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Fundraising During a Pandemic

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

By McKenzie Joslin-Snyder, Portland Audubon

I should admit upfront: no one will ever call me a financial wizard. “Don’t spend more than you make” is the beginning and end of my fiscal-know-how. Even someone with my limited experience realizes that this pandemic has had far reaching consequences for all of us, including the way we manage money. As nonprofits, every one of our organizations has had to scramble to figure out what operations look like during this “new normal”. Many of us are putting long term goals on hold while we figure out how to maintain financial stability during a pandemic that just won’t seem to end. I chatted with Portland Audubon’s director of Development Charles Milne to learn more about the challenges of fundraising during this global crisis.

According to Charles, being nimble is a key to our collective success at navigating this situation. Portland Audubon responded to COVID quickly with efforts to shift services such as our Nature Store, Summer Camps, and Wild Arts Festival online. In addition, we made changes to safely keep essential, in-person operations like the Wildlife Care Center running at near-full capacity. This quick reaction time helped us to keep up engagement during a time when lots of folks were stuck at home, desperate for new experiences and a feeling of community. In some ways, shifting to an online presence has made us more inclusive to communities that we weren’t reaching before due to location, mobility, race, etc. Personally, I felt a positive shift in the way members of the public approached us at the Wildlife Care Center; both in-person and over the phone, there was an intense gratitude to still have someone to turn to for support with their wildlife emergency.

For organizations like ours, cultivating an active member-base is one of the best things we can do to stay afloat during unpredictable financial times. Being a member of a mission-driven organization gives people a sense of purpose and wellbeing. Portland Audubon doesn’t tend to see a lot of drop-off in this type of giving during times of crisis because — let’s face it — we all want to hang on to whatever vestiges of normalcy we can. Even as we all tighten our belts, most monthly members have the financial stability to give at the same relatively modest level of $50 - $250 per year.

Receiving most of our operating funds from the public comes with its own set of challenges. Portland Audubon’s diverse programming causes us to have to think strategically about how we fundraise. People engage with us on different levels, so we need to target their individual needs and interests when we ask for donations. The attendees of one of our mushroom identification classes wouldn’t necessarily be our go-to folks for help raising money for our Wildlife Care Center, for example.

Another issue environmental nonprofits are facing right now is the struggle to secure grant money. Grant-giving foundations have the potential to support an organization at a high level, with many nonprofits receiving a significant portion of their funds from grants. Our development team has found that such funding is more competitive now than ever before due to the disproportionate houselessness, hunger, and a shortage of medical care this pandemic has caused. Foundations rightly want to see their money go to where it is most needed and will have the biggest impact, so it’s no surprise that grants should focus on humanitarian efforts in this moment.

Hopefully, with a vaccine on the horizon, the people who are hardest hit by this pandemic will soon get the relief they need. In the meantime, the Wildlife Care Center will continue to operate with fewer personnel and heightened safety measures. We are currently working on a small-scale project with some of our artistically-inclined volunteers to make postcards and notecards to sell to raise money directly. Projects like these won’t fund a whole program, but they are relatively easy to put together and may generate a few hundred dollars to cover gaps. While any large-scale campaigns will have to wait, we can also use this time to plan out next steps. The Wildlife Care Center keeps thorough records of every phone call and patient intake, meaning that when society gets back on a more even economic keel, we have a ready-made list of people who are invested in our work.

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