When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and health restrictions sent society into socially distanced lockdown, Pasadena’s integral nonprofit sector confronted what would effectively short-circuit its most important events of the year — fundraisers that earn essential dollars used for direct services and operations.
“Pivoting” became the word of the day as nonprofits jumped into action amid circumstances that were starkly sink or swim: Virtual fundraisers and galas, Zoom cocktail and tasting parties, online music presentations and other creative substitutes filled homes and weekend evenings. Many such events were happily received and widely supported.
Now, however, with restrictions eased and a full return to in-person, maskless activities for vaccinated individuals seemingly in sight, nonprofit organizations are tiptoeing toward a resumption of in-person gatherings, hoping donors are eager to convene.
That return to a post-pandemic reality has become a triumphant one so far for the family-services nonprofit Foothill Family, which will held the first in-person fundraising gala of the season on June 5th. Though the agency wasn’t sure what to expect when it sent out invitations, it received a resounding confirmation from 260 in-person attendees for its “Enchanted Garden” soiree, which also offered a virtual-attendance option for about 40 guests.
“We delayed the gala until June 5 in the hopes that we would be in a better place,” said organization CEO Steve Allen. “So far, everything is looking positive and we are so excited to be meeting again in person and with so many attending. We’ve been delighted with the response — to be honest, after 15 months people are a little Zoomed out. We think the timing is right.”
About 94% of the invitees have opted to attend in person, he added.
Ironically, Foothill Family was also the last nonprofit organization in 2020 to hold its in-person fete, just days before the state and the Pasadena Public Health Department announced restrictive health orders to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Back then, Allen recalled, it seemed a little surreal to see people fist and elbow bumping at the gala, held on March 7.
“We had great memories of the 2020 gala and felt incredibly fortunate to hold it in person,” Allen said. “I don’t think the pandemic had quite hit home yet.”
The year that followed presented some intense challenges, acknowledged Allen, especially since the nonprofit’s focus is on offering in-person services and programs to strengthen families. Telehealth offerings became critical, an evolution that he now sees becoming a permanent part of the strategy.
“We’ve certainly learned that telehealth services are here to stay — we consider it an additional arrow to the quiver — but face-to-face interaction is equally important,” he added.
Other nonprofit organizations are acclimating to the in-person environment after a year of becoming experts in the virtual realm. Cancer Support Community Pasadena was one of the area’s first agencies to hold an online gala and presented all three of its annual fundraisers virtually. The nonprofit also held its 2021 fundraising gala online, making it one of the few organizations that have hosted two large virtual events.
Those CSCP events proved to be wildly efficient, earning record gross revenue and attendance, said Executive Director Patricia Ostiller.
“Both of our virtual galas were tremendously successful. We have the most dedicated supporters who appreciate our mission and stayed with us every step of the way during this pandemic,” said Ostiller, noting that despite the pandemic CSCP celebrated its 30th anniversary, and the agency worked doubly hard to create an engaging event.
Though its 2021 virtual fundraiser dipped in attendance and revenue compared to the previous one, it still grossed the second-highest net revenue, due to the dramatically less expensive nature of a virtual celebration, Ostiller said. She added that one of the lessons of the pandemic has to do with the way fundraisers are presented.
“We need to learn from this pandemic, we can’t just go back to the way it was. This past year was a real wake-up lesson on many different fronts,” she said. “One of the lessons learned … is to really think about the often exorbitant amount of money that is spent on in-person galas.”
While Ostiller said she understands that people love attending beautiful venues with great ambience, food and music — and making connections in person — she thinks it’s the nonprofit leaders’ work to find a good balance to make sure the supporters’ donations are prioritized to better serve nonprofit programs.
“We are still determining the happy medium for going forward and weighing our event options,” she said, adding: “The goal is to find a balance, a venue that can provide all of that without breaking the bank.”
CSCP used technology early on, pivoting every single program for clients (except the children’s support group) to a virtual platform within a week of the shutdown, which garnered exceptional attendance, Ostiller said. Some clients would even Zoom into support programs while receiving transmissions in the hospital or caring from home for a loved one with cancer.
“I’m grateful for this virtual world because it allowed our staff, volunteers and donors to ensure that CSCP would still be a lifeline to people facing cancer during a pandemic,” she said, adding that the group is excitedly planning for an in-person Ladies Night Out fundraiser in October, where everyone can “say hello with a real hug and a smile that’s not hidden by a mask!”
Among those eagerly awaiting a return to the local hustle and bustle of fundraisers — and celebrations of all kinds — is the Langham Huntington Hotel, which stood unnaturally vacant for months during the pandemic before reopening with a skeleton crew to provide for local leisure travel.
For Langham managing director Paul Leclerc and his staff, the pandemic brought on troubling days.
“Quite frankly, it was a career first: I’ve opened many hotels but I’d never had to close one before. You can imagine the heartache of having to inform colleagues we were going to have to suspend operations,” Leclerc darkly recalled.
Though the pandemic losses were devastating, he said, the hotel’s primary focus was on keeping everyone safe and healthy, including employees and, now, guests.
During the closure, improvements were also made throughout the hotel, including a refurbished horseshoe garden, which will now provide a beautiful outdoor venue space, one of the largest in Los Angeles, he said. That will prove fruitful for guests who are still hesitant to commit to an indoor event.
While operations are slowly improving amid a staggering number of inquiries as to availability in the coming months, Leclerc is hopeful of a roaring return to celebrations in the short term. “We’re all patiently awaiting the county and state guidance, but we’re seeing a lot of interest from nonprofits and civic organizations far and wide, all of whom have offered very effusive comments about our renovations,” he said. “Our hotel has long been perceived as a prime gala location because of its history and location. We are the social heart of this community; generations of our guests have celebrated lifetime milestones at this hotel, and we want to make sure we remain that way.”