By Ross Anderson
When the state closed down for the pandemic, the staff of the Port Townsend Marine Science Center did what most of us did: They closed the doors and went home to figure out how to adapt.
And they have. Staffers powered up their laptops and worked from home, devised digital tours and conducted their annual fundraising auction online. And the center is doing fine, says director Janine Boire. Their 10 staffers are still working with volunteers. Donations continue to come in, helping to replace lost revenue.
Just down the hallway at the Fort Worden headquarters, the Public Development Authority is a different story. The PDA has lost $4 million in revenue from its shuttered housing and food service. The staff dropped from 85 in January to eight today. Now they face “an urgent, existential threat,” director Dave Robison warned the board recently. Despite the layoffs, the corporation could run out of money later this summer.
What makes the difference between two organizations that work out of the same building with overlapping missions?
In Port Townsend, this is no mere academic question. From the science center and Farmers Market to Olycap and Centrum, nonprofits are part of Port Townsend’s economic and cultural fabric. They employ scores of people and provide food, counselling, and social services to hundreds. In a normal year, they lure thousands of visitors to music festivals, arts classes and maritime programs.
Kris Morris has worked with nonprofits most of her career. She ran a Southern California executive search firm for nonprofits, serves on the Maritime Center board and advises others. Like for-profit businesses, she says, nonprofits vary widely in size, mission and their ability to weather a crisis.
The Science Center is a low-budget, low-overhead operation with a small staff and a host of volunteers. The PDA operates more like a hotel, employing paid staff to provide food service and accommodations, meeting rooms and entertainment venues – tasks that can’t be left to volunteers.
Nonprofits that provide “safety net” services such as food or housing may actually see revenue increases as donors step up to respond to a crisis. But those that focus on cultural or educational missions are more vulnerable to the pandemic.
Some nonprofits own their own offices and other buildings, but others rent. Over time, some are able to build cash reserves so they’re prepared for unforeseen crises. But younger, growing organizations find that difficult to do.
In any event, the challenge for nonprofit managers in the Covid crisis has been to reduce fixed costs, which may mean laying off loyal and passionate staff.
As they meet the crisis, nonprofits have to adapt while avoiding “mission drift,” Morris says. “And it’s always easier to look at what’s happening right now while ignoring the longterm risks.”
Here’s a glimpse at how some of the better-known nonprofits are trying to deal with new realities:
Centrum: As an arts institution in the business of packing musicians and listeners into auditoriums, Centrum was in the Covid crosshairs. Within a few weeks of the shutdown, it was clear that they would not be able to stage their trademark concerts and workshops – from Fiddletunes to Chamber Music.
Their 2020 revenue forecast plunged by $1.6 million – a staggering loss for a nonprofit that has drawn some 30,000 people per year to its Fort Worden events.
But the revenue losses were offset in part by reductions in spending on venues and artists. And Centrum was reasonably prepared for the crisis, says director Robert Birman. Since 2014, they had upped their endowment by 400 percent to $750.000, and have built an additional $750,000 cash reserve. And they drew $236,000 in federal funds that allowed them to keep 11 core staff.
Still, he had to put 40 percent of the staff “on standby” – mostly people who work on the summer festivals. The core workshops have been rescheduled to 2021, and a majority of their fans have elected to roll their reservations forward, which meant fewer refunds. And they have experimented with online versions of their most popular festivals, including the long-running writers’ conferences.
Fort Worden Public Development Authority (PDA): A few months ago, the PDA’s outlook was excellent. They had a record number of bookings for Fort Worden accommodations, mostly for the summer festivals. “Thing,” last year’s successful music extravaganza, was returning. Bookings and revenue had been increasing by 15 percent per year. Renovations were well underway on the planned Makers Square project. The labor-intensive PDA was ramping up toward a payroll of up to 175 people to book and clean rooms, cook and serve meals this summer.
Then came the shutdown. To make matters worse, the PDA’s unusual corporate status made it ineligible for any of the federal relief, says director Dave Robison. “We fell through the cracks. No public assistance. No PPP. No nonprofit relief.”
The PDA is an unusual agency similar to Seattle’s Pike Place Market, created by the City of Port Townsend to manage the officers’ homes, dormitories, auditoriums and other buildings at the park. While it operates as a nonprofit, the PDA was designed to be self-supporting. But the PDA’s income is highly seasonal, dependent on summer traffic. Centrum and other nonprofit partners that occupy those buildings have their own problems. The historic buildings need costly repairs. The strategy has been to develop a year-round center for “lifelong learning,” with programs in arts, music, food preparation and more.
And now? Centrum and other nonprofits have broached the idea of eliminating the PDA’s costly hospitality business so it can focus on the arts venues they depend on.
“Failure isn’t an option,” Robison says. “We are a public entity with a public purpose. We bring $7 million a year into the community, and some $15 to $18 million with our 15 partners.”
