With event costs rising, Salem nonprofit leaders get creative with fundraising

For nonprofit organizations like the Salem Art Association, Family Building Blocks, and the Boys & Girls Club of Salem, in-person events present a rare opportunity to raise both money and awareness. 

However, holding an in-person event is more expensive than it used to be. And the key ingredients for a successful event might be changing. 

Salem’s Family Building Blocks holds several events throughout the year, including lunchtime lectures and weekend auctions. Julie Duran, director of development, said she saw reduced participation in 2023. 

“Our events attendance was really low,” she said. “At most of our events, we see several hundred people. But in 2023, we saw about 200 less at our biggest events. We feel like everything is in recovery mode after Covid.” 

Low attendance is a challenge for Family Building Blocks, as the events are both time-consuming and costly to produce. 

“Our events cost us more (because we’re paying more for things like employees and rentals and catering and all that), but our sponsorship levels are staying the same, which means we’re having a harder time recovering the cost of the event. Our sponsors aren’t able to increase their payments because their businesses are struggling,” said Duran.

Family Building Blocks had a successful event at the end of the year. The organization’s annual gala was sold out. 

“That might have been due to the magic of the holidays, but I think people were at that point last year when they wanted to come together. We’re optimistic that the feeling will continue this year,” Duran said. 

With potential event-generated revenue on the decline, Family Building Blocks is looking to other revenue streams. 

“Grant writing has been a huge boost for us and has been really strong over the last 12 months. I think a lot of foundations are aware that businesses are struggling, so there’s more compassion and they’re giving more,” she said. 

Her team is also examining timeframes for events. Some programs held in the middle of the day might shift to the evenings, so people can attend after work. 

“We’re optimistic it will get better this year,” she said. 

The Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk Counties also saw decreased attendance at some events, said Robbin Kerner, Chief Development Officer. 

“It’s just harder to get people’s undivided attention because they’re no busy and there’s so many different options available. People are making more strategic decisions about their time, because we know time is incredibly valuable,” she said. 

The Boys & Girls Club recently completed a capital campaign to build the Epping Homestead Boys and Girls Club branch in east Salem. Kerner said the initiative prompted the organization to reach new people who have never been involved with the organization before. In turn, they started donating to the organization directly and attending more events. Retaining those donors will be a new challenge. 

“We’ve seen growth in general contributions because there are more people connected to our mission now. Capital campaigns are new, bright, and shiny. People love to support them. So when that goes away, naturally there are some folks that won’t come back. And that’s the reality,” she said. “The growth in our organization in general, specifically with the Epping Clubhouse, really means we need to strengthen our fundraising efforts overall.”

The Boys & Girls Club annual auction, which is the group’s biggest fundraiser, was well attended and successful, Kerner said. Attendance was close to pre-Covid levels. 

“Like others, we’ve seen a big increase in costs, supplies, materials, so that does change the game a little bit. We have to rise to the occasion if we want to serve more kids in the community,” Kerner said. 

“Diversifying your funding streams is incredibly important. Event costs aren’t going to go down, so we want to be cognizant of that and how we spend our time and be really intentional with what we’re doing to raise additional funds,” she said. 

General donations allow the Boys & Girls Club to keep serving the community, even with higher costs associated with events. Kerner said she’s also examining some of the events they’re holding regularly to determine if they’re needed or if her team should lean on other strategies. 

Salem Friends of Felines didn’t hold a capital campaign, but the organization did have a very large and public shift in services. Chelsey Marks, executive director of Friends of Felines, said that change might be responsible for the fundraising success she had in 2023. 

Marks said the organization’s annual Paws and Purrsonality Silent Auction in November was sold out for the first time in its 17-year history, with more than 200 people in attendance and $86,000 raised. She credits the organization’s expanded services for the support. 

“The outpouring of generosity shows the growing support from our community,” she said.

Friends of Felines opened a high-volume spay and neuter clinic in 2021, complete with a program to put the cost of surgery within reach for people in need. Last year, the organization also started a community medical fund to help owners of sick cats get the care they need, so they don’t end up in shelters. The hire of a full-time veterinarian in 2023 made this work possible. 

“We’ve seen an increase in new donors who have witnessed the impact we’re making with our high-volume feline community spay and neuter clinic,” Marks said.

Since opening in November 2021, the clinic has provided 2,015 free or low-cost surgeries, she said, covering costs with a $35,000 grant.

Another signature Salem event is making changes this year in hopes of drawing more people.

Fees for the 2023 Salem Art Fair & Festival were much higher than in previous years, said Matthew Boulay, executive director of the Salem Art Association. A 2022 shift in venue due to the need to protect historic trees meant a loss of shade. That required fees associated with cooling tents, water, and misters. Even with these steps, attendance was an estimated 10% smaller than previous years.

“It’s essentially costing more to do the same thing, and we’re trying to do more and make all of our programming bigger and better, but attendance across the board is less than what it was before the pandemic,” he said. 

Boulay hopes that plans to shift the Salem Art Fair from the heat of July to the relative cool of September this year will entice more people to attend. His team is also examining programming options and looking for ways to engage younger people in the organization’s work. 

General donations remain steady, Boulay said. Grants and other funding sources allow the Salem Art Association to keep building on its programs to serve the community. However, he said he hopes more people will both attend ticketed events and join the organization’s sustaining donor pool. 

“This is both wonderful work and hard work. It’s always a challenge to raise money,” Boulay said. 

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Jean Dion is a freelance writer and marketing professional. She's lived in Salem for about 10 years. When not writing, she dabbles in gardening, photography, and caring for her dogs, cats, and rabbits.