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‘The entire community will suffer’ — Breast cancer nonprofits feel the effects of Covid-19

Susan G. Komen's More Than Pink Walk in Atlanta in 2018
Source: Susan G. Komen

Breast Cancer Awareness Month is usually marked by galas, walks and other fundraising events.

This year, it's eerily silent. 

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed those events online, or caused them to be cancelled.

The impact could be devastating for nonprofits relying on those funds to function, like grassroots organizations that provide direct services to local cancer patients. Even large organizations are not immune, said Michael Nathanson, chairman and CEO of The Colony Group, a wealth management firm.

"They are taking a hit," said Nathanson, who recently wrote an op-ed for CNBC about how the sector is being slammed.

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"The entire community will suffer because of the hit they will take."

Nathanson, a brain tumor survivor, understands how nonprofits work. He's been heavily involved in several organizations and previously served as chairman of the National Brain Tumor Society.

Not only is fundraising down due to canceled or virtual events, corporate donations have also slowed because many companies are in a defensive posture right now, he said. Even nonprofits with strong, major donor pipelines will likely have to make adjustments.

That's what Susan G. Komen, one of largest and best-known breast cancer organizations, is grappling with.

Soon after the pandemic hit, the organization decided to bring its 60 field offices into its national organization to form a single entity. The result was a 23% reduction in staff. Remaining employees are all virtual, which will help bring down real estate costs.

It is very likely we will see some organizations close their doors.
Sarah Nathan
Lilly Family School of Philanthropy

"We've taken our costs down dramatically and we are focusing on the things that matter, which are research and patient center services," Komen CEO Paula Schneider said.

Komen also rescheduled any spring walks for the fall, which are now all virtual. It had to move its 3-day, 60-mile walk to next year.

Prior to the pandemic, Komen also diversified its fundraising, which has helped. It is also creating virtual patient navigation for those it serves and has insourced its helpline.

"We've made more decisions in the last 120 days than in the last 15 years," Schneider said.

Small-town survival

New Jersey-based Minette's Angels had its first fundraising walk in 2019
Source: Minette's Angels

It's the smaller, grassroots organizations that are in danger of becoming extinct, Nathanson said. Many of them are started in response to a loss of a loved one.

"You see a lot of these smaller organizations, that don't get the press, that are very heavily dependent on an annual ride or an annual walk," he said.

Yet these smaller organizations play an important role, filling in the gaps by providing services that may not otherwise be offered in the area or by larger organizations.  

For Kenneth McKenna, president and founder of Minette's Angels, community fundraising is the backbone of his local nonprofit, based in Verona, New Jersey.

We are seeing greater need, people who are struggling, emotionally and financially.
Kenneth McKenna
president and founder of Minette's Angels

He started Minette's Angels in 2004, a year after his wife, Minette, died of breast cancer. The organization provides services to local breast cancer patients, such as meals and gift cards to grocery stores, grants for mammograms to area hospitals and scholarships for local students.

With the focus on Covid-19 these days, there are no plans for any direct fundraising events. However, there are third-party ones in the works, like the annual cheerleading showcase put on by the town's high school team. Fortunately, the nonprofit had its first Walk in the Park last fall and had over 900 people attend.

"It was a huge thing for us and put us in a position where we can still follow our mission for a while and not struggle and not have to worry about cutting back on things," McKenna said.

Minette's Angels also has little overhead. It is staffed entirely by volunteers.

The impact

A woman undergoes a mammogram exam.
Media for Medical | Getty Images

The concern of both Komen and Minette's Angels is the constituency they serve.

For one, the virus has impacted the daily lives of breast cancer patients and survivors.

"We are seeing greater need, people who are struggling, emotionally and financially," McKenna said.

Also, many women are still behind on their cancer screenings, as is evidenced by the substantial drop in diagnoses, Komen's Schneider said.

While the recommendation early in the pandemic was to delay tests like mammograms, women need to get them done now, she said.

"I anticipate there is going to be a very large boom in breast cancer coming up," she said.

What's happening with the breast cancer organizations is indicative of what's happening across the nonprofit sector.

Within the first few months of the pandemic, more than 50% of nonprofits said they experienced or expect to experience a decrease in fundraising money or revenue as a result of Covid-19, a survey by the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found.

The hidden costs of fighting breast cancer
The costs of fighting breast cancer

Those that are seeing an influx of donations are those, like the United Way, that can act quickly to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, said Sarah Nathan, associate director of the fundraising school at Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

"It is very likely we will see some organizations close their doors, sadly — those that haven't invested in fundraising or have not acted quickly enough to adapt to our new environment," she said.

To survive, Nathan suggests nonprofits get creative with technology, hosting things like virtual wine tastings with wine delivered to your door. Engaging with donors and becoming less reliant on special events are also key, she said.

However, if the pandemic-driven recession drags on, more nonprofits may not survive.

An analysis by Candid, which tracks nonprofits, found that in the most dire scenario, 28% of nonprofits could shut their doors.

The impact can't be underestimated, especially for those nonprofits focused on diseases like breast cancer.

"We'll find a cure faster with the help of the nonprofit community," Nathanson said.

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