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Now is the time to donate, nonprofits plead

When the fires hit Sonoma Valley in 2017, donations to the region’s nonprofits poured in from the Bay Area and beyond. This time things are different. This time the emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic is worldwide and donations are staying in their respective locales.

“We have to have a long view on this. We can’t use templates from the other disasters,” said Beth Brown, president and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County, which supports nonprofits throughout the county providing grants and helping to build capacity.

In 2017 during the Sonoma Complex wildfires, Brown said more than 70 percent of donations came from “people who love Sonoma County but don’t live here and weren’t being affected. There also wasn’t an economic crisis.”

This time, she said, “It’s really up to us.”

Donations to nonprofits are down during a time when there is even greater need as more people are out of work due to businesses being shuttered during the shelter-in-place orders. Now that some businesses are back open, some of those workers may be working, but still behind in rent or paying other bills. Their need for assistance has not diminished, experts said.

The need for food has been among the most prominent, and Dave Goodman, CEO of Redwood Empire Food Bank, said that “could go on for five years” in part because of debt build up during a crisis.

It’s a hole that takes time to dig out of, he said. The 2017 wildfires burned for about two weeks, displacing thousands. But when people got back to their homes, their need for food assistance lasted for about 14 months, he said.

Brown said in the coronavirus pandemic, its emotional, physical and economic effects are layered like an onion. The first layer might look like the need for food, the next will find someone whose car has broken down and they don’t have the money to fix it, and another layer might be a parent who has gone back to work but has three school-age children that need childcare and no money to pay for it.

“All nonprofits are small businesses,” Brown said, and their revenues are down.

It’s hitting all nonprofits – those that support children, the Latino community, animals, the arts and beyond.

“If you give money and you’re planning to give money, this is the time to step up,” said Simon Blattner. “The things that you give money to, you should double down on and do your best to stick with them. This is it, this is the moment.”

Blattner, who considers himself “a volunteer,” knows a thing or two about the nonprofit world. He chairs the board of Sonoma Valley Fund, which is associated with Community Foundation Sonoma County. He also sits on the boards of Sonoma Land Trust, Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation, and is the founder and chair of La Luz Center’s microloan fund.

La Luz’s largest annual fundraiser, a grand in-person affair and normally held later in the summer, will be a “Zoom Ole” virtual event called “Noche Virtual” held on Friday, June 26 from 5:30 to 6 p.m. Juan Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit that supports Sonoma Valley’s Latino community, said that this event will be a short one and focused only on “fund-a-need.” Hernandez echoed Blattner’s sentiment about the need being greater than ever.

“If people want to help, the time is now,” he said. “This is the time, now. People are going through some really tough times. We’re a resilient organization, but we need that support to continue.”

Recognizing that donations are down for nonprofits, Hernandez said he is hoping to get $200,000 from the fundraiser. But that’s only about half of what they normally take in.

Nonprofits like his have shifted in how they budget and spend. While directing traffic at the food bank when located at Flower Elementary School, he would be on the phone with grantors asking permission to “repurpose” grants. For example, if a grantor gave La Luz money for mental health programs, Hernandez said he asked if he could use the money for their crisis program to help residents pay for rent. All the grantors have been supportive, he said.

Michael Irvine, director of resource development for Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, said “donations are down considerably.” To cope, instead of building annual budgets they’ve shifted to six-month budgets for long term views, with month-to-month reviews to be able to swiftly adapt to the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic and its effects.

The Boys & Girls Club was fortunate to have already had its major fundraiser in February, but the club has a revenue stream from after-school care and summer camps that was severely crimped when schools were ordered to close.

They are able to have summer camp now, but those activities come with strict regulations in how many children they can have at a time; and there still needs to be adequate staff for safety, including one person who cleans the restrooms after each child member uses them.

Irvine said other restrictions made it tough for scheduling because of family clustering-like rules. A group of club members is assigned to one staff worker in a bubble and must remain with that staff worker and cluster of kids throughout the camp, acting like a family unit. That meant the staff worker couldn’t take a meal break and leave the children with another staff member as they would during non-coronavirus times. It forced the club to shorten camp hours.

Still, even with some activities happening they did have to cut staff.

“We have currently laid off 40 -- 72 percent of our staff,” said Cary Leigh Snowden, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Sonoma Valley.

“As the guidelines continue to shift and allow us to serve more, we are hopeful we will have the financial capacity to do so,” Snowden said. “We are doing all we can to preserve our resources for that day and are continuing to serve the small amount we can now in the safest and yet, most fun and enriching environment possible.”

Nancy King, executive director of Pets Lifeline, said she is “down to skeletal staff to take care of the animals.” The pet rescue and adoption’s volunteers cannot work due to social distancing rules. The organization’s structures that house the animals are small and there’s barely enough room for staff members, King said, let alone add one volunteer.

“We don’t have the space here to be socially distant,” she said.

King said the annual fundraisers Pets Lifeline normally holds have been affected, too. Tailwags and Handbags was “somewhat salvaged” by taking it online where donated handbags were sold to raise money for the shelter.

She is in the process of morphing the Paws for a Cause event into a “virtual gala,” and hopes that will generate some money to keep the shelter going.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to make our target,” King said.

They need that money, too, because they are “significantly down in fundraising,” she said. “I would say we’re at least 50 percent down at this point.”

Hernandez said they were successful in raising an emergency fund at the beginning of the pandemic, but it went quickly.

“Since March 15 we raised $300,000 and we distributed $300,000,” he said, with 90 percent of that given for rental assistance.

Nonprofits across the country are in need, and it looks like donors are keeping their donations local, said the Community Foundation’s Brown. She and the others said they feel fortunate to work in Sonoma County where there is a lot of generosity, but it’s a world of haves and have-nots, and right now some of those in the “have” category are wondering what to do, Blattner said.

“This is when we need everybody. We need all hands on deck,” he said.

Email Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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