans responded with an outpouring of generosity – from charitable giving to volunteering, supporting local businesses and even giving directly to individuals in need.

However, as reported by the National Council of Nonprofits, individual giving increased by only 1%, and if we exclude the $5.9 billion contributed by MacKenzie Scott, individual giving actually decreased slightly. “When a small number of generous donors make megagifts,” they conclude, “it can mask the overall declines in contributions by everyday people to the smaller, community-based organizations upon which so many people rely.”

It’s too early to assess the full impact of the pandemic on the Tampa Bay nonprofit sector. Each organization has its own story. There are organizations and jobs that are gone forever. And we mourn the lives lost, disproportionately in communities of color and among those providing essential services.

Amidst the hardship, nonprofit leaders and organizations reaped valuable lessons from the pandemic that they will carry forward in their work. Recently, three organizations in the Catalyst Impact Council, a membership group of influential and high-impact local nonprofits, shared stories, strategies for survival and lessons about fundraising they will take away from the year of Covid.

The YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg was an exception to the rule that place-dependent, in-person service organizations took the greatest hit during 2020. According to President and CEO

Photo courtesy of the St Petersburg YMCA

David Jezek, when on-site member fitness activities were suspended, the YMCA redeployed much of the 55,000 square foot Jim & Heather Gillis YMCA facility, along with the Bardmoor YMCA and the YMCA at Lealman Exchange, to day care for the children of essential workers.

The size of the facilities enabled them to operate safely distanced throughout the pandemic, supporting 298 children from families representing 32 essential industries. The program was supported in large part by the generosity of corporations, family foundations, YMCA members and individual donors.

The YMCA also leveraged brand recognition and its prime location to serve as a hub for emergency food distribution and blood drives. Staff made 4,667 calls to seniors to help them cope with isolation, and spent 6,190 hours tutoring youth struggling with virtual learning. Leadership learned the importance of staying connected to membership via quick and frequent cycles of remote communication.

Members and donors were generous in response to what they observed as the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg’s essential Covid responses. The organization experienced a record-breaking fundraising year, with a 20% year-over-year increase in donations.

According to Jezek, “every time we asked for help, people responded.” He added that donors at higher gift levels increased their giving, and, contrary to the national trend of a shrinking base of small-figure donors, contributors of gifts under $100 were out in force during COVID.

Habitat for Humanity Pinellas and West Pasco also experienced a banner year in the face of huge community need, and a shift toward virtual engagement of supporters.

Photo courtesy of Habitat for Humanity Pinellas and West Pasco.

“2020 was our best year ever,” said President and CEO Mike Sutton. “We raised more revenue, served more families, and found new ways to engage with the community. We launched a podcast and got in front of audiences in new ways.”

The pandemic both illuminated the affordable housing crisis and exacerbated it. The Habitat team was committed to figuring out how to keep their programs and construction projects on schedule, even with a dramatically reduced volunteer corps. After a three-month period of remote work, they returned to offices and construction sites in June and never looked back.

“The board and staff were adamant about keeping the mission moving forward,” Sutton remarked. “Thanks to careful use of PPE, social distancing and deep cleaning, we did not experience a single case of Covid at our offices, at the Habitat Restore or on construction sites. This all contributed to high morale on our team.”

Habitat is currently on its way to building its 700th house and encouraging individuals or groups to donate $700 to commemorate this milestone.

Martha Boden is CEO of SPCA Tampa Bay, an animal welfare organization that runs an open-admission shelter for all animal types and a public veterinary hospital in Pinellas County. She also learned the lesson of staying in close touch with supporters and doubling down on mission during the past year.

“My takeaway is: share your need. Initially, we were worried about asking people for help when so many were in crisis,” Boden said. “But donors let us know that they were happy for the outreach and the chance to help.”

The SPCA Tampa Bay staff explored how to engage key audiences virtually. They added a videographer to their team to better capture the visual narratives about life with animals. They shared daily updates about the animals on social media.

The team also scored a major policy victory by becoming acknowledged as essential workers, which allowed staff to continue working on site at both campuses.

“As hurricane Katrina demonstrated, in a crisis as at any other time, pets are essential to people’s well-being. People will not leave their pets behind, so we now factor them into evacuation and public health and emergency response plans,”

Photo by Joseph Photography

Martha said.

The SPCA Tampa Bay remained open at both campuses and was struck by how its customary public health work on behalf of animals prepared it for Covid. The daily routine finds staff engaged in activities such as vaccinating animals, managing disease, considering the impact of events on the physical and mental health of animals and people, and creating food, shelter and healthcare emergency plans. Their experience and mindset helped staff maintain safe and efficient operations during a human health crisis as well.

As a result, the animal hospital had its best revenue-earning year ever. Even with social distancing, it managed to grow the veterinary practice and treat more animals. Initially animal intake and adoptions from the Largo-based shelter were slow. By July, however, people were looking for animal companions as the isolation dragged on and they spent more time at home.

Charitable support for SPCA Tampa Bay has remained strong through the Covid pandemic, although overall revenue was down slightly as a result of canceling the annual gala. More than half its donor pool is composed of people making gifts of $100 or less, and this pool grew by 20% in 2020. The team was gratified by repeated gifts of $100 or less from an engaged group of supporters who contributed what they could as the crisis dragged on. Overall donor retention rates at the SPCA are 47%, up from 42% the prior year (compared to national rates of 43.6%) and are even higher among donors giving $100 or more. These donors stepped up in a variety of ways. One woman donated her stimulus check, while another donor contributed to help those struggling to pay their pets’ medical bills.

These Impact Council member organizations share advantages that contributed to their strong performance last year. All three have strong brand recognition. The YMCA and Habitat for Humanity are part of a national network with peers in other cities they can turn to for support, shared learnings and resources. All are high visibility organizations with large budgets, strong staff and board leadership, and long track records of high-impact service to the region. Not every nonprofit can boast those assets.

Yet their lessons in adaptability, customer focus, donor engagement and perseverance have currency for many mission-driven organizations.

Stay tuned for future reports from the Impact Council on leadership, charitable giving, the health of the nonprofit sector, and social impact happening in Tampa Bay.

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