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For nonprofits, surviving requires nimbleness …and maybe a PPP loan

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It is difficult to find a nonprofit that doesn’t say it’s struggling to survive the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it’s finding ways to meet the needs of its constituencies, keeping programs moving forward, raising money to fund their operations, or keeping its staff on the payroll.

According to PPP data, 137 Delaware nonprofits representing many different sectors received PPP loans worth more than $150,000, including 27 that received at least $1 million. That list includes 10 private schools and Wesley College, but the list of $2 million or more loans also includes Westside Family Healthcare, Winterthur Museum, Exceptional Care for Children, the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, and Delaware Hospice.

Here are a few stories of how nonprofits have survived; we’ll have a story in our next issue about some of the social services organizations that have done the same.

Freeman Stage

“The performing arts industry has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic,” said Patti Grimes, executive director of the Joshua M. Freeman Foundation/The Freeman Stage and the Carl M. Freeman Foundation. The Freeman Stage had to cancel its entire season as originally planned with 67 performances, including national recording artists. After providing virtual programming from March to June, we have found a way forward to continue presenting the arts in Southern Delaware by setting up “seating pods” that provide physical distance and limits attendance. Our outdoor venue is focusing on smaller local and regional acts.

The Freeman Stage has set up “seating pods” that provide physical distance and limits attendance. | Photo c/o Freeman Stage

Grimes said the response from patrons has been overwhelmingly positive, and that post-event surveys indicate that more than 96% of the attendees felt well-informed of what to expect at the venue and would definitely return for future performances.

“The brand equity of The Freeman Stage really played a large factor because people said that they trusted us to create an enjoyable but safe environment for them to come out for an evening of entertainment outdoors,” she said.

Boys & Girls Club of Delaware

At the Boys & Girls Club of Delaware, which operates through the state, more than 15 locations are open right now.

“When the schools closed in March, we stayed open for a week but then grew uncomfortable about our gathering size with 650 kids in our clubs,” President and CEO John Wellons said. “We closed for two weeks but the governor wanted to make sure there was childcare for essential workers, so we opened six locations from April 7 to June 17, when we expanded to 15 locations. But we’re still operating at only 25% of capacity during a time when the community needs our services.”

The Boys & Girls Club received a PPP loan for just over $2 million, which enabled it to protect the jobs of its 462 employees and create programming that would engage its 7,200 members.   Programs moved online, with organizing done via Zoom meetings and Facebook Live utilized to read books to younger children.

But the organization “didn’t know what we didn’t know” when it came to internet and broadband availability and access to laptops and desktop computers, Wellons said.

“We tried to address it where we could, but we didn’t understand how big an issue that was,” Wellons said. “We’re trying to get settled now for whatever the school year might bring and working to get the kids who are having those issues in here this fall to do schoolwork in our computer labs.”

Wellons concedes that things “were looking pretty bleak until PPP” but as a licensed childcare provider, the Boys & Girls Club has been able to access some of the state’s reimbursement programs. But he is concerned about how long the state will be able to maintain that program.

“It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “Our donor base has stayed connected. We just finished our fiscal year but fell short on fundraising because of event cancellations. We’ll bring back some of them back in the fall and are hoping to fill the gap.”

REACH Riverside

For REACH Riverside CEO Logan Herring, the organization was “off to the races” before the pandemic after having raised a third of a $37 million capital campaign for REACH, The Warehouse, and Kingswood Community Center.

Logan Herring | PHOTO C/O REACH RIVERSIDE

“We weren’t sure how to proceed but then we focused on our core question, ‘How can we help the community?’” he recalled.

The organization immediately applied for financial support programs like PPP and received help through three, enabling it to avoid furloughs or layoffs for its 100 employees. Then Herring created what he concedes was the “insane idea” of the Riverside Relief Fund, which is distributing $250 to each of the neighborhood’s 300 households in May, June, and July.

“We learned what our community needs through the registration” for the program, Herring said, which led to the distribution of 400 Chromebooks through NERDiT NOW.

The team also worked with ChristianaCare to do local screening and testing, since many Riverside residents don’t have cars or family doctors.

Delaware Museum of Natural History

At a time when the doors of cultural centers are shuttered, Delaware Museum of Natural History Executive Director Halsey Spruance advises thinking outside the box to reach patrons.

Exterior shot of the Delaware Museum of Natural History | Photo c/o the DMNH

After securing a PPP loan from M&T Bank, DMNH brought back its staff and started to reimagine cultural experiences online.

The museum had a strong social media presence for marketing, but now it’s been revamped for programming like story time and interviews with scientists. It’s also developed online paid programs.

“It’s a balance of finding what our audience would be willing to pay and what programming can work,” Spruance told DBT in mid-May. “It’s also about our close relationships, as we’re working with Country House [retirement community] on programming as well.”

Moving forward, Spruance said the lesson he’s taking away from is to be nimble in services offered. For example, staff in the gift store are now working to bring exhibits online.

That lesson also extends to DMHN’s $9.8 million capital campaign. While half of the funding needed for the museum’s renovations has been raised, all additional fundraising has ground to a halt. But Spruance said that has also helped his team prepare for remote opportunities while out of the building.

“This is like a rehearsal for when we’ll be closed down for renovations,” he said. “In the end, the goal is still the same: to provide a cultural and naturist experience for Delawareans. It just looks a little different for now.”

Brandywine Zoo

Over at the Brandywine Zoo, which recently reopened, attendance is down but guests continue to enjoy the zoo within social distancing constraints.

Mark Shafer, Interim Executive Director of the Brandywine Zoo | Photo c/o Brandywine Zoo

“We had been operating on two two-hour time slots but this week changed our hours to 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with a “deep clean” happening during the day while still open and that is going great,” said Mark Shafer, interim executive director of The Delaware Zoological Society since May 1.  “People have been wearing masks which we require but, thankfully, we haven’t had issues with having to enforce. We started our camp programs this week. We had to limit the number of campers, but we love hearing the sounds of young campers mixed in with the sounds of our animals.

State lawmakers preserved the $2 million allocation in the governor’s 2020-21 bond budget that will be used to build an animal care center that the zoo needs to keep its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. And it received $10,000 from the COVID-19 Strategic Response Fund, which “helps out tremendously,” Shafer said.

So, what’s next? “We need to continue focusing on building the list and our ability to segment our marketing with people who have a history of past engagement,” he said. “Our board members really stepped up to support the annual fund. We have 860 members and the passion they have for this place is strong. We’re focusing on nurturing those members and trying to move them up the pipeline from member to donor.”


By Peter Osborne

[email protected]

Katie Tabeling contributed to this story.

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