Garden State Equality had its lowest month of fundraising in four years, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time.
New Jersey’s largest LGBTQ organization has found itself at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. After New York, New Jersey has the second-most coronavirus cases of any U.S. state, with more than 75,000 cases; the majority of reported infections are concentrated in the northern half of New Jersey. Garden State Equality is located in the coastal town of Asbury Park, just over an hour’s drive outside New York City, the global epicenter of the crisis.
Christian Fuscarino, executive director of the organization, said the onslaught of COVID-19 has only increased the demand for resources from the LGBTQ community. He said community members have reached out for everything from protective gear and health care needs to financial aid. While Fuscarino noted that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy indefinitely freezed evictions and foreclosures for those who are out of work or have been furloughed, many of its clients “live month to month,” and the governor’s order “still doesn't put food on the table.”
“For an organization that is essentially the only statewide LGBTQ organization, we're here for the community to be a voice and to advocate for our people on a normal day,” Fuscarino told VICE. “When the lives of our community are turned upside down, we need to be there for them even more.”
But continuing to meet that overwhelming need will be a challenge for Garden State Equality as donations have dwindled over the past few weeks. Fuscarino said donors who typically give generously to the organization “have a lot more going on in their lives right now.” After Murphy issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, the org was forced to cancel two of its largest events of the year. One of those was a gala for its corporate partners; the fundraiser typically brings in 30 percent of the group’s operating budget for the year.
Without those donations, Fuscarino estimated that 80 percent of all Garden State Equality’s expenses in the last 30 days were paid out of its “reserve funding,” which is set aside in case of extreme emergencies. It’s unclear how long that can continue, especially if the COVID-19 crisis lasts into the summer.
“Imagine standing under a spigot with a bucket that says ‘monthly fundraising,’” he said, “and then someone came and turned that spigot off and it stopped immediately.”
LGBTQ groups across the country say they are being forced to do more with less to offer support to a community that advocacy organizations have claimed is uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. As VICE previously reported, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David noted in a March memo that LGBTQ people are less likely to have access to paid leave or health coverage and disproportionately work in industries that have been shut down by coronavirus, which both puts “them in greater economic jeopardy” and increases “their exposure to the virus.”
But providing the assistance the community needs is a struggle when many groups are just trying to keep the lights on. LGBTQ groups across the country said COVID-19 has severely hampered their ability to bring in funding and revenue, and many have been forced to cancel events and fundraisers in the wake of the crisis.
Just weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQ organizations said they are already feeling the strain. Human Rights Campaign cancelled three fundraisers in Los Angeles, Nashville, and Houston, and a representative told VICE the L.A. event alone could result in a loss of “possibly up to $1 million.” GLAAD was forced to cancel its annual media awards, which Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro estimated would be a “$2 million implication to [its] bottom line.” Family Equality was forced to pull the plug on a May fundraiser that typically brings in about $1 million every year and may have to pause another event in the Fall.
VICE reached out to nearly 20 LGBTQ groups for this story, and almost all reported that they’d had to shutter or postpone upcoming events because of the pandemic, costing them critical fundraising opportunities. These included from Lambda Literary, which holds a yearly awards ceremony recognizing excellence in LGBTQ literature; Equality Texas, which rescheduled four events each bringing in as much as $25,000; and the Transgender Equality Network in Fayetteville, Ark., which couldn’t hold its annual Trans Day of Visibility gathering due to social distancing concerns.
Vee Lamneck, executive director of Equality Virginia, told VICE that the impact of losing out on these events is “probably incalculable.” Although some of the individuals who had purchased tickets to its annual Commonwealth Dinner in March allowed the organization to keep their donations, Equality Virginia holds a popular silent auction and raffle ticket fundraiser at the gala.
“It brings in a quarter of our operating expenses,” Lamneck said of the event, estimating that the group would take “at least” a $50,000 hit. “It’s not a small portion by any means.”
While some organizations may be able to withstand those temporary downturns, others are being forced to tighten their belts. Black and Pink, a prison justice organization based in Omaha, Neb., had to delay the launch of a youth space for formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people and individuals living HIV. Adrian Shanker, executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, Pa., said two staff members had been furloughed. This means the already small organization has only 11 employees left, even as their offices are flooded with requests for help with unemployment and LGBTQ-specific information related to COVID-19.
