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A word with Amy Little, President and CEO of the Idaho Nonprofit Center, on Idaho Gives

Amy Little

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, the Idaho Nonprofit Center was hard at work on a major event, Idaho Gives, a fundraising push that helps support valuable organizations across the state.

Idaho Nonprofit Center President and CEO Amy Little and her team of seven employees faced the challenge and got creative. The result: Idaho Gives transformed from a 24-hour fundraiser to a two-week campaign driven by social media. Idaho donors responded — a lot of them. In total, 18,335 people raised $3,932,610 from April 23 to May 7.

Little recently sat down with the Idaho Business Review to discuss this successful pivot and the pandemic’s potentially lasting impacts on nonprofit operations.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about Idaho Gives. I’m excited to hear how this year went! 

Idaho Gives was totally amazing this year. This year we were totally blown away by the response. It far exceeded our expectations as a team. We doubled what we raised last year. We didn’t know what to expect going in. We made some big changes this year from last year and we were really not sure how it was going to go. But I will say we have always put a lot of faith in our communities and our friends and our neighbors and people who are always willing to give in a time of crisis.

We had over 18,000 donors this year. We’ve never had that many donors make gifts through the campaign. And we had 634 organizations raise money and that was a record number. All told we’ve raised over $12 million since our start in 2013. That’s huge.

Are businesses doing match donations? 

Yes, there are a couple of different ways. We really strongly encourage our nonprofits to go in their own community and look for businesses willing to put up a match for them. So that is definitely part of the campaign. We fundraise. And this is something that a lot of people don’t really think about. We also fundraised over $40,000 this year. So not only did my team put this Idaho Gives event together, we don’t actively fundraise for ourselves through this. None of that was raised for our organization, and we raised another $40,000 in prize money that we leveraged to help encourage donors and encourage our nonprofits to promote the campaign through social media and email and help us kind of share the messaging.

Wow, that’s remarkable. And your social media was on point. I enjoyed following it as a social media person. I was like, I can learn from this. It was fun.

I will tell my team that. They work so hard on providing the right guidance to our nonprofits. They worked really hard on building our own presence. And I just, I’m so proud of them. This is our collective team together. So for the last four years, I’ve had the same team running this event. We had one new person join us this year, but everyone else is the same. That’s unheard of in the nonprofit world. Usually you lose people. And I’ve been super fortunate to keep my team, and man, they learn every year, and it just gets better every year.

That’s really cool that it’s the same people. So what differences were there from previous years, other than just like financial amounts?

So there are really two big differences. So we always do Idaho Gives as a 24-hour day. So I would be awake for like 36 hours and try to raise as much as we could in that time period (24 hours). This year, we stretched it out to two weeks. So we really felt like in order for us to truly share the impact of our nonprofit sector on our communities and help them raise the money they really need in the COVID crisis, we need to extend the campaign.

The other notable difference, we always have in-person events in the 24-hour day and in-person events all across the state. This year, we couldn’t have any in-person events. So literally everything was completely and totally driven online. And thankfully, you know, our event was set up to be an online campaign anyway, so for us that worked out really well and everybody’s at home. Nobody’s out, you know, running around and just the sheer volume of screen time that we’re all experiencing right now is super helpful.

Did you do online interactive events like webinars or like Zoom or was it more like social media pushes?

A lot of it was social media. We did have this really cool cause the Museum of North Idaho, and they’re based out of Coeur d’Alene. They actually hosted an official corn hole tournament. So there was some really cool creativity and still trying to create some excitement and engagement. But most everybody just really pushed it through social media. They had peer-to-peer fundraisers, so people who were actively fundraising on their behalf. It’s really set up to be that kind of fundraiser where everyone is saturating their messaging in the marketplace. Our media partners are so amazing, and we have them all throughout Idaho. So here locally we have KTVB as our television partner. We have Impact Radio as our radio partner. And so the campaign was just really promoted by the participating organizations on social media, and those media partners were phenomenal.

Do you think you would do the two-week window again or do you anticipate going back to 24 hours?

