Pandemic Has Varied Effects on Autism Organizations

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Nonprofits relying on donor funding have been affected in different ways the by pandemic. As some families may still feel the strain from work layoffs and furloughs, others work for businesses that have boomed during the pandemic.

Depending upon their type of donor funding, autism organizations may be struggling or doing fine financially.

Jen Hackett, executive director of Camp Puzzle Peace, Inc. headquartered in Penfield, said that the pandemic has curtailed the organization’s fundraising efforts.

“We usually do a number of fundraising events, but we were not able to last year and still not sure for this year,” Hackett said. “The pandemic has caused a huge strain on our organization. We have had to be very frugal.”

If conditions continue as expected, Camp Puzzle Peace’s annual golf tournament, usually held in September, may be “on” for this year.

Organizations that rely more on a variety of donation sources, especially larger gifts over fundraisers, are doing better than others.

Empreinte Consulting, LLC in Pittsford, works with nonprofit in many sectors and advises philanthropists and organizations as to how to give. Marc Misiurewicz, president, said that autism organizations are among the 40 nonprofit clients the organization has helped in the past two years.

“It’s been interesting,” he said of the pandemic. “We saw a slight increase in philanthropy from grants and private organizations. Individual fundraising changed as it became the annual appeal level.”

Misiurewicz said that autism organizations’ biggest hurdle is showing that they still need financial support and that dollars donated will have a positive impact even though the ability to deliver services has been hampered by the pandemic.

“People have struggled with access to services,” Misiurewicz said. “Are we able to demonstrate we need your money because we can use it in a way to provide services? It’s been a challenging year for individuals with autism. We’re starting to turn the corner, though.”

He added that non-profits that requested COVID-19 relief did well in receiving $100 to $200 gifts. But the major gifts at the “annual appeal level” of $25,000 or larger depend more upon personal relationships and one-on-one interactions. Usually, those are not generated through fundraisers, unless that serves as the point of first contact.

“We’ve seen organizations shift to a greater emphasis on annual appeals, grants and personal appeals,” Misiurewicz said.

Rather than hosting virtual events—which Misiurewicz said have mixed results—he said his company has helped organizations develop strategies for engagement and outreach. That begins with building a case for support and developing a meaningful relationship.

The success of virtual events relies heavily upon the ability to use technology successfully. But Misiurewicz warned that “Zoom fatigue” has led some organizations to experience poor turnout, which in turn leads to lower fundraising levels. When people attend virtual work meetings all day and help their children with virtual meetings, they likely will not want to attend yet another virtual meeting.

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to loosen, Misiurewicz said he is speaking with some organizations about hosting in-person events comprised of small groups of 20 or fewer, such as golf tournaments. Many people will likely embrace the opportunity to get out and do something in person again.

Because fundraising events incur sizable overhead and require much planning, they are not as remunerative as flat-out donations.

Misiurewicz said that a golf tournament could raise $40,000 but one donor giving $40,000 as an annual gift would make acquiring those dollars much easier. But fundraisers provide a big benefit for non-profits: awareness. Non profit organizations usually want to promote their cause and fundraisers offer a good opportunity to share their message. They also result in subsequent gifts are more people become cognizant of their needs.

“We urge clients to have smaller, more intimate events where people can share their story,” Misiurewicz said.

He envisions this summer as becoming “inundated with walks, 5ks and small outdoor events,” he said. “I think fall will be very busy as many organizations feel this will be the time to reengage on a mass scale.”