“We were understaffed to begin with and now we’re even more understaffed,” Shanker told VICE. “We’re not the kind of organization that can just turn to a rainy day fund and get through this unscathed.”
Relief organizations like Indiana Youth Group in Indianapolis and New Alternatives to Homeless LGBT Youth in New York City haven’t made any cuts to staff, but they worried that a prolonged recovery period could have severe long-term impacts on the programs they offer. Although Indiana Youth Group CEO Chris Paulsen estimated that COVID-19 could result in as much as $300,000 in lost grants and funding, she said the organization has continued to provide food, clothing, showers, and laundry facilities to clients. However, Paulsen said the group could only “ride out 60 days” of fundraising doldrums before it would “be looking at cutting services.”
New Alternatives for Homeless LGBT Youth Executive Director Kate Barnart noted that five fundraisers for the organization have already been cancelled or postponed, and four others could follow suit. The organization has continued to meet the needs of marginally housed young people by offering daily hot meals in addition to its weekly Sunday night dinners and switching all its meals to carry-out orders, but those additional services have actually increased its operating costs.
“We get no government funding at all,” Barnart told VICE. “We’re a very grassroots organization, and we’ve always relied on community-based fundraisers. We already run on a shoestring, so it’s really hard for us to cut much.”
Organizations across the country said they are scrambling to figure out how to make up for lost funding, and a few have had some success in doing so. When Victory Fund was forced to postpone a pair of campaign brunches that would have brought together thousands of potential donors, it put together a conversation on Facebook Live between its president and CEO, Annise Parker, and two LGBTQ lawmakers endorsed by the political advocacy group: Pennsylvania state Rep. Brian Sims and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin. According to Parker, Victory Fund “raised maybe $5,000” in donations after 6,000 viewers tuned in.
Although OutFront Minnesota has had to pull its weekly drag brunches, which bring in $100,000 annually for the organization, Development Director Michelle Hesterberg said the organization moved its annual Youth Summit to a virtual event, which included online workshops and hangouts for LGBTQ youth. Because the vast majority of its partners did not cancel their sponsorship, Hesterberg added that the event “did not lose any revenue” and “raised more than $50,000” for the organization.
Chris Hartman, executive director of Fairness Kentucky, told VICE that his organization had also been fortunate. When the statewide LGBTQ group had to shutter its annual fundraiser, he said 90 percent of its donors “allowed their contributions and sponsorships to stand,” and some even bought additional tickets.
But even as LGBTQ groups are facing challenges during an unprecedented time, they remain undeterred. The Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice has been hosting daily livestreams with notable figures like Gavin Grimm to give its members a space for community while many are stuck at home. Imani Rupert-Gordon, executive director of National Center for Lesbian Rights, said her organization plans to continue to hold a “reimagined” version of its annual gala to make sure that its supporters have somewhere where they “can feel safe and be themselves” and retain a “sense of normalcy” during uncertain times.
“When things are closed and we’re feeling lost and not every place is answering, it’s really important for the places that can answer to answer,” Rupert-Gordon told VICE. “We know that’s something we provide for folks.”
These groups said, however, that they have no choice but to continue the fight for LGBTQ equality because their opponents aren’t stopping. Even as COVID-19 has shut down most of the country, Idaho Gov. Brad Little enacted two first-of-their-kind laws targeting members of the trans community. One blocks transgender people from correcting the gender marker on their birth certificates, while the other prevents transgender girls from playing on school sports teams in alignment with their gender identity at both the K-12 and collegiate level.
Although many state legislatures have disbanded during the COVID-19 outbreak to keep lawmakers from contracting the virus, LGBTQ advocates know more proposals like them are headed down the pipeline when the crisis is over. More than 200 anti-LGBTQ bills were considered by state legislatures this year, and not all have been killed.
“Discrimination isn’t stopping,” Matthew Ramsey, chief development officer for Family Equality, told VICE. “Our work is necessary, and it can’t go away. We need to find a way to do it.”