An event at The Community Closet in Ellsworth in 2019. FILE PHOTO

Donors step up, but nonprofits still struggle

ELLSWORTH The old saying “Mainers helping Mainers” has statistics to back it up.

According to the 2020 Giving in Maine report by the Maine Philanthropy Center, $533 million in charitable giving was donated by individuals in Maine. That is 62 percent of the state’s total of $866 million. Foundations make up 24 percent of the total, with $211 million.

While nonprofit organizations continue to struggle amid the pandemic, organizations in Hancock County are noticing this donor support, from those that support access to critical needs to arts and cultural institutions. 

“Our donors just responded so generously in terms of contribution levels that we never expected,” said Leslie Goode, a senior program officer with the Maine Community Foundation. 

The foundation, whose mission is to work “with donors and other partners to improve the quality of life for all Maine people,” created its COVID-19 Emergency Fund. The fund has since raised $6 million for organizations statewide.  

In Hancock County, 30 organizations received a total of $283,250 in COVID-19 relief funding from the foundation. Additionally, 22 grants, totaling $516,000, went to statewide organizations that support efforts in Hancock County, such as the Good Shepherd Food Bank. 

Goode reported that at the onset of the pandemic, relief efforts largely focused on frontline needs such as food and housing assistance. 

The Community Closet in Ellsworth, where clothing and household items are offered at no or a significantly decreased cost, typically receives the bulk of its donations from large department stores and hotel chains, said Director Jackie Wycoff. 

“Many of our regular donors, we haven’t heard anything from them at all,” she said, adding, “we’re feeling the trickle effect because their business has gone down.”

However, individuals have been continuing to support the organization.

“People have been stepping up,” Wycoff said.

Efforts have included buying Christmas gifts for children, supporting the organization’s Thanksgiving and Christmas meals programs and donating items in good condition that Wycoff features in weekly online auctions.

“That’s the only thing keeping our store bills paid,” she said of the auctions. 

As individuals look for ways to support frontline needs such as food and clothing, Goode noted that donor trends also include providing technology support (especially since broadband access in rural Maine is a challenge for those working or attending school from home), mental health concerns (especially issues stemming from social isolation), heating assistance and child care.

Additionally, donors are recognizing the importance of arts and cultural institutions and are working to help keep these organizations afloat. 

Calling the arts “solace” for many, Goode said that “people are really responding to that need,” with one anonymous donor giving $200,000 to be dispersed in $10,000 grants to rural theaters.

For Schoodic Arts for All in Winter Harbor, “a lot of our donors have increased their donations and stepped up to ensure we get through this year,” said Executive Director Mary Laury. 

In addition to individual donor support has been the support of foundations, including assistance from the Maine Arts Commission, Maine Community Foundation and the Onion Foundation.

“They have been unbelievably proactive in reaching out to the nonprofits they support and saying, ‘We’re here to help you,’” Laury said.

While overall donations are down this year, participants in the organization’s artistic workshops and performances are also doing what they can. 

Last summer’s Schoodic Arts Festival, the annual celebration involving daily workshops and performances, was held entirely online. Laury said all events followed a “pay what you will” structure.

“To our delight, most people paid the retail price,” she said. 

While Laury has still had to cut the organization’s yearly budget by about a third, she has been able to keep her staff employed, in part through financial help from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which helped fund the organization through July.  

As Laury puts together programming, including an active winter of online workshops, she is hoping to offer all coffeehouse performances and performances for the Schoodic Arts Festival outside next summer.

The pandemic “changed the way we do our work but hasn’t diminished what we’re doing in the least,” Laury said, adding, “people are finding great solace in doing their creative work in this period of crisis.”

For The Grand in Ellsworth, things are going “much better than I could have ever expected. That is still tenuous,” said Executive Director Nick Turner. 

“We’ve been lucky to get grants, donor-advised funding and we’ve started our annual appeal early and people have been generous,” he said. 

At the onset of the pandemic, Turner reported the theater was on track for a “blockbuster” season, with a performance of “The Sound of Music” and the Dancing with the Ellsworth Stars fundraiser scheduled to hit the stage. Then came the abrupt closures in March.

“We were very protective of our patrons, of their health and well-being,” Turner said. Staff members were briefly furloughed before the theater received assistance from the PPP, followed by anonymous donations through the Maine Community Foundation, he reported. 

“When you exist on bringing people together in your historic facility and you can’t do that anymore, the popular word became ‘pivot,’” Turner said. Pivoting for the organization has included online Tuesday trivia nights, virtual events and volunteers putting on a “Downeast take on Shakespeare” outside at the Union River Lobster Pot to entertain dinner guests. 

Turner is committed to keeping The Grand a viable venue, planning a comeback featuring the halted performance of “The Sound of Music” and the Dancing with The Ellsworth Stars fundraiser. 

But times are still tough, especially when 70 percent of the theater’s budget comes from box office sales, concessions and programming. 

“We’ve had a 100 percent loss of revenue,” said Turner. 

“We are not even close” to last year’s funding, said Turner, who now also must pay back $150,000 in an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. 

While Turner acknowledged the importance of supporting frontline causes so that the community can get its basic needs met, he also noted the importance of the arts.

“I know how important something like The Grand is after we are out of this,” he said.

“The arts always are there to bring us back to being human again.”

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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