Sunny Andersen, lead youth worker at New Beginnings, holds up winter boots in the drop-in center’s outreach donation closet. The program is in ongoing need of warm winter boots in adult sizes, which it receives as donations from the community. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — Androscoggin Home Healthcare + Hospice collected $75,000 less in donations and $135,000 less this year from fundraising events thanks to the pandemic. With a fundraising goal of $700,000, that’s 30% less cash than the nonprofit needs to help take care of people who are sick or dying.

“When you lose a chunk like that, it really sets you back,” said spokeswoman Kristin Melville.

At New Beginnings, a Lewiston nonprofit that helps homeless kids and young adults, cash donations have been down some, but donated goods are down more. New Beginnings still needs winter footwear, toilet paper and a whole list of hygiene products for its young people.

“It looks like we got enough to provide all the holiday gifts we need to give, but most years we get enough to stock all the programs for at least the next four months, four to six months,” said Rachel Spencer-Reed, director of development and community services.

Across the river, Good Shepherd Food Bank has been in the enviable position of getting more funding this year, including what is likely to be a not-insignificant donation from MacKenzie Scott, author, philanthropist and ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. But while the nonprofit has more money, it also has more need. Before the pandemic, it estimated 180,000 Mainers were struggling with hunger; it estimates there are 215,000 now.

“Maine’s charitable food network is incredibly strong and resilient, but community food pantries were not originally set up to handle the volume of food that is needed today,” said spokeswoman Erin Fogg.

Across the state, nonprofits big and small have spent the past nine months pushing through the pandemic, ramping up to feed kids, save animals, and help elderly Mainers even as those same organizations cancel fundraisers, drop major annual events and find their regular supporters just can’t support them right now.

It’s been tough. And it could stay tough in 2021.

DONATIONS CUT IN HALF

Financially, how well or how poorly a nonprofit fared in 2020 largely depended on its mission. When the pandemic took hold in Maine last March, basic social services became paramount and donors, including major grant organizations, followed the need.

Beth Harmon feeds a group of kittens at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston on Christmas Eve. The shelter relies heavily on donations. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s funny, in the past we struggled with fundraising because soup kitchen meals, food pantry groceries, help with unemployment applications and job applications, they’re just not very exciting,” said Erin Reed, executive director of the Trinity Jubilee Center in Lewiston. “Foundations often wanted something more new and ‘cutting edge.’ But when everything shut down because of COVID-19, people realized how essential our programs are.”

However, when the focus fell on food, shelter and employment, it shifted away from other things.

“Meeting those needs is absolutely necessary given the severity of the pandemic,” said Sarah Woodard, advocacy and public affairs director for the Maine Association of Nonprofits, “but this means other Maine nonprofits are losing donors and struggling to make payroll and keep the lights on.”

It didn’t help that organizations had to cancel events, including major fundraisers, to keep staff and donors safe from COVID-19. Some of those events turned virtual, but they didn’t always get the kind of attention — or cash — that in-person events had.

“The Autumn Night Out became The Autumn Night In,” said Melville at Androscoggin Home Healthcare + Hospice. “Our butterfly release, which is a beautiful family event, was filmed as a Facebook event. So pre-recorded. We were gearing up for what would have been called A Hike For Hospice, which would have been a walk/hike type of thing at Pineland. We canceled that.”

With all the changes and cancellations, $135,000 in event revenue just never materialized.

Organizations did find that small, loyal donors were still around, but their $100 annual check might be closer to $70, or $50.

“We’re seeing people still stepping up to the plate when we put out a call. We still get a lot of donations, they’re just smaller than normal,” said Katie Lisnik, executive director at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society in Lewiston.

She estimated the shelter’s donations have, on average, been cut in half. She understands why.

“We donate to several organizations and we’re kind of considering the same thing,” she said of her family. “You still want to support, but you’re just sort of being a little bit more safe. Or a little more realistic in terms of, ‘I need to keep some funds to keep my family going. I can’t quite give as much, but I still want to give.'”

Other revenue streams also dried up for many. For years, the humane society relied on income from adoption fees for dogs and puppies it brought up from the south, but those out-of-state trips stopped completely during the early days of the pandemic and are sporadic even now.

“We’ll regularly have groups cancel on us — they can’t pull together enough dogs or they have a foster home with a positive COVID test or a staff member. We’re also trying to be really mindful of where we’re sending our staff to drive down. We don’t want to be sending them into a hotspot.”

Safe Voices, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic violence in Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties, receives funding from its batterers’ intervention program. Abusers are court ordered to attend and have to pay a fee to join the program. But meetings couldn’t be held during the early days of the pandemic and courts significantly limited business, which meant new people weren’t assigned to the program. Participants now meet via video, but it’s unclear whether the program will ever go back to the level it was before.

Organizer Maria Ohs, center, the behavior enrichment coordinator at the Greater Androscoggin Humane Society, works during a Christmas Eve dinner in Lewiston to benefit the animals at the shelter. The dinner was paid for in large part by donations from the North Monmouth Community Church. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“We’re keeping an eye on it, that’s for sure,” said Executive Director Elise Johansen.

