Donations and grants are the lifelines for nonprofit organizations in Northeast Ohio and Central Ohio. In-person fundraising events are typically the catalysts for these donations. With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling or postponing most in-person events, those organizations have to scramble for alternative ways to hold fundraising events.

Sarah Crupi, executive director of the Cleveland Zoological Society in Cleveland, and Anna Shabtay, chief advancement officer at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus, said they moved to virtual means of fundraising in the past year.

The JCC is taking the entire month of March to host an online fundraiser called “March Matchness.” JewishColumbus has offered to match donations made to the JCC during the March for this online event.

Every donation during the event will go to the JCC sustainability fund, which helps fund salaries for teachers and staff, and helps to continue the programs that are offered to the community.

Although an online format has its challenges, Shabtay said it could help broaden the base they are reaching.

“When you put something online, you have the ability to reach people all over the world and the country,” Shabtay said. “It is wintertime and our gala is typically in the winter, and so some of the snowbirds are not around Columbus at that time, so that gives us an opportunity there.”

Because of the use of virtual events, Crupi said the zoological society was able to throw 12 fundraising events in 2020. This is something she said wouldn’t be possible in a non-pandemic year with in-person events.

“In an in-person year, we would have never done 12 in-person fundraising events,” Crupi said. “So, in some ways virtual events have allowed us to reach people more often – sometimes more intimately. Instead of an event that would have 200 people, you have 30 on the screen. So you can say hi, you can see each other.”

Still, Shabtay said virtual events don’t always have the same impact that an in-person event may have.

“I believe our biggest challenge is that we really are not getting to connect with people like we would normally,” Shabtay said. “When you see someone face-to-face, when they are in a room full of their friends and peers, there is a sense of camaraderie and joyfulness on the occasion. And when people can’t get together, they don’t have the same sense of urgency.”

Because of the loss of in-person events, the zoological society lost about $1 million in revenue during 2020. But Crupi said she remains confident the engagement they received during virtual events will translate into more donations when they can resume in-person events.

“Eventually, that engagement pays off,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of generosity and a lot of wonderful generous donations in 2020. Many of those were from people who had been attending free virtual Zooms with us once a month. And it just reaffirmed how much they love the zoo, the animals, and how much they wanted to help.”

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