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The morning of Saturday, April 25, dawned crisp and clear — perfect conditions for Kansas City’s 32nd annual AIDS Walk.
But this year, Theis Park in Kansas City was empty at 9:30 a.m., when hundreds of walkers should have been gathered to sip coffee, greet friends and listen to pre-race announcements. Instead, organizers went live on Facebook with radio celebrities talking up the event from an indoor studio. At 10 a.m., walkers took to the streets alone or in carefully spaced pairs or trios, narrating the trek for an online audience.
AIDS Walk organizers opted to go virtual on March 18, in those chaotic days when Kansas City was shutting down to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. “Nobody wanted to do it, but we all united for the cause,” said Michael Lintecum, event director.
The walk usually raises about $500,000 for agencies that serve people affected by the virus that causes AIDS. As of this week, fundraising stood at more than $300,000 — less than the goal, but better than Lintecum had feared.
“Long after COVID-19 is over we’re still going to have to provide services for people living with AIDS,” he said.
‘Everyone is on their own’
Throughout the Kansas City region, nearly 13,000 nonprofits are scrambling to carry out their missions under uniquely adverse circumstances: They’ve altered services. Canceled fundraising events. Changed internal operations. And many can no longer use in-person volunteers because of the pandemic. Now they find themselves competing for dollars not only with other nonprofits, but with restaurants, bookstores and other businesses that are equally desperate to stay afloat.
“Our ability to get to groups through events, our ability to fundraise through grants and foundations, it’s all been completely upended,” said Dana Knapp, CEO of ARTSKC, an advocacy group for the region’s arts community. “We’re all being pressed into the same virtual channel.”
Kansas City’s non-profit sector encompasses a gamut of groups involved in crisis management, health care, education, arts, youth programs and other services. Nonprofits are significant employers, too: One in nine Kansas Citians work at a nonprofit. And in a normal year, nonprofits in our region collectively generate $18.5 billion in revenue, according to Nonprofit Connect.
In the weeks after the pandemic began, many of the region’s largest philanthropic groups came together quickly to create the Kansas City Regional COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. So far it’s dispersed nearly $6 million in grants to nonprofits that handle critical services such as housing support, food insecurity and health care. Administrators of the fund say they’ll announce more grants in coming weeks as needs evolve. Other grant sources and government aid are offering temporary relief.
The local fund will help, of course. But Luann Feehan, CEO of the Nonprofit Connect, said charitable groups across the board are struggling to maintain their resources and carry out their missions.
“This crisis is really more widespread than a single relief fund can fix,” she said.
Harvesters, the region’s largest food bank, distributed a record 7 million pounds of food in April, communications director Sara Biles said. Its leaders estimate they’ll need $15 million to meet community food needs from March through June. So far, Harvesters has raised half that amount.
“The scope is something we haven’t seen before,” Biles said. “And people are going to need us for a long time to come.”
Some nonprofits are being forced to furlough employees. With its thrift stores closed since March 21, Goodwill of Western Missouri & Eastern Kansas has laid off nearly 400 of its 570 employees, said CEO Edward Lada Jr.
“We’ve had to end or change the majority of our workforce development programs because we don’t have the funding for it,” he said.
But like others, they’ve discovered strategies that will help them going forward. Goodwill has shifted its resources toward emergency services, using some of its donated clothing items to make masks and smocks, and it has offered its main telephone number as a text line where people can seek information about employment, banking and other concerns.
Newhouse, a shelter and resource for people at risk of domestic violence, is working on a chat function so that prospective clients can communicate even while an abuser might be within earshot. That and other means of virtual communication will likely outlast the pandemic, said CEO Courtney Thomas.
“There’s so much we’ve learned that will be useful after coronavirus,” Thomas said.
Edgar Palacios, founder of the Latinx Education Collaborative, said he’s used the shutdown to expand his networks of Latinx educators and advocates.
“I’m definitely connecting with a lot more people locally, regionally and nationally,” he said.
But nearly all nonprofit leaders foresee a difficult road ahead. With people out of work and families struggling, charitable donations will be down for a while. A dip in the stock market means foundations have less to give.
Nonprofits that rely on government revenue are also looking at hard times. Goodlife Innovations, which serves seniors and people with disabilities in 19 Kansas counties, has seen costs rise as the usual way of operating group homes and other services has been disrupted, CEO Michael Strouse said.
Along with private fundraising, Goodlife receives state and federal dollars. It was looking forward to a rare boost this year, but Strouse isn’t counting on it now.
“We’re expecting budget cuts,” he said. “Everyone is on their own, with extremely difficult financial realities.”
‘Things are changed forever’
In recent years, Kansas City was ranked by Charity Navigator as the ninth most charitable city in the country. But will people continue to be able to donate given their own economic circumstances with the pandemic?
Nonprofit leaders hope some will.
“We have tried to stay true to our mission and stand in the gap for our families in need,” said Dred Scott, CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City, which is using kitchens at its eight area locations to provide pick-up meals. “Now is not the time to hold back on support for nonprofits.”
Performing arts groups are asking patrons to purchase season tickets now, even with scheduled events up in the air.
Knapp of ARTSKC stressed the urgency of connection. Patrons should follow artists and arts groups on social media and share sites and events, she said: “Seek out online, virtual opportunities to stay connected with the artists you love.”
Feehan said people should plan ahead for volunteer opportunities once services open up. “Nonprofits are going to need volunteers more than ever before,” she said.
Nonprofit leaders think COVID-19 will permanently alter their landscape. Lada, who lived in New Orleans before becoming this area’s Goodwill executive, likened its impact to Hurricane Katrina, except the disruption is universal.
“Things are changed forever,” he said. “We need to be very strategic as nonprofits about how we weather this. If that means shared services and mergers or affiliations in order to create bandwidth to serve the community, I think those are the conversations that need to happen.”
Although it’s too early to gauge the full economic impact of COVID-19 on the non-profit sector, Feehan agreed that some of the region’s nonprofits probably won’t survive the crisis. But COVID-19 is also highlighting the value of the nonprofit network, she said.
“What I hope is that when people start getting back to work they will remember the nonprofits that helped them in a time of great need.”
Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter for The Beacon.
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