They still have $200,000 in bookings for August, and Robison hopes they can open by then. But the prospect of a second Covid wave looms ominously.
PT Marine Science Center: A Fort Worden waterfront landmark for 38 years, the center operates marine education and research programs with 10 staffers plus AmeriCorps workers and interns. Contributions, which normally account for 70 percent of their revenue, are off, says director Janine Boire. But the center had a healthy reserve fund and a federal loan which enabled them to avoid layoffs.
“In my time here, I’ve wanted to move toward more use of the Internet, digital experience, and now we’re learning to do that,” she says. “It’s a new business model.”
Olycap: Olympic Community Action Programs, which operates and funds social programs across Jefferson and Clallam Counties, is in good shape, says director Cherish Cronmiller. The agency, which dates to the 1960s, is funded primarily by the federal government, so doesn’t depend on private donations.
Olycap employs some 135 people, many of whom are working from home, providing services ranging from early childhood education and nutrition to utility bill relief and housing. Demand for those services has increased by as much as 40 percent, she says. And many of their low-income clients need help navigating its complexities.
That task is complicated by social distancing, Cronmiller says. “Personal touch is important. So we find ways to stay in touch with weekly updates.” But she worries that some established systems don’t work well. “There are too many people out there who don’t know about our services, and we need to find better ways to reach them.”
Jefferson Community Foundation: Backed by some 600 individual donors, the foundation responded nimbly to the crisis, raising more than $500,000 for its Covid Response and Recovery Fund. There was no administrative fee, so every dollar went directly to aid ranging from food and rental assistance to small farms and students in need of computers or internet access.
The foundation also organized online workshops for agencies looking for safe ways to reopen this summer. “The crisis has exposed significant gaps across our community,” foundation president Siobhan Canty reported to supporters. “Things like access to online education, childcare for working families and scalable local food supply chains.”
Jefferson Land Trust: “We’re fine,” reports director Richard Tucker. Most of the 10 employees have been working from home and there have been no layoffs.
The land trust uses individual donations and grants to preserve forest lands, small farms and fish habitat. The trust had healthy cash reserves, but didn’t need to tap them thanks to a federal PPP loan and private donations, he says. In lieu of fundraising tours, they have organized an on-line course, “Nature in the Neighborhood,” which lured 700 registrations.
And the trust has worked with other nonprofits on Strong Farms, Strong Futures, making loans to small farms which can be repaid with donations of fresh produce to area food banks.
Port Townsend Film Festival: The shutdown came at a tough time, says director Janette Force. They held their annual Oscar fundraiser and had booked 17 films for the September festival. “And suddenly everything went into freefall.” The virus loves packed movie theaters, so the conventional film festival was not an option.
The festival, however, is a relatively low-budget nonprofit, with just three and half employees, a $400,000 budget “and a little buffer” to fall back on. So Force and her board took a fresh look and decided to go with online streaming. “We got back to the film producers and 10 of them said, ok, we can make them available online. We checked with our sponsors, and they said yes, they want to do this.”
The online model presents new possibilities, she says. Films can be streamed along with exchanges with filmmakers who would not be available for the live festival. “And it enables us to connect with our viewers around the world.”
Northwest Maritime Center: Over the past decade, the Maritime Center has grown from a small-town boathouse to a regional landmark with 50 or more staff organizing world-class races, boating classes, a maritime academy for high school students and a Wooden Boat Festival that draws visitors from around the world.
But boats don’t mix well with the pandemic, says Director Jake Beatty. “Boats are crowded places that don’t allow for distancing. And masks are a problem on boats, because you need to be able to hear and understand people.” So now the $15 million waterfront complex sits empty – except for the coffee shop. Most of its revenue-generating programs are cancelled. There are no race fees, no sponsorships, no class fees, no retail sales. Federal loans enabled them to keep staff on until this month, but now all but 10 have been laid off.
Beatty says it has been the toughest experience of his career. “But I’m a glass-is-quarter-full sort of guy.”
“The sea is still the greatest teacher I know,” he told members in a recent email, “and in times like these I find the lessons ever more relevant.”
The NWMC has earned its reputation for innovation. A simulated Race to Alaska is being staged online and they plan to a “virtual boat festival” in the fall. The 48 North boating magazine has gone to an online format. They celebrated their first-ever graduates from the Maritime Skills Academy. And there are plans for a similar academy in South Seattle.
“We’ll be OK,” he says. “We’ll change what we do, and how we do it.”
PT Farmers Market: Because it operates outdoors, the market was able to stay in business, albeit Saturday-only (no Wednesday market), with about a third of the vendors, says Amanda Milholland, the director. There are fewer shoppers, fewer sales, but that should improve with summer weather.
It’s a small organization, with only two part-time staffers and a $100,000 budget, and they got a small federal loan. “We don’t need much,” she says. “But we’re going to make it.”