By Sam Prickett
Birmingham-area nonprofit leaders spoke at the Homewood Chamber of Commerce’s virtual luncheon Oct. 20 to share how their organizations were adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic — and how the community can help them continue to survive.
The hour-long panel featured Birmingham Zoo President and CEO Chris Pfefferkorn, Vulcan Park and Museum President and CEO Darlene Negrotto, ¡HICA! Deputy Director Carlos E. Alemán and Lakeshore Foundation President and CEO Jeff Underwood, all of whom have been forced to pivot to make up for the economic damage of COVID-19.
Revenues at the Birmingham Zoo, for instance, have diminished not only because of the city of Birmingham’s budget cuts, but because of a decline in ticket sales, which make up about 30% of its overall budget. Now, the zoo faces a $2.5 million deficit for the year, Pfefferkorn said, and it will likely take three years to fully recover.
The zoo has had to lay off staff and cut education programs, because some of its operating costs, such as the $1,000 per day it takes to feed the animals, are fixed.
“I can’t furlough the animals,” Pfefferkorn said. “This is their home. So to shut down for three months, as we had to due to COVID … you have to get creative.”
That meant moving many of the zoo’s educational programs into the virtual realm, as well as starting an emergency animal fund through which the community could contribute to the animals’ care.
“There was no training we had in our past to prepare us for something like this, but I think we’re very lucky that we have the community around us that we do,” Pfeffekorn said.
“Without the community, I don’t know what we would have done. We would have maxed our credit cards. I often joke I’d be on the highway collecting aluminum cans. I think we would all do what we need to do to make sure that we keep the lights on and, in our case, keep the animals fed,” he said. “Thankfully, Birmingham is a very philanthropic community, and the cities surrounding it, and they responded and really did help out their zoo.”
Vulcan Park and Museum has similarly fixed operating costs.
“We can’t not have the lights on Vulcan,” Negrotto said.
The park stayed open during the pandemic, Negrotto said.
“We felt it was very important to allow families a place to come and get some fresh air and some exercise,” she said.
But some staffing cuts were needed. Like the zoo, Vulcan’s educational programs have been moved online, while signature events like the Vulcans Community Awards are being significantly retooled.
But an increase in attendance in recent months has given Negrotto hope that things eventually will return to normal. “We’ve been, honestly, fairly surprised by the growth over the summer and into the fall in admissions,” she said, pointing out that the park has seen attendees from 49 states.
Both Pfefferkorn and Negrotto emphasized their organizations’ larger economic influence on the surrounding communities. They said the venues attract tourists from around the country who, in turn, spend money in neighboring Over the Mountain cities.
“Even though we are a nonprofit, we are an economic generator like most nonprofits in town,” Pfefferkorn said.
Essential Services for People Also Suffering
For ¡HICA! and the Lakeshore Foundation, the pandemic emphasized how essential their services are for vulnerable communities. ¡HICA!, the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, is an advocacy group for Latino and immigrant families in Alabama, while the Lakeshore Foundation provides athletic services and advocacy for people with disabilities.
“We had to pivot immediately and figure out how to deliver the services that we normally do in this new environment,” Alemán said.
The organization’s 24 full-time employees were able to easily switch to working remotely, he said, “but then we had to also meet real, basic needs for our community … . If you’re an undocumented immigrant, you’re not eligible for a stimulus check. We have real, dire concerns around food security. … And we were really concerned that if people were out of work or coming into contact and being exposed to COVID, that they would not be able to work or be able to pay their rent.”
To address these concerns, ¡HICA! partnered with local churches, food banks, and the Levite Jewish Community Center to distribute approximately 500 boxes of food to families in need. It also allocated $10,000 of its operating budget to creating an emergency assistance fund, which was augmented by the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, United Way, local banks and private donors.
“We have been able to distribute over $175,000 to families so that they can pay their rent and utilities,” he said. “That’s been an enormous lift for us, and really, it’s kept people in their homes.”
¡HICA! also worked with the state and county public health departments to make sure information about COVID-19 was distributed both in English and Spanish, “to make sure our community was aware of how grave this pandemic was going to be and all the things that they needed to do to protect themselves and their communities,” Alemán said. “And we’ve also been a testing site for folks. … We dived right in, to say the least.”
The Lakeshore Foundation found itself similarly faced with helping a vulnerable population.
“We had to realize that (people with disabilities) need access to physical activity in order to maintain their health,” Underwood said. “It’s this balance between providing some level of programming in a safe way for the clients and staff but also recognizing and addressing the vulnerabilities of the population we serve.”
Lakeshore’s facilities reopened May 18, though appointments are necessary, and the building is deep-cleaned every two hours. For those unwilling or unable to venture into public, Lakeshore implemented new tele-exercise technology, which delivers virtual exercise programs directly to peoples’ homes.
Groups Need Partners and Volunteers
Though these organizations have established a new normal, they closed out Oct. 20’s virtual luncheon by urging the local business community to continue its support through volunteering and partnerships.
“I would say to the business community, ‘See us as partners,’” Underwood said. “Don’t see us as those people you only hear about with our hand out when we want to do an (event).
“We’re not just fundraisers, you know? We’re providing valuable services to the community. … Engage with the nonprofit sector as volunteers, as financial supporters. Serve on our boards of directors. There are lots of ways to engage and support rather than writing a check – and we all need those checks written (too).”
Pfefferkorn, meanwhile, struck an optimistic note.
“We can recover,” he said. “We’ve got the community and we’ve got some great folks here, and I know we can do it. But I think (a) partnership aspect is critical in doing it, and I would encourage people throughout all the communities to reach out and give us a call.”