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Will coronavirus be an ‘extinction event’ for local nonprofits?

CINCINNATI — As a United Airlines flight attendant, JoAnn Tholemeier was exposed to coronavirus before most of America knew what to make of it.

Now on leave from the airline, she volunteers for Welcome House of Northern Kentucky, a Covington-based nonprofit that’s working to end homelessness.

“I’m a worker bee,” Tholemeier said. “It’s what I like to do.”

But the hive she joined is in upheaval, having spent $111,000 on hotels since early April so people experiencing homelessness don’t have to risk catching the virus in shelters and spreading it to the community. Welcome House received a $50,000 grant from the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund to offset those new expenses. But its annual spring fundraising event was canceled, costing Welcome House about $50,000 in in-kind contributions. And CEO Danielle Amrine knows the nonprofit faces months of increased demand for its services.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Amrine said. “What will need to happen is we sustain this funding and donations beyond when the economy opens back up because that’s when we’re really going to feel the effects of COVID-19.”

Amrine believes the Welcome House can handle the turmoil. But many nonprofits will not.

“Most nonprofits have less than one month of reserves available to them,” said Doug Bolton, CEO of Cincinnati Cares, a Norwood-based nonprofit. “A catastrophic event like we’ve experienced where they’re unable to do their work, collect their revenue, have their events is essentially an extinction event for our nonprofit sector.”

Cincinnati Cares operates a website that connects volunteers and donors to more than 650 local nonprofits. When COVID-19 struck, Bolton started surveying those nonprofits to quantify the impact of the crisis. About 25% have responded so far. They report combined financial losses of $124.4 million and 274,230 in lost volunteer hours, worth an additional $6.7 million.

Bolton sees the results as a call to action.

“One out of every five Americans depends on a nonprofit for something. And it’s a $200 billion industry, representing 10% of the workforce of America. All of those numbers correlate directly to the Greater Cincinnati economy,” Bolton said. “Anywhere from 20 to 40% of our nonprofits will not survive this event.”

With the nation’s unemployment rate at 16% and first-quarter economic growth at -4.8%, the pandemic has clearly battered many segments of the economy. But none have been impacted quite like the nonprofit sector.

The Human Services Chamber of Hamilton County surveyed 55 of its member nonprofits in mid-April and found 80% of them lost revenue during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, 73% reduced or suspended services, 66% have canceled an event and 29% laid off staff.

Hospitals shifted resources to expand intensive care units, while cutting pay and jobs in non-emergency settings. Arts organizations and museums canceled fundraising events and programming, even as they planned for a post-COVID world that will almost certainly mean smaller crowds and less revenue. And human service agencies are coping with the triple whammy of rising demand for their services, with government funding cuts and fewer volunteers to shoulder the cost of providing that much-needed help.

“Nonprofits are a little bit like air,” Amrine said. “Sometimes you don’t realize what they do until you don’t have it.”

Donors to the rescue?

Tholemeier said she wasn’t aware of Welcome House before a friend recommended it as a volunteer opportunity.

The 67-year-old Union, Kentucky resident worked some of the last departures out of Shanghai and Rome before United Airlines told her some co-workers had tested positive.

“I ended up with the symptoms,” she said. “I quarantined myself because I have a niece that I really am close to and I didn’t want to be passing it. So, I went home and pretty much stayed put.”

After she tested negative for the virus in mid-April, Tholemeier started looking for ways to help others.

“You feel like you’re doing good,” she said. “Everybody’s been really kind.”

Is this a random act of kindness or is Tholemeier part of the new normal in Cincinnati?

Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard would argue the latter.

“Cincinnati has a long tradition of philanthropy and community support,” said Maynard, who expects the pandemic will cause a 56% decline in zoo attendance to 800,000 this year. He also expects it will slow down a $150 million capital campaign for improvements tied to the zoo’s 150th anniversary in 2025. But he’s certain the zoo will weather the economic storm.

“When this thing hit, one of the very first calls I got was from Carter Randolph, who runs the Green Acres Foundation,” Maynard said. “And they’ve been supportive of the zoo for a long, long time. But rather than me calling him, saying, ‘Man these are hard times,’ he called me and said, ‘Let me know what your losses are. We want to talk to other nonprofits and weigh in because we know this is a crisis.’”


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