As 2020 continues to throw us twists and turns, non-profits have had to adapt quickly to this brave new world of social distancing and minimal gatherings. Turning to technology, they have generated impressive financial results through unique methods, but also have found new ways of connecting with their audiences. Here’s how four resilient organizations have continued to live their mission, raise funds and serve their constituents.
“We had numerous things planned for 2020, including the Heart & Stroke Ball for June, and then went digital, using Zoom,” says Valerie Hillow Gates, Executive Director of the Heart Association’s Cleveland Chapter. “We had three goals in mind. What we did had to be informative, inspiring and innovative. We kept those three I’s in mind.” She says the live, virtual event was just 55 minutes long. “We had probably 400-plus viewers. We conducted a live auction and an ‘open your heart’ appeal.” Gates explains how the Heart Association campaigns all year, relying on a number of events in addition to the Ball. “We reached $55,000 in 55 minutes, and we felt really good about that.
“We are a health and science-based organization, so everything we plan will be virtual until we know differently from the data. Many of our supporters are heart attack survivors, and they are among the most vulnerable. Digital is how people will come to us for information,” Gates says. “We find ourselves planning from this new lens.” She refers to a series of monthly on-line health talks on topics from Covid to mental health. “We’re connecting with people in new ways and it’s very valuable. We’ve pivoted our work and emerged with a clarity of purpose. Our work is needed in the pandemic and also in the long term.”
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The local chapter of the Make-a-Wish Foundation covers Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. President/CEO Stephanie McCormick says of the six scheduled galas, Columbus and Cincinnati were completed before the shutdown. “We had to repurpose our four remaining galas,” McCormick says. “We had to pivot pretty quickly. We were lucky our national office had a tool kit on virtual fundraisers, but we were nervous. Technology is not always your friend.”
To compensate, Make-a-Wish went with a pre-produced program streamed simultaneously on Facebook and YouTube. Two-thousand viewers tuned in to the Cleveland event, a far greater number than an in-person event could accommodate. “More people were able to participate in viewing, and bidding the auction, which was live, including about 50 of my neighbors in Indiana. We reached beyond border and boundaries,” McCormick says.
The OH/KY/IN chapter is the largest in the country, and McCormick credits the overall success of the galas to each area’s regional advisory board. “They really pushed these virtual galas,” she states. “They hosted in-house parties and created partnerships with restaurants. We saw the storytelling get better, and individual donations go up with each gala. We only fell short about $200,000 of our targeted goal, and no other chapter has come close to that.” The Cleveland gala on July 10 raised over $425,000, allowing more than 40 wishes to come true.
McCormick talks about two changes the pandemic created. First, air travel is hyper-difficult and while some families chose to wait on their wish, others repurposed their wish from a one-week trip to a dream tree house or more family time using a camper. The other change is in the initial interview. “Our volunteer wish-granters had virtual meetings with families on Zoom or FaceTime,” This actually works faster, so we’re going to keep it. It breaks our hearts for a kid to wait on a wish.”
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MedWish International repurposes discarded medical supplies and equipment to provide aid in the US and around the world. Their gala was planned for September, and may still occur later this year. In the meantime, MedWish offered an on-line concert in April and in May, organized MedWish Miles, a virtual run/walk/hike/bike event to honor those on the front lines of the Covid crisis, from nurses to grocery store workers. “People could choose to do a 1K, 5K or 10K. We had 300 participants from all over the US,” says Associate Executive Director Britta Latz. “Some people and teams raised sponsorships and dedicated their miles in honor of certain individuals or groups. It was an amazing event for people to come together.” The organization raised over $20,000 over one weekend. Another creative event was organized in June. MedWish sponsored Summer Nights, a drive-in movie party with a live DJ, two blockbuster movies, games and prizes, and boxed dinners prepared by Flour, Zhug and Luna restaurants.
MedWish operations struggled but prevailed during the shutdown. “We work with 3,000 to 3,500 volunteers every year – they are our lifeblood. We couldn’t do what we do without them, Latz says.” But with no volunteers, it was the staff of twelve that combed through square foot after square foot of unsorted pallets in their warehouse, looking for PPE (personal protective equipment) such as masks and gloves to distribute to those on the front lines. “Our staff did a remarkable job,” she adds. “We are very fortunate to be supported by local healthcare institutions. This was our opportunity to turn around and give back to them.”
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This year, the Research Institute will celebrate its fifth year of biomedical research focused on improving the treatment of genetic diseases and disorders. Last year they hosted a blow-out event at the Agora, with a mad scientist vibe. “We made our decision to go virtual in April. Things didn’t seem to be lightening up,” says volunteer Michael Roether. The organization wanted to return to the Agora, but the staff was gone. Bands weren’t available. The idea of a smaller gathering didn’t seem feasible, so a virtual event was born.
This year’s Giving Kids Hope is an interactive dining experience featuring a gourmet dinner by Thyme Catering and wine tasting by Gregory James Wines. Guests will be able to enjoy a four-course dinner and wine pairing of four bottles with commentary by Mike Smith, Owner/Executive Chef of Thyme and Jim Demuth, Gregory James Wines proprietor. “We’re going to have a combination of pickup from one or two central locations, and if that doesn’t work, we have home delivery organized within a 25-mile radius,” Roether adds. The organization hopes to sell one hundred tickets to accommodate 200 people.
“We’re hoping the event sparks interest between the cause and the fun of the event, plus it’s a great value – it’s a very reasonable night out. We’re hoping people will be comfortable enough to host a small party at home, maybe with other couples. We hope people will tune in online and have their own watch party,” he adds.
“This is as close as can be to an actual live event. It’s going to be an experience, talking with the chef with each pairing, plus a live auction. Personally I went from being disappointed about not having a live event but then being excited about the virtual event. Between the food, the wine and the auction, it’s going to have all the elements.”
“I’m guessing a virtual event is a possibility moving forward,” Roether muses. “It’s very exciting yet more comfortable in your home, but there’s something about being there in person. It’s an extra level of involvement.”
Tickets for the upcoming Giving Kids Hope – Virtual Wine Dinner on Saturday, October 24 are still available. For more information visit 
Upcoming Events
The Heart Association’s annual Heart Walk can bring up to 10,000 people together. This year for safety concerns the association has a free audio journey to download. Users are encouraged to go for a heart-healthy walk alone or with friends. Additionally the Kids’ Heart Challenge, a free learning module, is available to teachers and parents.
At press time the Make-A-Wish Foundation is planning on their annual Walk for Wishes, October 3 at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The organization will continue to monitor guidelines and recommendations for overall health and safety. More information about this family-friendly event is available online.  
MedWish is still firming up plans for additional fundraisers for late 2020. Keep an eye on their website for information regarding a possible gala, or other events.