The Media School

Bloomington nonprofits adapt to changes in volunteering and funding to provide relief during COVID-19

April 21st, 2021 by
Photograph by Esha Gourikrishna

Since 2016, Beth Lintner volunteered regularly at Wheeler Mission but in March 2020, the pandemic led it to suspend all volunteers. Volunteers were only allowed to drop off donations or send supportive messages via text and email.

Around five years ago, Beth Lintner wanted to actively contribute to her community in a positive way. She thought about volunteering at some local nonprofit organizations but didn’t feel motivated enough. After watching the presidential debate in 2016 and being shocked by some of the comments on social issues, she found her motivation. Two days later, she started volunteering at Wheeler Mission, which provides services to the homeless.

“I was frustrated with the social climate in our country,” she said. “I just was like, ‘Okay I need to step it up.’”

Since the pandemic, Lintner has not been able to continue her passion for volunteering due to safety concerns.

Many nonprofit organizations across America struggled in 2020 with the lack of volunteers and sufficient funding to maintain their operations due to the pandemic. While some were struggling in all aspects to provide services, others found few obstacles in their work.

“My first thought when the pandemic started was that Wheeler was just going to be a mess,” Lintner said. “I was so concerned for the guests and the people who work there, but they handled it incredibly well.”

In March 2020, Wheeler all volunteers and relied on staff members to do the work that volunteers like Lintner normally do. This included preparing meals and sorting donations.

Tammy Caldwell, volunteer engagement manager at Wheeler, said the suspension of volunteers did not add much stress to mission’s staff.

“We discovered that staff can really do what needs to be done,” she said. “We love our volunteers and want them there, but we could get things done without volunteers.”

Wheeler suspended volunteers to protect the safety and health of its staff and guests. Otherwise, the organization did not experience a decrease in potential volunteers.

Photograph by Esha Gourikrishna

Tammy Caldwell, volunteer engagement manager at Wheeler Mission, is pleased with the Mission’s achievements during the pandemic, when other nonprofits suffered. Mission managed to raise $700,000 through a virtual fundraiser.

“Every day I get 40 emails saying, ‘I want to volunteer,’” she said. “I don’t have to go and really recruit people to come and volunteer with us.”

Tyler Garzinski, development associate at Big Brothers Big Sisters of South-Central Indiana (BBBS), said volunteer recruitment was especially slow during the first six months of COVID.

“Nobody really knew about this disease and pandemic and what it all entailed at that time,” he said.  “We had a lot of hesitancy from the community to volunteer.”

Financially, Wheeler broke records throughout 2020. The largest annual fundraiser, Drumstick Dash, a five-kilometer run, was virtual in 2020 after the city denied permission for it to be held in person.

“Still, 10,000 people signed up to do it virtually,” she said. “We raised $700,000 on a virtual race. Normally it’s a $1 million race with 20,000 people, but we had 10,000 sign up to basically run around in their backyard.”

This is in stark difference to national statistics. According to a survey conducted by the Nonprofit Leadership Center, fundraising is the top challenge facing nonprofit organizations. Out of the respondents, 64.1% cancelled fundraising events altogether.

Caldwell accredited the success to Wheeler Mission’s good reputation in the community after 127 years of operation.

“We’ve just been around so long, and people trust us,” she said.

“I go there to volunteer, but I get so much more from the experience. You just see people who are totally serving other people. Every time I leave, I feel that there is hope for humanity.” — Beth Lintner, Wheeler Mission volunteer

Garzinski said that BBBS struggled with funding the past year.

“The biggest issue we faced was the funding that we lost during COVID,” he said. “COVID hit two weeks before our largest fundraiser of the year.  We’re talking over $100,000 for our agency that we weren’t able to have.”

While funding was a concern, Garzinski said the remaining volunteers got creative in providing support while complying with CDC guidelines.

“We have a doctor within the community who is older,” he said. “He doesn’t want to risk being in person, so he’s been dropping off a pizza and a movie every night for the child and their family. He was showing the kids that, ‘Hey I know all this is going on around us but I’m still here for you.’”

Lintner said there weren’t many opportunities to serve at Wheeler Mission from a distance.

“I dropped off a meal one time,” she said. “I donated items. There really wasn’t a way to have any contact besides with the person I was paired up with for mentoring. We would still talk and text.”

Lintner looks forward to resuming normal operations so she can continue volunteering in person.

“I go there to volunteer, but I get so much more from the experience,” she said. “You just see people who are totally serving other people. Every time I leave, I feel that there is hope for humanity.”