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Online fundraising becomes vital link between nonprofits and their donors during pandemic

Raising money for the Bakersfield Master Chorale used to be as straightforward as putting on a concert. Then COVID-19 hit.

Singing through face masks during the crisis was never much of an option, and with some members of the chorale advancing in their years, singing together just didn't seem like a good idea. And yet payroll, insurance and other bills kept coming in.

Fortunately, President Jerry Buzzell said, the nonprofit has been able to adjust by using online fundraising techniques such as email blasts and social media messaging. He expects they'll become a permanent part of the chorale's fundraising toolbox even after the pandemic ends.

"It's a way a lot of the younger generation get their information. So yeah," he said, "it's a keeper."

Online fundraising is not new to Bakersfield, and in fact, one of the area's most celebrated annual fundraisers, Give Big Kern, is focused almost entirely on internet-based giving. But people in local nonprofit circles say the practice is now much more relevant and vital because of the COVID-19 crisis.

RECENT SUCCESS

Probably the biggest sign of how online fundraising has performed locally during the pandemic was Give Big Kern's donations total during the spring. The 2020 event raised $738,518, a 72 percent increase over last year's total, as 11 percent more donors participated than did in 2019.

A likely contributor to the growth in giving has been the availability of training in online fundraising.

The organization that coordinates Give Big Kern, the Kern Community Foundation, encourages participating nonprofits across the county to learn from instructional videos posted to the event's website. It partners with Ithaca, N.Y.-based online platform GiveGab Inc. to teach charities how to maximize online giving opportunities through the use of email, donor databases and social media.

There has also been an increase in the number of local nonprofits learning about online fundraising through the foundation's work with Jumpstart, a technical assistance program offered by KCF's technology partner, Washington, D.C.-based Network for Good.

Members of the Kern County Board of Supervisors have contributed to such training by providing $11,000 to pay for training for six local nonprofits including the Bakersfield Master Chorale. According to KCF, that led to an increase of nearly $120,000 in the nonprofits' collective donation receipts.

KCF continues to encourage resiliency among local nonprofits through a series of online training programs. A recent webinar showing participants how to make use of California's new online grants portal, grants.ca.gov, attracted 50 participants.

The foundation's director of community impact, Louis Medina, said online fundraising will become increasingly important to nonprofits as they see a greater share of their donations come in through mobile electronic devices.

The internet as a donations portal has also changed the way nonprofits tell their stories, Medina said. Targeted communication with supporters now relies less on words and written testimonials, he said, and more on photos, graphics and videos.

He predicted an acceleration toward that kind of outreach as donors show they respond to it.

PERSONAL TOUCH

The approach seems to have worked well for one of Give Big Kern's most successful fundraisers, Independence Through Grace Foundation, a faith-based organization based in Bakersfield focused on helping adults and children with developmental disabilities.

President and co-founder Catherine Waldon said the nonprofit has never hosted any sort of live event. Instead, it relies on email blasts and other computerized modes of outreach such as Facebook to keep in touch with its contributors.

She agreed with Medina that using digital methods to tell their stories is impactful and that it helps supporters understand what work is being accomplished through their donations.

Waldon recalled the case of a donor who has signed up for monthly contributions. Wanting to keep him informed of the work his donations fund, she put together a 20-second video showing an activity being done to help the disabled. It included a personal expression of thanks to him, delivered by a group of local participants.

Within 30 minutes of her sending him the video, the donor responded.

"He was blown away that we were able to personally send him this video," she said.

Follow John Cox on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf