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COVID-19 forces legal nonprofits to pivot on fundraising

Danielle Carr

Danielle Carr of Polsinelli looks over items offered at the silent auction during Legal Services of Eastern Missouri’s Justice For All Ball Feb. 29 at The Ritz-Carlton St. Louis in Clayton. Photo courtesy of Chuck Ramsay for Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

For the first time, the Midwest Innocence Project is holding its largest fundraiser of the year entirely online.

Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the MIP, said it was not an option for the organization to skip its annual Faces of Innocence Gala, or push it off to next year.

“Otherwise, we could have lost up to 45 percent of our budget,” she said.

Instead, the organization regrouped, pushed the event back to July 30 and planned a hybrid live-and-pre-taped program, with live portions to be broadcast online from a production company’s studio.

The MIP is one of several Missouri nonprofit legal organizations that have found themselves quickly responding to a new fundraising landscape altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations that have traditionally relied on large-scale, in-person events now are shifting their donor development efforts elsewhere or embracing new approaches for holding events.

Part of what makes the MIP’s Faces of Innocence Gala so crucial, Bushnell said, is that the organization doesn’t qualify for many grants otherwise.

“For us, it’s always been Kansas City, events and individual giving that makes up our budget,” she said.

Bushnell said the MIP is excited about this year’s program. The honorary chairs are Kansas Chiefs Hall of Famer Will Shields and his wife, Senia, and the keynote speaker is scheduled to be Yusef Salaam, one of the Central Park Five.

She said the group is planning some interactive components for the event, including a question-and-answer session with Salaam, and it is working to provide accessibility for viewers by including an American Sign Language interpreter and closed-captioning.

“I think we’re going to come up with something we’re going to love even more and even more people will be able to experience,” Bushnell said.

In addition to the gala, the MIP in March launched a weekly series of live fireside chats on Facebook, Bushnell said. The chats enable the group to raise awareness about various criminal justice issues and its work, potentially reaching a new group of donors, she said.

When it faced a similar prohibition on in-person events, Legal Aid of Western Missouri decided to go a different route with its annual Justice for All Luncheon, initially scheduled for June 12.

The event highlights the organization’s three-year Justice For All campaign. This year, the organization was set to kick-off a $1.5 million campaign, according to Deputy Executive Director Alicia Johnson.

The campaign is still ongoing, but the organization decided to cancel the event and since has shifted its focus to enlisting sustainable monthly donors, Johnson said.

“That was not historically a large focus for us before,” she said, noting that previously Legal Aid was more focused on annual giving.

Johnson said the Kansas City philanthropy community predicts that donations across the board to all nonprofits and similar groups will decline by 25 percent as a result of the pandemic.

“We have been fortunate we have not seen that here at Legal Aid of Western Missouri, but that is a number that really resonates,” she said.

Legal Aid of Western Missouri Executive Director Joe Dandurand said the organization also has found some alternative funding sources, which have helped the group to expand some services in response to increased needs of clients.

Dandurand asked that the area legal community continue to keep his organization in mind for the long-term as lawyers and firms consider the timing and scope of their charitable giving.

“[The need is] not going to end at the end of this summer. It’s going to take a long time for folks to get on their feet,” he said.

Dan Glazier, executive director of Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, said the organization is fortunate to have held its signature fundraiser, the Justice for All Ball, in late February — just a few weeks before widespread stay-at-home orders went into effect in the region. He said the group is looking ahead, however, and considering the possibility of moving its future events online.

Glazier also said the pandemic has created a challenging set of issues for his organization. On one hand, he said, LSEM’s donors and supporters also are feeling the economic impacts of the pandemic and may be reconsidering their ability to maintain their previous levels of giving.

“At the same time, this economic and health pandemic has hurt immeasurably the client population, the folks we serve, so much greater than anyone else,” he said.

Maggie Probert, director of development and marketing for LSEM, said one of the organization’s strengths is its diverse base of donors. Still, it has identified the need to continue building its funder base to meet growing client needs, she said.

“What we do know already is that there are people out there that are still giving,” she said. “The question is, how much are they giving? And so that’s where the challenge becomes to maintain strong communication with not just your known funders, but potential new funders.”

RELATED: Photos of the 30th Justice For All Ball

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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