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The Show Must Go On
Nonprofit organizations in South Jersey find ways to persevere despite COVID’s lingering challenges.

by Amanda Hamm Hengel

As we enter the middle of 2023, it is difficult to look back and think of all that was endured during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hardships and collective unknowns were difficult in every sector, and its impact is still reverberating—and likely will for years to come.

Fortunately, there has been some semblance of moving on as the public embraces a “return to normalcy.” But there were many hard-taught lessons learned during the pandemic, so this is a new normal to be navigated and the current road we travel is not without its bumps by any means. While most businesses are steady on their feet, they are still facing the hits that just seem to keep on coming.

“As we have moved on from the pandemic, all of our operations have returned to normal operating capacity,” says Mike O’Malley, executive director for Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge. “With that said, we have not been immune to the effects of rising inflation and economic challenges.

“Our donor base has expanded as we serve an ever-expanding audience, but the size of their donations has decreased as our communities work to keep up with the cost of living,” he continues. “Similarly, our own Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital has been challenged by the same factors, including rising food costs, medication price increases and the overall rise in the cost of supplies.”

As a nonprofit organization, Cedar Run Wildlife Refuge relies heavily on individual donations to support its efforts. With traditional means of fundraising—i.e., in-person support—pushed to the backburner during the pandemic, the organization, which provides a wildlife rehabilitation hospital for South Jersey communities, was forced to get creative and find new ways to reach its audience. As one of more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the country, Cedar Run wasn’t the only one in this predicament.

Mark Morgan, co-founder of the Moorestown Theater Company (MTC), says it’s become virtually a requirement of nonprofits to think outside the box when it comes to generating revenue in this economic climate.

“Any nonprofit, or for-profit who wants to survive in this post-COVID world where the economy is up and down, must do things differently, must do business differently,” he says. “We’ve done that. We kept our doors open when most didn’t, and we’re still putting on great shows.”

The MTC partnered with BAYADA Home Health Care the first summer of the pandemic, offering shows performed in Bayada’s office parking lot. The duo was awarded the best collaborative effort of the year by the Non-Profit Development Center of Southern New Jersey for their efforts, and the MTC has continued focusing its energies on bringing the theater back to pre-pandemic audience numbers. This summer, the MTC is doing this by expanding The Penguin Project, a nationwide community theater program that empowers students and aspiring young actors with special needs, into New Jersey.

Saddler’s Woods Conservation Association (SWCA) naturally found its volunteers and visitors outside during the pandemic, as well. Janet Goeher-Jacobs, executive director of the organization dedicated to preserving the urban forest in Haddon Township, says the nonprofit was luckier than most because it was able to host cleanups, lead nature hikes and conduct scientific research during much of the pandemic.

The SWCA was forced to switch gears to remote fundraisers with email blasts, social media and website presence, though, which was a bit of a learning curve at first, but Goeher-Jacobs says the organization has actually seen benefits from those forced changes.

“During peak COVID, this outdoor, tree-loving organization had to quickly pivot and get up to speed on all things indoors and technical,” she says. “We’re talking Zoom meetings, social media apps and the world of webinars.

“I am very proud of how quickly our team got up to speed on these skills and, in the long run, it has improved our ability to both manage operations internally and engage with a wider audience in our mission,” Goeher-Jacobs continues. “We have been able to offer remote workshops, network with other environmental nonprofits and engage the public with social media. Now, these tools are used daily to manage and care for Saddler’s Woods.”

Although the pandemic forced us all to reassess the way we do things, other organizations have reported that some benefits did come from the learning we were forced to do, including some permanent changes.

“Telehealth is here to stay,” reports Richard Stagliano, chief executive officer of Center For Family Services. “Our telehealth services expanded during the pandemic and [they show] no signs of slowing down. We will continue to offer this service to our community.”

More extensively, Rosemarie Parker, CEO of Family Promise of Southwest New Jersey, says the way her nonprofit operates completely changed as a result of COVID.

And that’s a good thing.

