While the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses has been well documented, community organizations have also been negatively impacted. Challenges to the usual in-person models of engaging stakeholders, hosting gatherings and holding events has made it difficult for organizations to not only carry out their mission, but also to raise funds. In a May 2020 study of community development organizations in Wisconsin, nearly two-thirds of organizations had already experienced a decline in revenues, with 41% furloughing or laying off staff. Nearly 40% indicated that organizational funding was their top concern for the coming year. At the time of the survey, only 11% of organizations had cancelled all 2020 events; today, that figure is closer to 75% of organizations canceling events for the remainder of the year. This decline in revenue opportunities, coupled with the limited opportunities for nonprofit and membership organizations to access state and federal loan and grant funds, will require organizations to be creative in approaching fundraising for the coming year. Three possible strategies are outlined in the following articles.

Find common ground

As smaller cash-strapped businesses may find it increasingly difficult to sponsor events or pay membership dues, it may be necessary to approach larger local, regional or even national entities with shared interests or missions to sustain local programs. To identify appropriate partners, consider what activities or connections your organization is uniquely well-positioned to accomplish. Identify companies or nonprofits with missions that mesh with your own. How can you partner with these entities to deliver funds within your district? Approaches to consider include:

Leveraging corporate or institutional interest in popular topics such as entrepreneurship, food security, families/children, sustainability, local farms or the arts to support key programs for your organization. Think of this type of outreach as a capital campaign for a specific program. Consider ways to connect your sponsor to the positive outcomes/imagery from the event to make it worth their investment. Examples might include:

  • Naming rights to a local farmers market for a company focused on food security or hunger. Allow an employee of the sponsoring company to deliver a food donation from the market to the local pantry, creating a publicity opportunity for the company. Leavenworth, Washington, does a great job marketing its farmers market as a sponsor-worthy investment: https://leavenworthfarmersmarket.org/market-sponsorships/
  • Incorporate a title sponsor for your child- and family-friendly programming. Integrate a family-friendly element to all major events (even virtual ones), then seek sponsorship from a company or organization with related interests, such as a children’s dental or health organization. Explore ways to engage employees or beneficiaries of the sponsoring company/organization in the programming, whether that is staffing the booth, offering the opportunity to be the first to visit, or a pre-event private party in the space or with the amenity (petting zoo, rides, art instruction, etc.).
  • Incorporating pollinator-friendly or native plants in your landscaping in partnership with a natural resources organization, or integrate an educational component that allows the organization to reach new audiences. Green Bay’s On Broadway district went as far as adding beehives into the district: https://www.wbay.com/content/news/Bees-brought-in-to-make-downtown-Green-Bay-their-home-569896851.html

Managing local administrative programs on behalf of your municipality. While municipal general funds will be limited in the coming year and operational support dollars may be limited, your organization can still pursue municipal funding by demonstrating cost savings for the community. It is likely that some tasks currently performed by city staff can be more effectively and efficiently performed by downtown staff or volunteers. Demonstrating these cost savings can result in opportunities for the organization to contract with the municipality to perform services. Examples include:

The City of Green Bay proactively sought an outside partner to manage the shipyard district vendors and programming. Learn more.

Maximize efficiencies

Downtowns work in part because of economies of scale. The ability to share infrastructure, parking and foot traffic is what makes downtowns an attractive business location. Taking these efficiencies to the next level can generate organizational revenue while also benefiting downtown businesses and property owners. As with fund management or other coordinated programs, it is common for managing organizations to receive funds to compensate for staff time, or a set percentage of proceeds for administrative efforts to sustain the program. This arrangement should be spelled out clearly in the enrollment packet, along with information on the time and money savings for participants.

Identify “pain points” for district businesses or property owners and create a plan to solve the problem. For many of these challenging problems, having a point person researching options, negotiating contracts and monitoring work—all at a reduced rate from what members would pay individually—is well worth the investment. Common projects that inspire coordinated effort include sidewalk snow shoveling, periodic store and sidewalk power washing, pigeon or pest control, security cameras, and now, the purchase and installation of distancing measures and personal protective equipment (PPE).

