This piece was originally published in Planet Detroit.
When the Friends of the Rouge formed back in 1986, the Rouge River was in desperate straits. But hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding for water infrastructure projects during the 1990s and early 2000s helped improve the waterway into a place where people can now paddle and enjoy nature along the 126-mile river.
FOTR has helped bring people into that process, logging hundreds of hours of volunteer labor every year doing citizen science, cleanups, and outdoor education. The organization had doubled its staff and programming in the past 3 years and was getting ready to hire a new staff person and increase the hours of a second one when the pandemic hit. Since then, the organization has had to cut programming, lay off staff, and retool its budget.
“People are not renewing their memberships, so our general donations are down,” says FOTR Executive Director Marie McCormick. “Corporate partners have either let us know that they're redirecting their funds to help fight frontline COVID-19 initiatives, or they're tightening their purse strings so that they can keep staff employed at this time. That's hurting our revenue.”
Another hit, McCormick says, is having had to cancel events that bring in money. Spring is normally a very busy time for FOTR, with spring bug hunts that bring in service fees from local municipal governments and the Rouge Rescue, a watershed-wide cleanup that typically draws $60,000 in sponsorships. So far, FOTR has attracted just less than 20 percent of that amount.
Beyond the revenue hit, canceled events also mean FOTR misses out on connecting with people in the community.
“We typically get about 2,000 volunteers for Rouge Rescue,” McCormick says. “And that's really important in maintaining rapport with our with the public, with our volunteers, and with our corporate partners.”
The organization’s annual meeting in March was canceled, and its largest fundraiser, the Rouge Cruise, typically held in July, will also be canceled. As a result, McCormick has had to make some changes.
“We've done things like laying off staff, freezing hiring, and we have allowed staff members to opt into an optional pay decrease in exchange for additional paid time off,” she says. “We haven't forced any salary cuts at this point,” though she noted that could change.
Bright spots have come from foundations that have relaxed funding requirements, including allowing the nonprofit to reallocate restricted funding to general operations or disbursing money now that was scheduled for later in the year.
“So instead of saying ‘We want this money specifically to go to installing a rain garden’, they're more like, ‘please use this money to keep yourself alive’,” says McCormick.
FOTR was also successful in securing federal Paycheck Protection Program funds through the Small Business Administration in the second round. McCormick characterizes the loan application process as “emotionally trying.”
“Without that funding, we would have had a fairly a very large cash flow deficit for the year,” she says.
Based on the financial adjustments and loan, McCormick says the organization will survive 2020, though beyond that is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, they’ve retooled their programming to accommodate people’s stay-at-home lifestyle. That includes a #nature is open social sharing campaign and an effort to move Rouge Rescue online with activities people can do at home. Volunteers can also participate in the annual Frog & Toad survey by using online materials. Training programs for installing rain gardens and planting eco-friendly landscapes have also moved online. At 9 am on Tuesdays, a different FOTR staff person broadcasts a Facebook Live from a location in the watershed for a virtual nature walk called “Take me to the river.”
One silver lining, McCormick said, is that a recent online rain garden livestream attracted more than 1,000 views, engaging far more people than the organization could have ever reached in an in-person event. Some of the changes to online programming will likely become permanent, McCormick says, though she says that the organization needs face time to achieve its mission. She even scheduled virtual coffee chats with anyone who wanted to sign up as a way to stay connected.
“The best part was just making space for people who may be always felt like, ‘oh, maybe I’d like to like to sit down and talk to Marie’,” she says. “It was great to share stories about being an executive director of a nonprofit in this time. What's working, what's not working, how are you adapting. Sharing stories like that is so important right now.”