Springtime for Debbie Hill usually means revving up a critical fundraising and food drive for Lisbon Area Christian Outreach.

Hill, chairwoman and vice president of the organization, would be running bake sales and bottle drives while also collecting food donations this time of year. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to cancel the campaign.

“It’s all stopped,” Hill said.

What hasn’t stopped is the demand for the organization’s Lisbon food pantry, which is open two nights per week. Before the pandemic, volunteers would help a little over 30 people fill up their carts on a busy night. Now, Hill and her seven volunteers are seeing 50 to 70 people each night.

Hill said Lisbon Area Christian Outreach is finding ways to meet the increased demand with the help of other churches, local businesses, the Good Shepherd Food Bank, individual donations and the three towns it serves — Lisbon, Bowdoin and Durham.

For example, when she had to cancel an annual food drive at the Lisbon Food City, the supermarket set up bins for customers to donate nonperishable items and started offering shoppers the opportunity to “round up” their grocery bill to benefit the food pantry.

But it will be difficult for many other nonprofits and charitable organizations to recover the donations they would normally solicit in the spring.

“So many of our nonprofits rely on their annual spring fundraising to provide a large chunk of their annual revenue,” said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Non-Profits, which serves 970 nonprofits in Maine, about one-third of the 501(c)(3) organizations in the state.

Some nonprofits said they are seeing individual contributions increase and hearing from more people looking to help in other ways, as is frequently the case in a time of crisis.

“We’ve seen an outpouring of people that want to volunteer,” said Judy Katzel, spokesperson for Catholic Charities of Maine.

Katzel said Catholic Charities has been able to put many of those new volunteers to work immediately helping programs such as its senior outreach, SEARCH, which stands for Seek Elderly Alone, Renew Courage & Hope, using technology to maintain safe social distancing.

Individuals, foundations and businesses are also giving generously “because they recognize the need is great,” Katzel said.

“Any time the economy really starts to suffer or people are losing their jobs or are fearful of losing their jobs is a really difficult time for fundraising,” she said. “And yet we find that so many people are so incredibly generous.”

But the timing of the COVID-19 crisis could not be much worse for charities because so many in Maine ramp up their fundraising campaigns with arrival of better weather.

Fundraisers were among the first events postponed or canceled and nonprofit museums, theaters and libraries among the first to close when Gov. Janet Mills announced the state’s stay-at-home order on March 31, Hutchins said.

Simultaneously, many organizations were forced to put their financial needs on the back burner to address even more pressing problems.

In addition to undertaking projects started in response to the pandemic, such as opening a 60-bed emergency “wellness” shelter at the Lewiston Armory earlier this month, Community Concepts has had to figure out how to continue delivering its other services while keeping clients, volunteers and staff safe.

“Other than transportation, we are operating at full force,” Shawn Yardley, CEO of Community Concepts, said.

Nonprofits are usually ill-equipped to handle a long-term disruption to their revenue streams because they know those making donations expect what they give will be spent to help those in need immediately.

The Maine Association of Non-Profits encourages charities to build up their reserves, Hutchins said, but “many don’t have reserves that last more than a couple of months. The thing about nonprofits is they are actually encouraged by society to put as much of their money as they can directly into their mission.”

Charities often turn to businesses and government agencies to help refill those reserves, but everyone is having to deal with the uncertainty surrounding the virus and its long-term economic implications.

“It would be one thing if we knew it would be two months and we could get back to normal,” Hutchins said.

While many are still reaching out to make donations and qualifying nonprofits are turning to the federal coronavirus aid bill for help, uncertainty about the virus and its economic impact have “created a bit of an inertia where people are slowing down their giving to nonprofits,” she said.

Whenever the state and the economy do reopen, nonprofits expect they will have fewer businesses to draw from, and those businesses that remain will be focused on recouping their own losses. They also worry about the ripple effect on funding from the government.

“We’re concerned about federal and state funding going forward,” Yardley said.

Yardley said government models earmarking funds for programs but not to support staff to operate the programs are “not sustainable.” Turning to businesses to help fill that void for the short term may not be the answer, either.

“One of my concerns is if we go back to our businesses to help with our operations, they’ll say, and rightfully so, that they gave to the shelter,” Yardley said.

Nonprofits said they remain hopeful that they can continue to count on private and public support through the crisis and after it ends. They are also optimistic that they will emerge from the crisis better equipped to deliver their services safely and efficiently, as well as being more creative and diversified in how they fundraise.

Hill is hopeful the ultimate long-term silver lining will be how communities learn to help their most vulnerable.

“You wouldn’t believe how people are helping us,” she said. “The donations from the towns have been fantastic. The businesses and churches have really gone above and beyond to help us. Everyone has just stepped right up.”


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