In COVID times, Central Florida charities reel and reinvent

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — For the past 100 years, the Salvation Army in Orlando has launched its biggest annual public fundraising event — the iconic, bell-ringing Red Kettle Campaign — on the day after Thanksgiving. This year, amid a tragic, bizarre, life-altering pandemic, it started the week after Labor Day.

The charity calls it an attempt to “rescue Christmas.”

“Overnight we’ve had to change everything,” said Captain Ken Chapman, who leads the agency’s Orange and Osceola county operations and has had to respond to historic demand for housing and food. In recent months, the charity erected giant tents to shelter its homeless residents while keeping them 6 feet apart, provided hazard pay to its front-line workers and distributed about a quarter-million food boxes and bags of groceries to people in need.

Now it’s hoping to recruit a legion of volunteers to host Red Kettle campaigns online to replace those that can no longer be set up at storefronts because of COVID-19 social-distancing requirements.

“I go to bed every night thinking about this,” Chapman said, “and I wake up every morning with a heavy heart.”

He has plenty of anxious company.

The coronavirus pandemic not only shuttered for-profit businesses in Central Florida, it has caused the cancellation of scores of charitable fund-raising walks and runs, shut down galas and annual dinners, and made some corporate sponsors wary while causing smaller donors to give less or not at all.

And it has done so at a time when tens of thousands of the region’s residents have lost their jobs and are now asking for assistance covering the most basic of needs.

“There is this cruel inverse relationship between fundraising and the demand for help,” said Jeff Hayward, president and CEO of the Heart of Florida United Way. “We have people calling our 2-1-1 helpline saying, ‘I have been a United Way donor for years, and for the first time I have to ask for help.’”

The agency’s workplace giving campaign — which typically raises up to $18 million a year — began taking a hit in March. Some companies that usually ask employees to contribute through payroll deductions opted out altogether. Others, because of social-distancing requirements, didn’t allow United Way representatives to make an in-person pitch, and still others wouldn’t even schedule a virtual appeal. About 16 percent of workers who signed up to give have since lost their jobs.

“I will say we got very lucky with our Women United luncheon in March,” Hayward said. “Five days after the event, our offices shut down and everyone started working remotely.”

While many nonprofit organizations have had to postpone, cancel or reinvent in-person fundraising events, success has been mixed, especially for local charities that rely on small donations.

“A large chunk of our support comes from people who may give us, say, $5 a month,” said Nancy Robbinson, the new executive director at United Against Poverty Orlando, where demand for help has soared. “We have what is usually our largest in-person (fundraising) event of the year in October … and we just don’t know what a virtual event is going to look like.”

Instead of the annual Hand Up Luncheon for 500 potential donors at a local hotel, UP Orlando will start rolling out online videos over the next month to share stories of the people the agency helps — the working poor — many of whom, Robbinson notes ruefully, are now the “nonworking poor” because of job cuts in the tourism industry.

The videos also will be shared by some 60 or so “Hand Up Heroes” — volunteers who will promote the agency’s mission and impact on their personal social media platforms. Potentially, Robbinson said, the campaign could reach more donors than the annual luncheon, but it’s uncharted territory.

Meanwhile, the need for food has been so great that the charity recently began holding mobile markets to bring steeply discounted groceries to communities too poor to buy gas for the drive to Orlando. At the 14 markets held so far, hundreds have lined up for help.

The need is not news to Scott Billue, founder of Matthew’s Hope in West Orange County, where demand for food, clothing, hygiene items and medical care has tripled since the pandemic began.

“At the same time, all of our fundraising events are canceled now for the year, which is a big problem,” Billue said. “Those usually create a lot of income for us. We had to find new ways to get in front of the community.”

In late August, the ministry opened the Matthew’s Hope Chest Store & Boutique in a storefront on South Dillard Street in Winter Garden, just across from 4 Rivers Smokehouse. The place serves as a showcase for the nonprofit’s custom-built and refinished solid-wood furniture and home décor while selling space to local artisans to display their own goods. Customers are asked to maintain 6-foot buffers from others and are offered hand sanitizer and masks.

“People looked at me cockeyed when I said that I was going to do this the middle of COVID,” Billue said. “But we’re the second-largest storefront in the plaza, and you can come in, get a cup of coffee and see what we have while you learn about our mission. People love it.”

The store has only had a sign up for a week and a half but so far has brought in about $3,000 in sales. And Billue is optimistic much more will follow.

Either way, it’s one of the more creative solutions to current fundraising challenges, which have caused headaches for even the largest charities.

The American Cancer Society, for instance, had to shut down its popular Relay For Life events during the spring and summer and now is trying to reinvent its massive Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, which had been scheduled for Oct. 31 in Orlando.

“This mission to save lives is at risk,” said spokesman Joe Culotta.

But even with the walk canceled, supporters are encouraged to host private efforts to raise money for the charity.

Event planner Susan Fatutta, an eight-year breast cancer survivor, was among the first to volunteer. The Winter Park resident has organized a car parade in her neighborhood, charging entry for vehicles that will be decorated for a “best breast” competition.

“They might be outfitted in giant wigs or tutus — or who knows?” Fatutta said. “I’m just trying to be creative.”

Fatutta, whose own business has dried up during the pandemic, put up $100 herself in prize money.

“I can’t open it up to the public because it’s just me organizing it, and I already have 21 definite and 11 maybes,” she says. “But as a survivor, I feel an overwhelming desire to help — especially now.”