How Port Huron’s nonprofits are dealing with COVID-19 closures

As the country rallies to support small businesses during COVID-19 closures, there’s one group that appears to be missing from the national discourse: nonprofit venues.

More than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations are registered in the U.S., contributing an estimated $985.4 billion annually to the country’s economy, and extending beyond well-known charities to smaller community assets such as nonprofit museums and art galleries.
Veronica Campbell
"It is important to remember nonprofits are small businesses," says Veronica Campbell, executive director of the Port Huron Museums. "We rely on our admissions, program revenue, and museum store purchases to pay our bills, pay staff, and to keep the lights on."

Port Huron Museums, a collection of four sites in the "thumb" of Michigan, began as a volunteer-operated organization and is now operated by 11 employees and 82 volunteers. It’s been hit hard since the March 16 order to close its doors, forced to lay off staff so that they can seek unemployment benefits, and to cancel nearly $25,000 worth of revenue from school field-trips, spring break programming, exhibit programs, and fundraisers.

"Unlike other small businesses in the area, the museum is unable to provide curb-side pickup or delivery of our goods and services," says Campbell.

It hasn’t stopped staff from contributing to their community voluntarily, though. The museum’s community engagement manager, Andrew Kercher, has been giving almost daily walking tours of historic areas of Port Huron, using Facebook Live videos, and Education Manager Caitlyn Rodegeb has been providing virtual education programs and experiments for children.

It’s been a powerful way to connect with patrons during the pandemic. Kercher’s recent walk from 23rd and Railroad Street to the Seaway Terminal was viewed by almost 6,000 people on the museum’s Facebook site and prompted commentary from residents at home, reminiscing about historic sites and even helping to identify wildlife species along the walk.

Patron Jeff Pelath misses being able to visit the museum’s lighthouse and Carnegie Center locations and says it’s common to take facilities like those for granted. He’s been following the virtual walking tours and enjoys the “flashback” days on the museum's social media as well.

"It is great that the museum is still keeping folks engaged," Pelath says. "I hope that people realize what a great asset the museum is to Port Huron and the surrounding area."

The museum is also working with the city to garner donations, promote their online store and to sell multi-site passes and memberships, valid for a year after the museum locations reopen.

Randy MaiersWhile confronted with similar difficulties to small businesses, nonprofit organizations face more than just immediate concerns, says the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, Randy Maiers.

"Once the public does get out and start shopping, buying and spending money again, smaller nonprofits might find a donor base that has dried up due to the dramatic loss of assets," Maiers says.

For now, his team is learning to work remotely to provide funding for nonprofits in the region. The foundation, run by nine employees and approximately 150 volunteers has established a COVID-19 Thumbcoast Regional Response fund and, like many throughout the U.S., has streamlined their grant review and approval process to deal with community needs during the pandemic.

As of April 2, the fund had garnered $200,000 to support regional nonprofit stake-holders, initially partnering with St. Vincent de Paul and United Way to assist the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan to make four semi-truck deliveries of food to the region. A $2,000 grant to Port Huron food bank Mid City Nutrition has also been given so the organization could convert to providing carryout meals.

Maiers says they are monitoring what kind of requests are coming in, and what the community needs, but while he hopes to see an increase in local donations, he says there are hard decisions to be made when prioritizing funding.

"I ultimately feel that we will lose a lot of small nonprofits who simply won’t be able to survive this crisis."
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