That is another really great question. And I think, so for us, we’re really passionate about working in a continuous improvement loop, but we always go back to those that we’re trying to serve and ask them how we can serve them better. And so that decision actually rests with our nonprofits and our donors. So we always send out a follow-up survey, and say, you know, what did you think about? We’re going to have them tell us, do you want to do a two-week campaign? Do you want to do a one-week campaign or do you want to go back to our 24-hour campaign? And so the decision really for what we’ll do rests with them. I would be really surprised if anybody said they wanted to go back to 24 hours. I thoroughly enjoyed the extended timeframe for us to really highlight and share our nonprofits’ impact on our community. I think that was a really cool thing that we were able to do this year. I’m really curious to see what people say and what they think.

So how has the current crisis impacted nonprofit fundraising outside of Idaho Gives?

It has changed everything completely. So there’s tons of fundraisers being held like all through spring. And then again in the fall — we all kind of take the summer off and we take like the holidays off except for Festival of Trees and a handful of events. A lot of our in-person events were canceled. I will say most everyone we have worked with has been phenomenal and said we’ll keep the deposit, let’s postpone, let’s reschedule. But it can cost you money by not holding the events. Some organizations raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, tens of thousands of dollars, and then you’re not having those events and it is a massive hit to your income for the year. How do you restructure your fundraiser? The first thing everyone did was postpone them. Now we’re hearing it’s really up the air being able to have those events — there are no guarantees that we will have them this year. That is going to mean big changes to how we recoup that lost revenue. There are a handful of places out there that have literally changed direction and created these really cool virtual events.

Another big one is that a lot of us have major donors we work with. Those are big — they are $5,000, $10,000, $100,000. Those are so relationship-driven. So we, you know, we spend a lot of time cultivating, stewarding and maintaining those relationships. And a lot of it is your in-person interaction. You know, you involve them in your mission. They come and tour, they come in and see program or service in action. You take them to lunch and thank them for their contributions. Everything is different now. So we’ve had to really shift gears in terms of how we interact with our major donors as well, so everything’s on the phone or Facetime. We, as soon as the pandemic hit, my VP of development actually got on the phone and called every single one of our donors just to make sure they were Ok. A lot of us have had to really think through how we’re going to support our donors because they are in that vulnerable population.

And then the other issues are really around nonprofit fundraising too. So you know, you have your big galas and your big fundraising events, then you have your development program where you’re stewarding donors and sponsors. But the other piece is a lot of us actually hosts fee-based programs and services that are compatible with our missions that suddenly we’re not having anymore. We can’t have those right now. So there’s a lost income stream for organizations as well.

So everything has changed. Everything about this pandemic has changed how we fundraise. And the bigger part of that has been, it has really forced us to shore up our financials, really pay attention to our income and look at, what are opportunities for cost savings? I mean it has been a crash course in business fiance right out of the gate.

So how has this impacted the number of volunteers with people trying to stay home?

There have been significant changes. We have a lot of people who volunteer in Idaho. Nonprofits rely on volunteers to help them fulfill their mission. We’re not doing our programs and services, so we’re not using our volunteers. And there’s a lot of people who volunteer that we’re not you know, that we’re not seeing right now. But then on the flip side, the Food Bank needed more volunteers because they had such massive demand from food-insecure individuals. You know, our economy kind of had to shut down and people weren’t working, so that creates housing and food insecurity issues. So they ended up needing to ramp up volunteers.

A lot of organizations have relied on retirees as volunteers, but they are a vulnerable population. So they still have the need for the volunteers, but they don’t have the volunteer force because a lot of the folks that they used to use have to stay home and protect themselves.

So actually an interview I did a couple of weeks ago was with the Boise’s Farmer’s Market and how they’ve transitioned to a drive-thru. Have you seen other nonprofits adapting so that they can carry on what they do, but in a way that’s compliant with the CDC guidelines?