“I don’t know that many nonprofits can say they blossomed during COVID, but we did,” she says. “COVID gave our old, antiquated system an actual death, and we’ve grown and expanded our programming. Previously, we were helping a maximum of 18 families a year, and now we’re helping 85 families a year.”

Parker explains that Family Promise, which helps working families who have lost or are in danger of losing their homes, previously utilized a shelter model for families in need. Now, it completely bypasses the shelter model and helps families find more permanent housing as soon as possible.

However, Parker says there has been a major increase in families requiring the services Family Promise provides, especially when the moratorium on evictions ended in December 2021. But by changing gears, the organization has been able to receive more grants and governmental support for its transitional housing, and Parker is hopeful the organization will continue to make strides upward.

Sydney Montgomery, Esq., executive director and founder of the Barrier Breakers, says that her organization that’s rooted in a faith-based mission and dedicated to supporting minority and first-generation college students has always been fully remote. Navigating the pandemic was less about technological pivoting and more about managing the societal aftermath, including its impact on mental health—an effort that has only increased in importance over time.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is helping them filter out the noise,” she begins. “Calming anxieties has been the biggest thing. Mental health has been a huge concern for students during the pandemic, so we’re seeing that stress and anxiety in our students—and we work with a very wide population of students applying to law school, ages 20 to 62, a lot of moms, a lot of second-career students, people who lost their jobs in the pandemic—so we’re doing more work to help our students find therapists and those holistic measures, like mindfulness.”

Like Family Promise, Montgomery and the Barrier Breakers team are seeing their own challenges arise from government mandates, as the recent Supreme Court ruling to dismantle affirmative action has clients concerned, confused and looking for help. That means community support is crucial in ensuring that an organization that’s all too familiar with having “more work than people” can meet an increasing demand for assistance.

“I cannot tell you how many students have already reached out to us because they’re like, ‘I don’t know if I have a shot anymore, I don’t know if I should still apply,’” says Montgomery. “I hate to say it, but of course donations help. There’s a lot of work, and we’re going to need to hire for that. … But there’s a lot of options [for people to help], like sponsoring a student and there are volunteer opportunities, especially in operations and in some of our partnerships and mentorship work.”

Fortunately, one of the more positive side effects of life after lockdown is a renewed sense of community commitment, according to Brian Riggs, executive director of The Joseph Fund of Camden, a nonprofit solely focused on advancing educational opportunities for Camden’s children through scholarship and tuition assistance.

“The biggest shift I've seen is what I call a general ‘return to Main Street’ mentality—meaning, people seem to be more interested in their region, town and community than in the pre-COVID era,” he notes. “This bodes well for local nonprofits, particularly those that offer an opportunity for donors to help others in their region/community who need it most.”

That swell of support has certainly been beneficial to his organization and the youngsters it endeavors to assist.

“We're seeing a shift in values and what people value … where they spend their time, who they spend their time with and what organizations are most meaningful to them,” Riggs continues. “For The Joseph Fund, we've seen an increased investment from our donors to better understand the impact of their contributions and, more importantly, how they can play a positive role in the lives of who we support.”

ANother unexpected silver lining was how nonprofits’ teams so often rose to meet every challenge the pandemic threw at them, showcasing just how deep their commitment to not only their causes but also their communities runs.

“I believe we proved that we’re a flexible, quick-thinking organization that has the internal capacity—thanks to our unshakable staff—to handle whatever obstacles come our way,” says Stagliano. “When COVID struck, we pivoted quickly to remote work, where possible, implemented telehealth services and enhanced internal communications. Our staff should feel proud of what they’ve accomplished in these last 3+ years.”

While nonprofits, like most, have found ways to persevere during the pandemic and the time that has followed, it has not been easy. Thinking outside the box, making difficult decisions and changing the way people think about an organization are just a few of the ways nonprofits have found their way.

As Morgan alluded to, these nonprofits are living the mantra “The show must go on,” and they’re finding ways to do it every day, much to the benefit of their longevity and the communities they serve.


—Additional reporting by Madeleine Maccar


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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 13, Issue 7 (July 2023).

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