How the Pandemic is Affecting Metro Detroit Charities

With balls, walks, and other fundraisers canceled or scaled down thanks to COVID-19, local causes face a bleak year-end and a cash-strapped 2021
Metro Detroit Charities
Left: The Pink Fund held its volunteer appreciation event, usually an in-person ceremony, online in April. Center: A girl and her mother sign up for the Mercy Education Project’s tutor program this summer. Right: The Judson Center gave away free pies to foster families at a rare in-person event in May in Royal Oak. // Photo-illustration by Allison Kahler. Photographs courtesy of the Pink Fund, Mercy Education Project, and Judson Center.

In a normal year, the upper crust of metro Detroit society would be slipping into designer gowns and crisp tuxedoes this month and flocking to the MGM Grand Detroit for a lavish gala to raise more than $500,000 to fund the Judson Center’s work supporting children and families with various special needs. The event usually draws more than 600 attendees who feast on fancy fare, dance the night away, and earnestly applaud a series of appearances by families who had benefited from their generosity in the prior year.

This is no normal year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Judson replaced the in-person ball with a “virtual gala.” From 6 to 7 p.m. on a Saturday in mid-October, the nonprofit offered a webcast that attempted — to whatever extent possible — to replicate some elements of the usual signature event. The testimonials and many heartfelt pleas were all prerecorded, a tux-clad emcee anchored the proceedings and ran a live auction where participants bid through their computers, and the feed cut from time to time to the three “watch” parties where small groups of supporters sipped drinks and crowded around a laptop to show what a rocking party they had underway. At a home in Royal Oak, for instance, a woman in a black sleeveless gown insisted, with honorable panache, “We look forward to this event every year, and this year is no different!”

It was, however, completely different, as the receipts showed. Judson brought in a bit more than $300,000, an impressive total given the circumstances but a huge drop that likely portends cutbacks to services and staff in 2021, Judson CEO Lenora Hardy-Foster says.

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Girls, empowered: Southwest Detroit students hold the materials they’ll need for the Mercy Education Project’s tutoring program, which is virtual this year. // Photograph courtesy of Mercy Education Project

Indeed, the pandemic has been a twofold disaster for many nonprofits across the region: The same widespread economic suffering that has increased demand for services has left many donors unable to give as they had in the past, and the need to maintain social distance has put a costly kibosh on annual charity balls, walks, and other activities.

“You can generalize and say that every nonprofit has been totally disrupted by this,” says Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM), which manages $1 billion in assets for philanthropists and issues more than $85 million in grants to some 4,000 causes around the region each year. “I’ve been at this a long time, but there’s never been a year like this.”

Cause after cause is reporting steep losses and layoffs. Several organizations — the Kidney Foundation of Michigan, the Michigan chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Ronald McDonald House in Detroit, among others — staged virtual versions of their charity walks that drew tiny fractions of the usual participation and yielded less than half the usual revenue. The Alzheimer’s Association laid off 12 employees, The Salvation Army of Southwest Michigan furloughed store workers when its thrift shops were closed, and the Michigan Science Center reduced staff from 63 to about 25 and cut pay by 20 percent for the rest. Judson has laid off more than 20 employees, furloughed about 200, and cut nearly $700,000 out of its budget.

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Masked and transfixed: A boy takes in a display on energy at the Michigan Science Center, which reopened in July after a two-month COVID-19 closure. // Photograph courtesy of Michigan Science Center

Franklin Wright Settlements, which provides food, financial assistance, and social services for the poor in Detroit, canceled all three of its fundraisers, including a December gala, even as needs exploded. CEO Monique Marks says corporate and foundation donors have stepped up to help replace the missing revenue, but the cause now receives requests from 300 families a week versus the usual 75 families pre-COVID. “Yesterday is our food distribution day, and we generally start serving around 3 o’clock,” Marks says. “Well, by 1 o’clock, we had probably 50 cars lined up around our building.”

The Pink Fund, which provides direct financial assistance to Michigan women undergoing treatment for breast cancer, also saw requests surge as many cancer patients quit jobs to protect themselves from COVID. “They weren’t terminated, they weren’t furloughed, but they self-selected out because of being immunocompromised,” founder Molly MacDonald says. “COVID is a lot like cancer to some people in that the general population is experiencing the inability to work, loss of income, having to move on to a COBRA premium, maybe having to go into the Affordable Care Act marketplace to get health insurance.”

Even the most durable charity symbol of the holiday season, The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign, expected headwinds, given how much foot traffic around shops is likely to be reduced and how much less cash most people are using these days, which means fewer coins on hand to drop into those kettles. The Salvation Army turned to a national ad campaign that began in mid-September called “Rescue Christmas” in which it promoted online giving over emotional images of people struggling to pay their bills, stay warm, and find food. “In a year with fewer Red Kettles, your generosity is needed more than ever,” the ad informs viewers.

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Golf Classic goes on: The National Kidney Foundation held its annual charity event in October at Barton Hills. // Photograph courtesy of National Kidney Foundation

“You can just imagine all the things that had to change,” says Maj. Timothy Meyer, the SA’s metro Detroit commander and general secretary for the cause’s Eastern Michigan division, which usually pulls in $8 million — or one-third of its donation revenue — around the holidays. “We can’t drive large crowds to come to a location because of safety.”

As with other major crises, metro Detroiters gave generously at the onset of COVID shutdowns. The CFSEM, for instance, saw an influx of about $15.5 million in April as the pandemic took hold, which went into a special COVID-19 emergency relief fund. Charities related to food, housing, and healthcare saw early bursts of giving, whereas cultural nonprofits lost millions in revenue because of closures, says Teri Behrens, executive director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.

Yet, as the crisis persisted through 2020, that initial burst dissipated and assistance some charities received from the federal stimulus bill ran out. COVID-19 is “not like a hurricane or a tornado or a flood where there’s an event and then a massive recovery effort,” Behrens says. “This is ongoing crisis. The last quarter of this year will be when the wave really starts to hit.”

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Still serving: Salvation Army volunteers deliver food boxes via a socially distant, drive-through format in April. // Photograph courtesy of Salvation Army

In many cases, services were altered and cut. Like fundraising itself, support groups and other social work services shifted online. The Ronald McDonald House, which has a 26-bedroom facility for families with kids being treated at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Midtown, mostly shut down for months — four families sheltered in place there with bare-bones staff because of travel troubles or ongoing medical crises — only to reopen this summer at half-capacity to allow space for social distancing.

Even now, the House is providing only one meal a day instead of the typical three. “We needed to make sure we give space between every room so nobody comes out [of] their doors right next to someone, so you’re not walking down the hall right next to someone, those kinds of things, just because families that we see have high-risk kiddos, and the families themselves are high risk as well,” says Chrissy Cooper, the group’s marketing and development director. “A lot of our common spaces are also closed. We are catering in all of our meals. We’re delivering meals to families in our bedrooms so that they don’t have to congregate in large groups in the kitchen or anything like that.”

Many metro Detroit charities are nervously eyeing the coming year as make-or-break. Behrens says that, just as a wave of charity closures and mergers came a year or two after the initial shock of the Great Recession, the early 2020s could be harsh for the sector. “There’s no solid data on this yet — that will come when we see which nonprofits don’t file tax returns — but there’s certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that we will see some closures,” Behrens says. “I think 2021 is going to be a very difficult year.”