Pandemic Has Varied Effects On Autism Organizations

Some are doing well while others continue to struggle

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Nonprofits relying on donor funding have been affected in different ways the by pandemic.

As some families may still feel the strain from work layoffs and furloughs, others work for businesses that have boomed during the pandemic. Depending upon their type of donor funding, autism organizations may be struggling or doing fine financially.

Some organizations relying heavily on fundraisers have likely experienced a reduction in their budget, according to Andy Lopez-Williams, founder and clinical director of ADHD and Autism Psychological Services and Advocacy in Syracuse and Utica.

“Many organizations have been creative and found ways to fundraise despite this pandemic,” Lopez-Williams said. “The inability to gather in person certainly creates additional challenges to fundraising and requires that we find ways to connect with donors even if we can’t be face to face. It’s hard to know at this time what the ultimate effect of his pandemic will be on fundraising and the ability to translate those funds into meaningful supports and programs for persons with autism.”

He thinks that once people can readily meet face to face, the pent-up energy and funds may generate good fundraising opportunities.

The Central New York Affiliate of the Autism Society in Dewitt typically hosts an annual walk to raise funds and awareness. In 2020, it was postponed from April until October. This year, the organization has planned a month-long steps challenge for April.

“We will see how we do from a fundraising standpoint,” said Jean Leiker, vice president. “This will be a new experiment for us. Our focus is always on awareness, so anyone can participate and it is not a requirement to fundraise.”

Last year, the organization held its annual golf tournament in the fall.

“While our overall fundraising was considerably lower last year, we were not able to run our usual programs, so our expenses were also lower,” Leiker said. “We are looking forward to offering more programs in 2021 and hope the fundraising will follow with this plan in mind.”

Kelly Carinci chief development officer for The Kelberman Center in Syracuse and Utica, also expressed that the past year has been challenging. In 2020 and now in 2021 the organization’s Walk for Autism has transitioned to an entirely virtual event.

“We have seen overwhelming support this year from businesses who have stepped up to sponsor the Walk for Autism, especially our lead sponsor, The Fitness Mill,” Carinci said.

She has also seen an influx of teams registering on Mobile Cause, The Kelberman Center’s fundraising platform, to raise money for the walk.

“Even though we cannot walk together in person this year, everyone who participations knows that he or she is a part of something amazing, something which  will have a lasting effect on the children and adults who we support,” Carinci said.

She added that the organization’s fundraisers make it possible to provide services, including its Walk for Autism. But more than just the financial support, it raises awareness as well.

“The walk began more than a decade ago and has always been an in-person opportunity for families, community members, businesses and friends to come together to walk for a common goal of raising money for autism services right here in our community,” Carinci said.

Without fundraisers, that opportunity is lost.

Elizabeth Fallon Quilter, non-profit strategist and certified fundraising executive, owns a consulting practice and works as a non-profit fundraising consultant from Baldwinsville. She contends that relationship building is the key to successful fundraising. For some donors, that relationship may begin with awareness raised through a fundraising event and continues with follow-up from the organization.

Organizations that support children, such as autism support organizations, have done well since the pandemic began, according to Fallon Quilter. She also said that virtual events made more money for some organizations than their in-person events of the past, mostly because of the host expenses and how they managed the virtual event. Just saying that an event is canceled, rescheduled or is now virtual is not enough. Organizations must effectively communicate their continued need and ask for support to continue. People truly dedicated to a cause will donate whether they have an event to attend or not. Their dedication stems from both caring about the cause and the relationships they have formed with the organization’s leadership.

Nonetheless, events still play an important role for non-profit organizations.

“Many board members and volunteers like have something to invite people to,” Fallon Quilter said. “Having the party, concert or dinner is a way for people to introduce the organization to others.”

While staying in touch is important, she believes that letters emails and phone calls may not build the relationship in the same way that meeting face-to-face can. She predicts that smaller outdoor events, activities that keep people separated like golf tournaments and intimate get-togethers like a backyard barbecue with a few key donors, will likely constitute most charitable fundraisers this summer. She also fears that Zoom events may wane as people will want to get outside and as they have become “Zoom weary” because so many events have been online so long.

Regardless of how organizers host fundraisers, she believes it’s all about building the relationship with donors.

“You don’t need a big party to do that,” Fallon Quilter said.