When Canadian Mennonite University hosts its annual spring fundraiser on Friday, it will look drastically different than usual.
Titled "Spring at CMU," the event typically draws 400 guests to the university’s main campus at Grant Avenue and Shaftesbury Boulevard for two hours of presentations, music, food and socializing. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, CMU will present an online version. Supporters are invited to a virtual gathering they can enjoy from their homes: a 45-minute event featuring music, sharing from graduating students and a celebration of the university’s communications and media program.
Cancelling was an option, says Dori Zerbe Cornelsen, director of development at CMU, but having an online event gives staff a chance to connect with supporters.
"We felt like this would provide an opportunity not to just have a fundraising event, but to tell the story about what’s going on at the university at this time," Zerbe Cornelsen says. "We want to dispel the myth that CMU has closed (and) tell the story about how students are being supported and how the mission is continuing."
Spring at CMU isn’t the only fundraiser affected by COVID-19.
Siloam Mission, the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba and Make Poverty History Manitoba are just three of the organizations that have cancelled major fundraising events in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Manitoba has postponed its 34th annual Hope Couture Fashion Gala until further notice.
The Dream Factory, a charity that fulfils the dreams of children battling life-threatening illnesses, did the same. The organization’s annual Dream Maker Auction, a flagship event that draws 1,000 people, has been pushed from April to November.
"We wanted to make sure we were doing right by our donors and the community," says Andrew Kussy, development manager at the Dream Factory, adding that it’s too soon to say what impact postponing the event will have on the organization.
"The community in Winnipeg is incredibly generous and we’re really lucky to have a really wonderful base of supporters," he says. "Things are changing so quickly. It’s tough to predict what November will look like."
The pandemic also created an unusual event for the CNIB Foundation, which held its one fundraising event of the year at the convention centre on March 12.
That day, Manitoba health officials reported the first three presumptive cases of COVID-19. Organizers decided to go ahead with the event after checking in with a number of physicians they knew had planned to attend.
Still, by the time the event started at 5:30 p.m., 98 of the 330 guests who were expected to attend had sent their regrets. While those guests still paid for their tickets, the event’s live and silent auctions suffered. The event netted the foundation $52,000, as opposed to the $100,000 it usually brings in.
"It was a great evening," says Margot Ross, director of philanthropy at the CNIB Foundation. "It just didn’t result in what we had budgeted for."
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented because a health emergency and an economic crisis are happening at the same time, says Mike Duerksen, principal at BuildGood, a fundraising and donor communications agency.
"There are a lot of people around us who are going to need help, both at home and around the world," Duerksen says. "At the same time, people are losing their jobs and seeing their stock portfolios tank."
When times are hard, organizations can be tempted to give their donors space and wait six to 10 months before contacting them and resuming fundraising efforts.
Duerksen advises against this.
"The reason they are your donors is because you’re solving a big, gigantic problem in the world," he says. "If that problem persists and you’re going to work at it in the next little while, you owe it to your donor to help fix that problem. That’s the reason she was your donor in the first place."
For many individuals, financial giving is core to their values and a part of who they are, Duerksen adds.
"A lot of donors use philanthropy to make the world a little bit better, and in these uncertain times, (giving) might be one of the ways they can exert a little bit of control over the situation," he says.
As Ross at the CNIB points out, "The work continues."
The organization has a number of clients who were socially isolated even before the pandemic reached Manitoba.
CNIB staff are focused on working to ensure each of them is having their essential needs met, and that they are still getting the counselling and services they need as people with sight challenges.
The CNIB Foundation will contact its supporters for donations.
"We have wonderful long-term donors and investors at CNIB," Ross says. "We’ll just reach out to them as well and let them know, because the needs don’t stop."
The same goes for the Dream Factory, which is planning online dream parties for the families it serves until it’s safe for people to travel.
The virtual parties aren’t the same as sending a child on their dream trip, but they will still create laughter, fun and memories, Kussy says.
"The Dream Factory has always existed to be there for kids and families going through really tough situations and battling life-threatening illnesses, and we’re going to keep doing that," he says. "We’re going to keep doing our best to make that situation easier for families, and we invite the community to join us in doing that."
That sort of response is heartening for Ross, who says seeing Winnipeggers help each other during the pandemic has filled her with pride.
"We’ll get through this and probably be stronger for it," she says. "And nobody’s going to be left behind."
It’s a trying time for everyone, CMU’s Zerbe Cornelsen recognizes, saying that the university is concerned about its supporters — some of whom will be laid off or will see their savings impacted by market volatility.
"It’s not just for ourselves that we’re concerned," she says, adding that as CMU’s fundraiser approaches, the university needs support but wants to be supportive at the same time. "We’re all in this together, I suppose."