Oh, for sure. I’ll even give you an example from our mission-related work. So we have been able to move our training for our nonprofits online. Attendance has been up, engagement has been up.  I have a couple of really cool examples here where people have gotten creative. So when this all hit, the Food Bank, Create Common Good and Our Path Home banded together. Create Common Good’s mission is they train people in food-service careers to gain employable skills. All of sudden they weren’t doing what they normally were doing, so they had to shift everything. The Food Bank had food and Our Path Home had a delivery mechanism. So Create Common Good prepped the food and Our Path Home delivered it, so they were able to help feed our homeless population. That to me was so creative. Everyone was able to fill their mission-related work.

Another one, Boise Centre on The Grove. They couldn’t have any events. So it’s this beautiful, large facility. They donated the use of facility to the Idaho Food Bank, creating a whole new distribution center so that they could get food out to their networks through things again. The volunteers were socially distanced; they had all the right protocols in place. That’s really cool.

I can give you thousands of examples of how nonprofits have been adapting and gotten very creative, but that is who we are as a sector. Nonprofits and nonprofit leaders are some of the smartest, most creative, most engaged problem-solvers you will ever meet. If there is an issue in our community, I guarantee you our nonprofit leaders are going to figure out a way to solve it.

Some of our arts organizations and museums have gone to virtual exhibits and leveraging social media and technology to still provide those experiences to their patrons.

What can businesses and individuals do to continue to support their community while social distancing?

It probably is not going to be the most popular response, but the first thing that comes to mind is I really want our businesses to show leadership in the community and ask people when they are patronizing to protect themselves. The number one thing that we can all do together is to stop the spread of this virus, and the only effective way to do it is to ensure that we as the nonprofits and businesses are leading through this challenge. I literally only go grocery shopping and I wear a mask. I just encourage all businesses to show the leadership that our community needs and ask people to wear masks.

We don’t want our economy to be shut down again. Nobody wants that because when that happens, that impacts the small businesses and impacts the nonprofits greatly.

The other thing is as things open up and improve, look for opportunities to partner with some of our nonprofits. When things are better and socially distanced protocols are in place, consider supporting a nonprofit. Do a percentage of sales one day for a nonprofit in your community. I think that’s a great way for nonprofits and our businesses to work together because we need each other, right? Like small businesses, we’re struggling to. So partnering together, working together, is huge.

What is the Idaho Nonprofit Center specifically doing to help nonprofits through this?

So our mission is to educate, advocate and collaborate in support of stronger nonprofits. So for us it was really a blessing I would say, which is a weird thing to say, but I’m blessed that we’re putting conditions to support our nonprofits through challenging times. This is what we do. We’re a pretty nimble organization. We were able to completely shift gears on everything that we do. Even before we had a case in an Idaho, we were the first organization sending guidance and recommendation out to our nonprofit community saying here’s how you can protect yourself. So we do a lot of what we do is just sending guidance, I mean, white papers and articles we have on our Idaho Nonprofit Center website. We were able to amass this huge collection of resources.

We have completely changed all of our webinars. We didn’t feel that this is the time for us to keep charging for all of our webinars, so all of our trainings have been offered for free. It’s more important for us to support the nonprofit sector and get the messaging out and help them learn what they need to do versus, you know, us making any money.

So we have every week several different free webinars happening, which is really cool. And again, the topics are things, you know, like supervising remote employees. We’re doing deeper dives. This pandemic is going to change how we conduct ourselves across the nonprofit sector probably forever. Maybe you need to have a remote work policy in place.

We are trying to keep in touch with the state of Idaho and Governor’s Office and making sure that we’re voicing our concerns and frustrations around some of the issues that we have with even just supply chain. Some of us can’t get masks; hand sanitizer is hard to come by. Advocating at the state and federal level is something we have been doing.

Is there anything that we didn’t touch on that you really wanted to bring up? 

I think the only thing that I think is a struggle for me, kind of personally, is making sure that people understand that Idaho Gives is super recognizable, but there’s a team of seven people in my office that work on that event for like six to nine months. I really want the nonprofit center and my team to get credit for the hard work that they put in to make this event as successful as it is every year. There is a team of seven people in my office that it is blood, sweat and tears for this event every year.

About Liz Patterson Harbauer