In March 2020 at the dawn of the pandemic, Philly Friendship Circle canceled its annual gala — its largest fundraising event — just two weeks before it was scheduled.
“Everybody was just so shocked that people didn’t even know what to do,” organization co-founder Chani Baram said. “Nobody was thinking about where they’re giving; everyone was just so worried about their health and their family’s health and how we’re going to survive.”
But after a second pandemic year, Philly Friendship Circle and other Jewish area nonprofits have adapted to ever-changing circumstances to overall meet fundraising goals, designing creative solutions to pandemic-era restrictions in the process.
In 2021, the friendship circle held a virtual gala with a Zoom “after-party,” which Baram deemed “really successful.” It opened doors to new ways to think about engaging donors.
“A big part of how organizations view fundraising is in-person events and in-person interactions with donors,” Baram said. “That’s something that people — that we all — have to get more creative about: finding ways to connect with people that aren’t necessarily seeing them in-person.”
Other nonprofits had similar experiences getting creative with engaging donors. Jewish Family and Children’s Service used Zoom events to its advantage, booking big names it wouldn’t otherwise be able to for in-person events, Senior Vice President of Community Engagement Pia Eisenberg said.
Our Closet, JFCS’ free clothing program, held a virtual Fashion for All event in November 2020 with Neiman Marcus, hosting Aerin Lauder, the luxury lifestyle brand designer and granddaughter of Estee Lauder. Three hundred guests attended the event, raising more than $170,000.
To raise dollars for food relief, JFCS hosted celebrity chefs, such as Michael Solomonov and Frankie Oliveri, owner of Pat’s King of Steaks in South Philadelphia.
“If we were in person, we wouldn’t have been able to get these speakers,” Eisenberg said.
The Anti-Defamation League Philadelphia began better accommodating donors for its events, keeping them to less than an hour and holding large fundraising events, such as its annual the Good Fight gala, in the mornings, when more people were available.
ADL Philadelphia sent out gift baskets to donors attending the gala in advance, so they were able to enjoy the contents during the event, according to Lisa Welsch, ADL Philadelphia’s director of development.
“At any nonprofit event, people come and expect wonderful food, wonderful entertainment, wonderful drinks and programming,” Welsch said. “And this was a way for us to send a nice box and say thank you.”
As nonprofits have adapted to pandemic conditions, however, the more they’ve realized some of these changes are for the better in a post-pandemic world. Building deeper, more personal relationships with donors is one thing these organizations intend to keep in the long term.
“I like to think of JFCS as ‘boutique giving,’” Eisenberg said. “You can come into our organization and pick something off the shelf that speaks directly to you, as if you were going to a boutique and picking out the sweater that’s your best fit.”
Eisenberg found that during the pandemic, there have been many restricted donations, specifically for COVID relief.
Because the donors take a personal approach to giving, nonprofits wanted to take a more personal approach to engaging donors. Over the past two years, JFCS has sent out emails and written updates to their donors, as well as made phone calls and one-on-one Zoom calls.
In 2021, JFCS had a matching challenge: the board membership doubled its gifts, and members of the community responded.
“That is an important message — that the key stakeholders of your organization are setting the tone and setting an example, walking the walk,” Eisenberg said.
For Philly Friendship Circle and ADL Philadelphia, grassroots organizing efforts were prioritized for the future. Both nonprofits held respective fundraising walks outdoors during the pandemic, attracting community members to the causes.
“So many people have been introduced to Friendship Circle because their friends or family brought them to the walk,” Baram said about the 2021 Philly Friendship Walk. “So it’s more than just fundraising. We see our big fundraising events as community programs and a way to engage the community.”
While the friendship circle met its 2021 fundraising goal with the help of a few big donors and government support, Baram asserts that those who donate $18 a month are just as important.
Navigating pandemic-era restrictions has not only helped organizations adapt to future models of giving, but has given them a chance to reaffirm their values.
“Especially as an inclusive organization that serves a diverse population, we pride ourselves on making sure that we are there to accommodate everybody,” Baram said. “We want to make sure that everybody can participate.”
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