Running on Empty? Charity Events Wary in Time of COVID-19

The pandemic raises several complications for charity events beyond stay-at-home orders and travel restrictions, most notably an economic downturn

NBCUniversal, Inc.

It wasn't exactly the finish line Ali Riecke had in mind.

The 27-year-old had envisioned something more tropical when she signed up to participate in her second “Run Across Haiti,” an ambitious eight-day, 200-mile tour of the impoverished Caribbean nation sponsored by the nonprofit organization WORK.

Instead of celebrating with more than 30 others from across North America who raised north of $200,000 to make the journey to run and to get a first-hand look at WORK's mission, the end for Riecke came as she neared her house in decidedly non-tropical Bellingham, Washington, on May 13.

Her boyfriend blasted an air horn as she hit the wire, her run over. Then she joined a Google Hangout so other members of the far-flung group could join in the party after the trip to Haiti was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was definitely bittersweet," said Rieke, who stressed it was still “very special in its own way.”

And maybe a new normal. There are other complications for nonprofits and charities beyond stay-at-home orders and travel issues. For organizations that rely on participatory recreation events like the “Run Across Haiti” or the 5K at your local park, the concern is two-fold: How do you safely conduct these events in the era of social distancing? And how do you go about seeking money for a cause, any cause, when millions are out of work and people are literally dying by the thousands?

Riecke has collected more than $4,000 this spring to help WORK, which is focused on helping Haitian families emerge from poverty in a sustainable way. That effort that isn't going away anytime soon regardless, virus or no virus. It is something Riecke, a business intelligence developer at a local credit union, tried to keep in mind as she went through the admittedly uncomfortable task of soliciting contributions.

“It’s harder for those people to give obviously but it also feels harder to ask,” she said.

Charitable giving by individuals has dipped in recent years even during a boom economy thanks in part to a change in the tax code. While the stimulus package Congress passed in March created a $300 tax break for charitable giving, nonprofits of all sizes are anticipating a hit at the same time the need for aid is becoming greater than ever.

“I keep thinking of ‘Rocky,’ where he takes the hits and keeps moving forward,” said James Kane, a senior manager of community development for the American Cancer Society's Northeast Region. “Some days it’s going to be a step forward and two steps backward (but) at the end of the day the work we do hasn’t become less important. Our mission hasn't stopped because cancer hasn't stopped."

In response to the pandemic, the American Cancer Society established the first “Lakes to Bay 5K.” The virtual run is a relay that started around the Finger Lakes in New York on May 11 and will wrap up on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland on May 31. Runners who paid the $20 registration fee are encouraged to take a picture during their respective legs and share it on social media as a way to replicate in some small way the sweaty, giddy camaraderie of an actual road race. Proceeds will help the society's COVID-19 Response Fund, which is focused on operational expenses like keeping a 24/7 cancer helpline active.

Kane is heartened by the initial response but also wary of the bumpy path ahead.

“How do you keep people motivated when they are wondering what’s going to happen with their job, their family?” he said.

WORK applied for and received federal aid from the Paycheck Protection Program so its staff of nine could keep at it while fearing a COVID-19 spike in Haiti over the summer. The Susan G. Komen Foundation — which raises tens of millions annually for the fight against breast cancer through events like the 3-Day walk and various Races for the Cure across the country — is considering taking some of its 60 affiliates “in house" in an attempt to cut expenses.

“There’s pain involved, there’s job loss,” foundation President and CEO Paula Schneider said. “But we have to put Komen first.”

Schneider described the 3-Day event as the “heart and soul” of the organization and it has been canceled this year, a huge blow to peer-to-peer fundraising. Schneider said she is confident that because of the often personal relationship between participants and breast cancer — be they survivors or caregivers or family members — the support will return.

Still, even as parts of the nation open back up, she is unsure whether the 30 spring fundraising events that were pushed to this fall will actually take place.

“Who knows what will happen 120 days from now?” she said.

Riecke plans to be there whenever WORK returns to Haiti. If it's next year, fine. If it's not, she plans to bring attention to the organization's mission in whatever small way she can.

While she didn't get to spend eight days on the island meeting the families WORK is helping, she did get to run 20 of the 200 miles with her dog Reese. She did get to hug her boyfriend at the end. She still raised money for something that has come to mean a great deal.

Maybe there's a metaphor in there between the training required to complete the “Run Across Haiti” — or any race for that matter — and what the nation is currently going through.

“We run long distances because we’re good being at uncomfortable for a while,” Riecke said. “Being uncomfortable is OK. That’s how you break through barriers. ... Anything I can do, I'm going to continue to do."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
Contact Us