United Way cancels largest fundraiser amid COVID-19 threat

Alex Petry and Stephanie Pethtel join hands October 2019 for a swing-style dance as part of their “Grease” inspired routine for Dancing With the Stars, a huge fundraising event for the United Way of Marion and Taylor Counties.

FAIRMONT — Brett White has 25 times more worry these days than your average nonprofit administrator.

As executive director of the United Way of Marion and Taylor Counties, White’s organization plays a large role in helping raise the money that funds more than two dozen essential agencies across two counties.

Raising that money is no easy task these days as the coronavirus pandemic has changed the nonprofit fundraising world.

For agencies such as the United Way, which rely on the donations of both large and small businesses and the individuals within them, corporate red ink and massive layoffs make for an uncertain future when it comes to philanthropy.

“For several months now, we’ve been figuring out how we can work with our corporate partners and still do the campaign this fall,” said White. “We’re adapting a lot of our materials into virtual opportunities and videos, those kinds of things.”

White noted the differences between in-person and online fundraising approaches.

“A traditional United Way fundraising campaign has a coordinator in the workplace, distributing information,” he said. “We would come into the workplace and do a presentation for the employees, talking with a group of employees about the United Way and how it works. The employees could then fill out their pledge cards and hand them back.”

It’s not happening that way these days.

“For the virtual approach, we’re thinking of doing Zoom presentations or sending video presentations companies would be able to show their staff,” White said. “The pledge cards could then be filled out online.”

Chris Yost, White’s colleague who runs the United Way’s 211 information program, said “fundraising these days is a little tricky.”

The United Way has canceled its popular and lucrative “Dancing With the Stars” event, saying it had “spent weeks considering all options and having difficult discussions.” Last October, four teams with Dancing With the Stars more more than $10,000 per team.

The event was canceled because of “the uncertainty of this unprecedented year,” reads a post on the agency’s website.

“It was a major fundraiser of ours that takes place during the fall campaign,” said White. “We made the decision to cancel it because there are simply too many moving parts (to the pandemic’s social regulations) and we’re just not able to have the planning in place for that.”

The United Way still plans to hold its annual drive thru-friendly “Celebration of Lights” at Morris Park during the Christmas season.

For their part, White said individual agencies under the United Way umbrella who conduct their own fundraising may choose either a virtual or traditional approach.

“Each individual workplace with get to decide if they want to do a virtual campaign or if they want to do a regular campaign,” White said. “We’re working with each of the agencies now to see what their plans are going to be for the fall.”

The annual United Way fundraising campaign is set to run September through December. White said a society still riddled by the fear of COVID-19 will demand a more non-traditional approach to soliciting funds.

He envisions more of a digital future for fundraising he performs, at least for the short term.

“Every single thing we do today, we’re figuring out ways to adapt and evolve and create what we need in a new virtual world, as well as in our traditional world,” he said. “It’s about how we change things around and do whatever we can do to make the campaign successful.”

The United Way of Marion and Taylor Counties is still in the formative stages of what promises to be its most unique, if not most challenging, campaign in history.

“The community really relies on this funding. It relies on what these agencies do. It’s more important now than ever these nonprofits and their important works are supported,” White said. “We need to do whatever we can to evolve the campaign and make it successful.”

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