Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Since COVID-19 arrived in the state earlier this year, Alaskans’ social calendars have gradually emptied as event after event has been canceled to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

One of the first dominoes to fall was Raven’s Ball, the annual black-tie gala that supports the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation, or HANF. Planned as a night of fun and glamour, the 2020 Raven’s Ball instead was one of the first big events to be canceled as part of the statewide effort to “flatten the curve.”

“We’re a health care provider,” said Jennifer Harrington, HANF’s senior director for development. “At the end of the day, the most important thing is the health and safety of our patients and staff and partners and donors.”

It may have been the right decision, but it wasn’t an easy one to make. Raven’s Ball is the organization’s primary source of income. And HANF is far from alone. As COVID continues to disrupt the way Alaskans are used to doing things, many nonprofits have had to get creative to make up for the shortfall caused by canceled events and closed venues.

From postponements to virtual solutions to stark appeals to the public, here’s a look at what some Alaska groups are doing to make it through 2020.

‘We’re pressing pause’

For HANF and many other nonprofits, galas and other big events are significant opportunities to bring in funds and attract donors, but they’re only one piece of a bigger financial picture. What happens when the entire organization is built around an in-person event that can’t take place?

That was the question facing organizers of the Anchorage Mayor’s Charity Ball, an annual gala that has raised more than $3.5 million for Alaska nonprofits since it was established by Robert Penney and then-Mayor Rick Mystrom in 1994.

Unlike other charity galas, the Mayor’s Charity Ball doesn’t support one individual organization. Instead, four nonprofits are randomly selected from among applicants in three categories -- health and human services, the arts, and all others. One hundred percent of the net proceeds from the formal event, held each October in Anchorage, are distributed among each year’s honored organizations.

The Ball’s volunteer board decided in the spring that it would make a decision about its 2020 event on June 1. When the Alaska State Fair was canceled near the end of May, that settled the matter, according to Debbie Reinwand, who chairs the board.

“We’re pressing pause this year,” Reinwand said.

The Mayor’s Charity Ball will not be held this fall but will return in 2021 to raise funds for the beneficiaries that were selected this year: Alaska Trails, Alzheimer’s Resource of Alaska, Alaska Theatre of Youth, and the Center for Safe Alaskans.

“It was a difficult decision, but on the other hand, we had such a great turnout last year,” Reinwand said, adding that each organization took home about $45,000 in 2019. “I would like to see that happen again in 2021. We just have to rise to the occasion.”

Organizers did briefly consider staging a virtual fundraiser around the time the Ball would have been held, but they ultimately decided against it for a couple of reasons, according to Reinwand. First, it seemed unlikely that such an effort would be able to raise the same amount of money (in past years, the event has netted as much as $40,000 to $60,000 for each honoree), and they didn’t want this year’s beneficiary organizations to get shortchanged. And as more Alaska nonprofits started moving their fundraisers to the fall, the philanthropic landscape started to look a little crowded.

“Obviously, all nonprofits are hurting right now,” Reinwand said. “We didn’t want to compete with them and come into their space.”

The Mayor’s Charity Ball is essentially “found money” for the organizations that benefit, Reinwand said, while other fundraisers are part of development and budget strategies for groups that often operate on thin margins.

“We’re not the same as other groups, and other groups deserve that opportunity,” she said.

A public appeal

Some nonprofit organizations have the ability to cut operating costs the same ways businesses do: reducing operations, limiting services, or furloughing staff. For others, there’s no way to cut costs without closing.

Alaska SeaLife Center President and CEO Tara Riemer was sitting in a Seward City Council meeting in June, talking about COVID’s impact on her organization, when the information and financial analyses she’d been studying for weeks suddenly gelled into a stark realization.

“That was the first time I actually said ‘We will need to raise $2 million or we’ll have to close,’” Riemer said.

And when she says “close,” she doesn’t mean for the season -- she means close for good. Even when it’s not open, the Center keeps running. More than two-thirds of staff members are considered “essential” because their job duties directly support the welfare of the animal residents, from preparing food to cleaning tanks to keeping the seawater filtration system running. The electric bill alone runs about $2,000 a day.

“We don’t have a lot of frivolous costs in our budget,” Riemer said. “We run a very lean operation.” To cut costs more than $500,000, the organization would have to start closing exhibits, and that, in turn, takes away the potential for revenue -- a vicious cycle that would hurt long-term sustainability.

On an average summer day, the Center sees between 1,000 and 2,000 guests who generate $4 million in revenue, funding more than half or the organization’s $7.5 million budget. This summer, even if out-of-state tourism hadn’t dropped precipitously, 1,000 would be the absolute maximum number of visitors that can comfortably be accommodated in a single day, according to Riemer.

“We thought we had fairly diverse sources of revenue, and we’ve always considered the visitor revenues the most sustainable,” she said. “This is a big switch from that.”

In the long term, 2020 is giving the Alaska SeaLife Center reason to do some big-picture thinking about its development strategy. In the near term, Riemer said, they realized it would take more than a membership drive or fundraising email to weather the storm, especially since COVID response programs are largely intended for organizations that feed people, not animals.

In July, Riemer went public with a plea to everyone who loves the Alaska SeaLife Center: We need your help, or we will have to close. Permanently.

The dire message resonated in Alaska and beyond.

“The response that first day was totally overwhelming,” Riemer said. “Our systems did not break down, but our staff is still catching up from donations made on Day One. Over the past three weeks, we have doubled the number of member households that we have ever had before.”

Donations of all sizes have poured in, and not just from Alaskans. While the Alaska SeaLife Center isn’t out of the woods -- “No one can predict what’s happening with COVID,” Riemer said -- the progress has been heartening.

“The response has been awesome,” Riemer said. “That is the part that gives me hope.”

Getting flexible, going virtual

Scheduled for March 28, the 13th annual Raven’s Ball should have raised anywhere from $250,000 to $400,000 for HANF, a nonprofit affiliated with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium that works to support health and wellness initiatives across the state. Once the party was canceled, the work was just beginning.

“We immediately got on the phone with our donors,” Harrington said.

About half of this year’s corporate sponsors agreed to donate the amount they had already spent to purchase tables, and many vendors waived their cancellation fees.

“The generosity and continued support was such an amazing outcome in the midst of canceling the event,” Harrington said.

Like many charity galas, Raven’s Ball includes both silent and live auctions, including works of high-quality Alaska Native art. During a conversation with representatives from GCI, Harrington floated the idea of taking that auction online, as many of the donated items had already been received. GCI loved the idea enough to come on board as the lead sponsor, contributing $25,000.

“All of a sudden it was like, ‘Uh -- how do you do an online auction?’” Harrington said. “That’s all new for us.”

The resulting digital event, the first-ever Raven’s Resilience Online Auction, will take place Aug. 27-28. Harrington said organizers hope the event will raise another $75,000 in addition to GCI’s contribution, with the goal of purchasing neonatal cardiac monitors for the NICU at Alaska Native Medical Center.

Harrington said she doesn’t anticipate that Raven’s Resilience will replace the full-scale, in-person Raven’s Ball in future years, but there’s something to be said for trying new things and diversifying revenue streams. This year, Harrington said, she’s learned to get creative with videoconferencing and other ways of donor outreach. And if the online auction is successful, she’s interested in using a hybrid approach in the future, perhaps using pre-bidding or other virtual ways to build up anticipation for Raven’s Ball.

Ultimately, she said, galas and other in-person events aren’t just about the money that’s raised; they’re about fun and camaraderie and recognizing the individuals who help keep Alaska’s nonprofits running. And those people have continued to show up, even without the red carpet.

“If there could be a rainbow in a pandemic, it’s the philanthropic nature of our Alaska neighbors and friends and family that have come out and poured all of this support back into ANTHC, the hospital, our frontline providers,” Harrington said. “If there could be a happy unicorn dancing around in the midst of this pandemic, it would be the donors.”

Learn more about the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation’s Raven’s Resilience Online Auction. The Raven’s Resilience Online Auction is a virtual auction hosted to raise funds for the purchase of five to seven neonatal cardiac heart monitors for the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC). The neonatal cardiac monitors provide essential medical information and make it easier to identify key vital signs, which allows for faster recognition and response from the care providers.

This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.