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Minnesota nonprofits are resuming in-person fundraising galas following the pandemic’s disruption

No humans had to wear tuxedos, but a few dogs did at this fall’s Animal Humane Society gala — their first in-person event since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020.

The glitzy affair, complete with champagne, a silent auction and a relaxed dress code, took place at a venue in northeast Minneapolis rather than on computer screens, which has become standard practice during the pandemic.

“After visiting so many [online events]people are fed up and want to come back in person,” said Shannon Hicks, events manager for the Twin Cities-based Animal Humane Society.

After nearly three years of COVID-related disruption, the galas and other large fundraisers that Minnesota nonprofits rely heavily on for donations — especially during this critical time at the end of the year — are back to normal.

Many nonprofits are financially strained this year and need support after government aid ended during the pandemic. Some foundation grants have also returned to pre-pandemic levels.

In a new report from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, more nonprofits say they are ending the year in deficit or in balance compared to 2021. A third of nonprofits polled by the council expect to end the year in the red.

At the national and local levels, some nonprofits are seeing a drop in giving compared to the big spikes in giving when the pandemic first hit in early 2020.

But at more than 130 charitable galas and events that fundraising consultant Glen Fladeboe and his company worked on this fall, donations are trending, although fewer donors are showing up — likely because more people are spending time and money traveling.

“It’s probably one of the most important things I’ve observed in my career: Participation is down slightly in 2022, but many of our clients are raising as much or more money with fewer participants,” Fladeboe said. “The donors that are in the room are passionate and give bigger gifts.”

Ironically, before the pandemic, some nonprofits had upgraded traditional evening events to online options to combat “gala fatigue” and cut costs of often expensive celebrations. When the pandemic struck, it forced most nonprofits to move fundraising online.

This, in turn, led to “zoom fatigue,” prompting some organizations to resume face-to-face events in 2021. But a surge of COVID cases last fall brought many events back online.

Fladeboe said most of its clients are now holding in-person events, with a smaller proportion running hybrid fundraisers. He said the hybrid model, where people are invited to participate in a fundraiser both in person and online, is likely to be more popular post-pandemic.

“Right now in 2022, people wanted to get back together,” he said. “[The event model] will change and move depending on where the public is.”

Wear heels again

The Humane Society had planned to host an in-person event in the fall of 2021, but rising COVID cases scuttled the event and pushed it back to September of this year. More than 300 people and 100 dogs attended the party, which included a “dog concierge” who took the puppies on potty breaks. While people ate hors d’oeuvres and sipped champagne, their pets devoured “puppy cakes” before posing for portraits or in a photo booth.

“Everyone was a VIP, including the dogs,” Hicks said.

Probably like many others, Amy LeBard struggled to find a dress for the American Cancer Society’s annual gala this month. “I haven’t had a chance to wear my heels in about two years,” said LeBard, director of marketing for the Cancer Society of Minnesota.

The Cancer Society’s in-person gala in northeast Minneapolis attracted 300 people, nearly double the number in 2019. It hosted an online event in 2020 and a limited in-person hybrid event in 2021.

“The eagerness to get out there, dress well, really get to know people, and see the impact in person — it’s just more appealing,” LeBard said. “It’s a great opportunity for people to reconnect.”

Second Harvest Heartland’s October Gala was also the first in-person event in two years. The party, hosted by the Brooklyn Park-based nonprofit, one of seven food banks in Minnesota, drew more than 750 people and raised $1.2 million — more than double the sum raised by the virtual galas in 2020 and 2021, and the most money raised through a fundraiser in the organization’s history.

“It’s hard to feel the heart of an organization from an email. But doing it in person… it’s definitely more powerful,” said Megan Muske, Second Harvest’s chief development officer.

Despite the success of the event, donations to Second Harvest this year are below 2021 and 2020 levels, even as food and fuel costs increase. About a quarter of Second Harvest’s annual revenue comes from contributions.

“It feels like a slower start to the fundraising season,” Muske said, adding that many first-time donors who gave at the onset of COVID have stopped supporting. “We’re really concerned … we hope people will stay with us.”

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