At the same time, many nonprofits are seeing greater need. Safe Voices worked with more people and sheltered more domestic violence survivors in 2020 than in 2019. The humane society has seen an uptick in requests for both medical help and pet supplies, including food. SeniorsPlus, a Lewiston-based nonprofit that helps older people and adults with disabilities in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, now serves twice as many people in its Meals on Wheels program and may have to start a waiting list at some point.

New Beginnings staff members worry their kids need help, they just don’t know about it. The organization’s drop-in center was closed all spring due to the pandemic and, while it’s open now, hours are limited.

“There’s a lot of young people out there who we normally are able to engage with through our drop-in center, where they may have dropped off the radar for us and for other providers,” Spencer-Reed said. “Especially because of changes to school, we’re concerned that even more homeless young people, or young people who are in unstable situations, will not get the services they need through schools because people won’t know they aren’t there.”

NOT JUST MONEY

To get by, some area nonprofits took out loans through the federal Paycheck Protection Program. The amounts generally weren’t huge — $100,000 or so for many — but it was enough to keep the doors open and pay employees for several months.

“That really got us through,” said Lisnik, whose animal shelter took out a $110,000 loan. “We were very, very grateful for that.”

Some nonprofits saw no alternative but to make cuts. The Lewiston-based Dempsey Center, which provides free support to cancer patients and their families, saw donations drop so much earlier this year that it laid off five staff members last spring and made what it called “substantial” cuts to other expenses and services.

“Like businesses and nonprofits across the state and country, we’ve had to adapt to preserve our mission and ensure the continuity of services,” said Chrissie Penney, development director.

But money isn’t everything and some nonprofits have found themselves needing something other than cash.

At New Beginnings, donors have given fewer goods this year — deodorant, body wash, shampoo, winter footwear and other items its young people need.

At the Pink Feather Foundation, an Oxford nonprofit that gives clothes to kids, the problem is not a lack of money but a lack of people. To process clothing donations, the charity relies on volunteers — usually high school students fulfilling a community service requirement. But since March, only a few people have helped out, forcing the foundation to temporarily stop accepting clothing donations.

Rachel Spencer-Reed, director of development and community services, stands in the New Beginnings Drop-in Center in Lewiston on Wednesday. The center distributes holiday gift bags, which are funded through donations. Jessy Kendall, at right, is one of the center’s youth workers. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

At Good Shepherd, the food bank’s partners — community food pantries and other largely volunteer-run local organizations that give out food — are seeing more clients and more hunger, an average 25% more. That presents a logistical problem.

“Food and funding are not our greatest constraints right now. Being able to get the right food to the right place at the right time for Mainers who are struggling with hunger is our greatest challenge,” Fogg said. “In addition to providing more food, we need to help our existing partners expand their capacity, find new and innovative solutions for food distribution and invest in long-term solutions for solving the problem.”

FOR THE LONG HAUL

There have been some bright spots.

While donations are down overall at New Beginnings, some of its donors became extra generous this year, including Roopers Beverage and Redemption, which tripled its regular donation, and local businessman Gene Geiger, who bought thousands of dollars worth of new sweatshirts and winter coats during Black Friday, giving New Beginnings the ability to provide a new winter coat to every young client who needs one.

The Dempsey Center saw donations drop at the beginning of the pandemic but took in $1.2 million with its Dempsey Challenge this fall. That’s about average for the fundraiser, even though the big running/walking/cycling event went virtual this year.

“It was remarkable the way the participants rallied,” Penney said.

The pandemic has prompted nonprofits to get more creative, too.

“We’ve seen organizations pivot to offer critical new programming,” said Jeannette Andre, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center. “Great examples are immigrant-serving organizations who have worked with the state to do contact tracing.”

The Dempsey Center closed its physical centers in Lewiston and South Portland until further notice, but it has created Dempsey Connects, a virtual center that allows clients to access online counseling, support groups, educational videos and podcasts.

Unable to offer classes and community support in person, SeniorsPlus used a grant from the Maine Community Foundation to buy 50 iPads and has started lending them out to help people stay connected. For seniors uncomfortable with technology, SeniorsPlus has also started offering tech support for the devices and has created a virtual “Zoom 101” class.

No one knows what 2021 will bring for nonprofits.

The Maine Association of Nonprofits believes the latest federal stimulus bill could help, with more money for the Paycheck Protection Program, incentives to encourage charitable giving and tax credits to help nonprofits that lost money in 2020 but still want to keep employees. But while that bill passed Congress this week, the president called parts of it an unsuitable “disgrace” and had not signed it into law as of Friday.

Area nonprofits are trying to plan ahead, with or without help from the government. They’ve flattened or reduced next year’s budgets. They’ve focused their efforts on programs and services that can be done virtually — or socially distanced — over the long term. They’re adding fundraisers or extending campaigns by weeks or months in the hopes that another appeal might get attention.

And some, like the humane society, are looking beyond even 2021.

“I’m going to have to take a really hard look at our adoption income. That has been something that we depended a little too strongly on and we really need to think of other ways to bring in income,” Lisnik said. “Because we can’t just rely on adoption income when it’s so vulnerable to disruptions like this.”

As far as 2020 goes, nonprofits want donors to know they’re thankful for every contribution, big or small. And to prospective donors: Help.

“Whether it’s something like a roll of paper towels or a financial gift or dog food, we can really put anything and everything to use,” Lisnik said. “We just greatly appreciate the community support. Because I think we’re going to be in this for the long haul.”


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