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Nonprofits cancel events, develop creative ways to fulfill missions


As the region and state hunker down and practice social distancing amid the growing number of COVID-19 cases, Rochester’s nonprofits—most of which are still hard at work serving the community—have had to rethink programs, fundraisers and financing.

Lifespan of Greater Rochester Inc. has canceled its biggest fundraiser, the annual Celebration of Aging, at which veteran ABC reporter and host of the program “What Would You Do?” John Quinones was scheduled to speak.

Ann Marie Cook

Ann Marie Cook

“The Celebration of Aging for us is huge. It’s the culmination of everything we do each year,” said Lifespan President and CEO Ann Marie Cook, noting that some 1,800 people attend the annual awards event, the only fundraiser the organization holds each year.

The Celebration of Aging brings in a much-needed $250,000 to $300,000.

“In the scheme of things it’s minor that we had to cancel. There’s a whole lot of other bigger things going on in our community, in the state, in the country and the world,” Cook said. “I do put it in perspective. But financially it does hurt Lifespan. We use that money to make budget, and much of our funding we require matched dollars and use it for matched dollars. I don’t know yet the full implication of this.”

A number of nonprofit fundraising events have been canceled or postponed in recent weeks including Jewish Family Service of Rochester’s 100th year gala, Catholic Charities Community Services’ 40th Anniversary fundraising events, Gigi’s Playhouse Rochester 5th Annual “Red Carpet Affair” Gala, Catholic Family Center’s Hope Gala, the Society for the Protection and Care of Children’s 145th Anniversary Celebration and more.

“We at JFS are tremendously disappointed and at the same time are trying to remain focused on our responsibility as an agency,” said Jewish Family Service President and CEO Jennie Schaff in a note to community members recently.

Some 400 people were expected to attend the JFS event.

Marlene Bessette

Marlene Bessette

In a letter from Catholic Family Center President and CEO Marlene Bessette, it was noted that while the organization had to cancel its April 25th event, the hope was to reschedule it for some time in September.

“We recognize that CFC’s Hope Gala is an important event to connect with people and advance our mission. However, our priority is always the health and safety of our clients, staff, volunteers and our partners in the community, and at this time these additional precautions are prudent and necessary,” Bessette said in her letter to the community.

The gala was slated to honor Patty Gaffney Lovallo, Spirit of Hope and the Palumbos family as CFC Partners in Philanthropy.

In a March 12 announcement, Gigi’s Playhouse President Jennifer Bustamante said the organization had been closely monitoring the coronavirus pandemic situation when it chose to postpone its sold-out gala. Five-hundred people were expected to attend the event.

Although not a gala, Rochester Contemporary Art Center’s annual 6×6 fundraising exhibit has had to be altered as a result of the gallery’s closure during the pandemic.

“We may have to make some changes, but 6×6 is proceeding,” said Executive Director Bleu Cease in a statement this week. “We’re hoping people will use 6×6 as a fun, creative and positive activity together (but separately) during this difficult time. The coronavirus health crisis is dramatically impacting all aspects of daily life. Hopefully, 6×6 will give people a creative outlet while they are at home.”

All artworks from the exhibition, which brings together thousands of original pieces donated by their creators, fetch $20 each to benefit RoCo.

In many cases it is too soon to tell what impact canceled or postponed fundraising events will have on their nonprofits. For the Society for the Protection and Care of Children, its postponed 145th Anniversary Celebration will have a minimal effect, aside from having to reprint invitations and signage. The organization worked closely with the venue to reschedule the event for November.

Lisa Butt

Lisa Butt

“We’re going to lose one of our events though,” said SPCC President and CEO Lisa Butt. “We always do an Angel Party in December, but since we’re going to push this to November we’re going to combine the two of them. So we’ll really be having one less event that we count on revenue from. We’re just hoping that we’ll make it extra big and special.”

In response to the vast number of nonprofits that are experiencing a significant drop in their fundraising efforts, regional officials, business and organizational leaders have put together a fund to help distribute monies to nonprofits in need.

The United Way of Greater Rochester Inc. and the Rochester Area Community Foundation have stepped in to coordinate the Community Crisis Fund. Community members can donate to the fund via text message or online at

Additionally, as community members have voiced an interest in supporting local nonprofits through volunteerism and donations of goods, United Way has created a COVID-19-specific portal on its Volunteer United site at

“We are a community of doers and helpers,” said United Way President and CEO Jaime Saunders during last week’s announcement of the fund. “Facing such an unprecedented crisis, our community’s nonprofits have become overwhelmed by well-intentioned requests to help.”

On Monday this week, AutismUp Executive Director Sarah Milko reached out to the community in an effort to drum up support for the organization, which serves more than 2,500 individuals and families with autism through its direct programming, education and support services.

“This is the most important letter I have ever written,” Milko said in her missive. “AutismUp is facing an unprecedented financial crisis which is forcing me and my team to make decisions I never imagined we would ever have to face.”

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, AutismUp canceled the remainder of its winter program term, postponed its spring term and its April gala, which it relies on for more than $350,000 in fundraising revenue.

“Without these key revenue streams we cannot afford to pay our staff or rent for our brand new program space,” Milko wrote. “We have reviewed our financial position and conservatively estimate an impact of a loss of $200,000 needed to sustain critical operations.”

A new report from the Association of Fundraising Professionals shows that nonprofits can survive these unsettling times. While nonprofit professionals face the perfect storm of a bear market, delayed or canceled fundraising events and closures that affect how they do their work, AFP suggests that giving can actually improve in the long term.

“If we look at what happened during the Great Recession, giving to nonprofits remained steady, with only slight declines over the entire period,” said Ben Miller, chief analytic officer of DonorTrends and secretary of the Growth in Giving Initiative, a program of AFP. “While we have to be careful because it is not a true apples-to-apples comparison to today’s headlines and the concept of ‘social distancing,’ the data does suggest that donors are very supportive of their nonprofits through uncertain economic times.”

In addition to the Community Crisis Fund and direct messaging from nonprofits, other local organizations are lifting up the not-for-profit community. Causewave Community Partners is offering free virtual consultations for any nonprofit in the Greater Rochester area to help with their COVID-19 planning and response with emergency support from the ESL Charitable Foundation. Topics include crisis communications, pivoting priorities and fundraising planning, including event cancellation and postponement, among other things.

And the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce Inc. has partnered with Upstate Venture Connect and Roc Growth to help Continual Care Solutions launch imPowr Community Exchange, a portal that will serve as a repository to collect and share the needs of social agencies and local businesses with resources available from the larger community, including business, government, academia, the arts and other sectors.

The matchmaking portal gathers opportunities to help in categories such as food, clothing, supplies, financial donations, volunteers and more.

Lifespan, whose focus is on the region’s elderly population, serves some 38,000 people each year, Cook said. And while the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly be negative, she remains upbeat about the community the nonprofit resides in.

“It’s wonderful to see the community pull together in this time of need,” Cook said. “And I’m sure that we will all somehow figure out how we’re going to do this in the future in terms of figuring out budgets and finance. But that’s a secondary need right now.”

[email protected] / 585-653-4021 / @Velvet_Spicer


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