While it is most common to bundle ongoing service needs for this type of program, there are instances where it can be effective to coordinate one-time purchases to secure a discount. This might include services such as tuck-pointing or awning repair after a new façade program is launched, or items such as sewer laterals, foundation repair or accessible ramp/sidewalk additions to coincide with road construction on adjacent streets. Coordinating these activities benefits businesses from both a cost and a management perspective, and also benefits the district by expanding the number of properties improved/maintained for the future.

Offer opportunities for buy-in to joint marketing initiatives. Especially in partnership with access to marketing or graphics professionals to enhance the impact of the marketing, this is an appealing option. This type of initiative has occurred for decades in the form of radio or newspaper ad purchases, billboards and other traditional media buys that can be divvied up among many small businesses. However, there are numerous emerging models that can also provide measurable returns for business partners and an opportunity to provide meaningful services by district management. Ideas might include:

  • A centralized e-sales portal to allow customers to make purchases from any of your businesses in a one-stop, one-cart platform. The Shop Where I Live platform is one way to create this opportunity. https://www.shopwhereilive.com/
  • Coordinated receipt programs offer discounts for customers of one business at nearby businesses in the district. By pairing businesses with complementary customer demographics, businesses have the opportunity to grow both their sales and their base of loyal customers, and the shopper benefits from not only a cost savings but also the invitation to try out a new business.

Business cross-marketing via social media and at the point of purchase is an effective way to increase spending without needing to increase the number of visitors.

  • Jump on board the subscription box craze with a customized and curated monthly “downtown box.” Whether you are a tourist community offering a reminder of summer holidays to regular visitors or an arts- or food-based community offering unique inspired goods, customers can enjoy the unique offerings of your district when they can’t get there in person.

Helena, MT created a community crate subscription box program to support local retailers while expanding the community’s customer base. Learn more.

Appeal to individuals

Individuals are an untapped market for most community groups. They are direct beneficiaries of our programs, but rarely given an opportunity (or asked) to contribute directly. Having a goal of 20% of organizational funds from individual donors is one of the objectives in the Main Street accreditation packet. For popular programs, the goal could be closer to half of funding from individuals, whether in the form of direct ticketing, charitable giving or participation in a perks program. The following provide tips for developing an effective individual donor base for your organization.

  • Start with the basics. Create infrastructure to identify, reach and thank individuals who engage with your organization. Make it a priority at each of your activities/committees to collect contact info from stakeholders (attendees, residents, employees, etc.).
  • Establish a strategy for engaging with this audience regularly. At a minimum, send an annual appeal, perhaps together with an infographic of your organization’s annual accomplishments, or its schedule of annual events. A newsletter, series of social media challenges or invite-only gatherings can also serve as critical outreach elements.
  • Ask for support regularly and in a variety of ways. Don’t worry that you are over-asking – it is rare that any single donor will see or internalize all of the messaging. Ideas include adding a “donate now” button to your website, installing a temporary “text to donate” sign or donation receptacle at the exit of your events, and adding “text to support our public art” signs after the installation of a new mural.
  • While you’re at it, make it a goal to achieve 100% board giving. Even at a small amount, being able to say that you have full board participation makes your other asks stronger. Additionally, leverage your network of regular supporters to bring in new members/volunteers. Hosting invite-only events for existing supporters and their friends creates a friendly scenario for seeking additional support—be it financial or volunteer.
  • Capitalize on the persuasive combo of belonging. Sell branded merchandise that captures the spirit of your district. That might mean funky slogans, artist-inspired pieces or items representing iconic imagery of the community. INSERT Wausau River District Merch image. Caption: Wausau River District offers not only branded clothing but also the ability to take home a piece of their iconic umbrella placemaking installation.http://www.wausauriverdistrict.org/new-products

Wausau River District offers not only branded clothing but also the ability to take home a piece of their iconic umbrella placemaking installation. Learn more.

  • While belonging is a driver for many, the fear of missing out (FOMO) is equally powerful. While charitable contributions or supporting a cause drive some, many are inspired to donate if it allows them VIP access to information and activities in their community. VIP clubs or similar programs offer their members exclusive experiences such as invitations to soft openings of new businesses, rooftop viewing spots for parades, priority purchasing for district events and other experiential elements.

When designing an individual donation program, be sure to build it into programming already offered by your organization or elements that can be used to support existing programs, rather than creating an entirely new project. Individual contributions, while valuable by themselves, should be seen primarily as a way to gain exposure for the program and district, which in turn can be translated into future volunteers, committee members and permanent donors.