Socially distanced, socially conscious
Some nonprofits switch to longer fundraising cycles, spend less on overhead
Instead of canceling fundraising events, many Inland Northwest nonprofits have moved them into the digital realm.
Donor participation in charity events is lower, but some nonprofits say they’re receiving nearly as many donations as in prior years from a smaller pool of donors, and nonprofits are saving money by forgoing costly in-person events in favor of low-cost online affairs.
Heather Hamlin, executive director of Women Helping Women Fund, says her staff saw the writing on the wall by mid-March. The organization had planned its 28th annual luncheon for May, but Hamlin and her staff knew well before then that in-person events wouldn’t be possible for several months, at least.
“But the need in the community was bigger than ever,” Hamlin says. “We saw that was going to continue to grow, so we decided to move to a virtual event.”
Women Helping Women Fund decided to change to a longer, eight-week fundraising campaign in which table captains set goals for their groups, who raised money through networking. Keynote speaker Stephanie Land spoke to the organization through a Facebook Live event, which Hamlin says has garnered more than 13,000 views.
Hamlin says Women Helping Women Fund received about $170,000 in private donations in its eight-week campaign, as opposed to the $300,000 the annual luncheon typically generates. Hamlin says corporate donations go to underwriting the event, so Women Helping Women Fund receives every dollar donated by individual donors.
Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s fundraiser was a different story. The annual 8 Lakes Leg Aches bike ride fundraiser, which typically results in about $75,000 in donations, raised about $80,000 in this year’s “virtual ride.”
The 22nd annual biking event had been scheduled for June 22 but was rescheduled for July 18. Development manager Christie McKee says the organization had thought an in-person event might be possible. By July, it was clear that wouldn’t happen, and the organization decided to make 8 Lakes Leg Aches a virtual event.
Attendees were invited to complete one of three rides, with routes that were 30, 45, and 70 miles long, on the course of their choice, or even on a stationary bike, between July 11 and July 18. A finish-line event was held via Facebook Live on July 18.
McKee says ridership was down this year, to about 200 participants from nearly 600 riders in past years, but she says she was impressed by the support those 200 riders provided to the organization.
“We had one pledge rider who raised $9,900 who is 90 years old and rode 17 miles to celebrate his 90th birthday,” McKee says. “We had a few others who were able to raise $10,000 each, and several that did $3,000 or more.”
McKee says most riders are from outside of the Spokane area, which was part of the reason for encouraging participants to bike any course. But it also meant that overhead for the fundraiser was much lower.
“Usually, if we have David’s Pizza at the event and we have 600 riders, our bill’s going to be for 600 riders,” McKee says. “We have roughly 160 riders who are here in this area. The others are all out of town, so they’re not even going to go to David’s Pizza.”
McKee also ordered about half as many T-shirts as usual for the event, expecting that participation would be lower.
“We’ll actually net more this year, because our expenses are going to be lower,” McKee says.
Amy Knapton Vega, executive director at Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery, said that when she was trying to decide how to pivot the organization’s annual June benefit luncheon, she was told by some that the organization shouldn’t expect to raise any money from events.
But Vega watched as other organizations held successful fundraising events, and she decided to forge ahead. She asked for help from longtime partner Hamilton Studios, which helped the organization put together a virtual benefit luncheon.
“They helped us navigate through what would work, how to tailor it, and they did a great job of doing their own set up, as far as social distancing,” Vega says.
The online event drew 300 viewers, in comparison to the roughly 1,000 people who usually attend the luncheon. But Vega says the exceeded its goal of $170,000, bringing in a total of $172,000.
Going virtual saved Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery thousands of dollars. Vega says the luncheon usually costs the organization about $40,000. This year, the crisis nursery spent less than $5,000 for its online event.
Don Hamilton, owner of Hamilton Studios, says he started adapting his video production and photography studio into a socially distanced, livestream-capable studio in March. A friend was scheduled to deliver a lecture to a college in Virginia in late March and decided to do so via Zoom. Hamilton thought his friend deserved better than a bland setting.
“It got me wondering — how could I use my cameras, lights, mics, and large studio to safely offer my friend a high-production-value presentation?” Hamilton says. “I started looking into the technology to adapt my motion picture production equipment to support a multicamera, livestreaming studio.”
Hamilton asked the Spokane Regional MarCom Association if he could handle the nonprofit organization’s annual Spark awards event to prove he could do a hybrid virtual event that combined livestreaming with pre-recorded segments.
“They were game, so we started by producing a glossy teaser announcing the event,” Hamilton says. “We then had a number of members of the MarCom board come in, one at a time, to pre-record announcements of the winners.”
Hamilton says the event was a success.
“The show moved seamlessly between pre-recorded packages and the live hosts reading a script from a large studio teleprompter,” he says.
Since then, Hamilton Studios has handled five livestreaming events, including the Vanessa Behan luncheon and YWCA Spokane’s “An Evening in Tuscany” fundraising event.
Social distancing at Hamilton Studio is easy, he says. His studio is located in the former auditorium of St. Joseph Catholic School, and he’s divided the basketball court in half.
“The idea is that whatever we do in there, we get one half-court for the crew and one half-court for the talent, so that nobody’s ever closer than 15 feet,” Hamilton says.
Hamilton says no more than seven people are in the studio at any one time. When a livestreaming event is taking place, just three crew members run the show: Hamilton and his wife, Lorna, sit together at the master controls, where Lorna manages the teleprompter, and Hamilton manages four live cameras in addition to pre-recorded videos. About 25 feet away from master controls, video editor Hannah Sander becomes the live program manager during livestreaming events.
Hamilton says he believes it will be at least another two years before nonprofits can return safely to holding in-person events. In that time, he expects demand for hybrid livestreaming events will increase exponentially.
“I’m already lining up more things,” Hamilton says.
Dana Morris Lee, chief philanthropy officer at YWCA Spokane, says the organization’s livestreaming of its 14th annual Tuscany event surprised her in that it required so much more technical effort and volunteer participation beforehand, as compared to in-person events.
“We had to become virtual experts as quickly as possible,” Morris Lee says. “You need to have a location to do this, and you need somebody who understands the technical restrictions around sound and video, and how to switch between different components of the program.”
An Evening in Tuscany typically draws about 400 people, Morris Lee says. About 200 people watched the livestreamed event.
The fundraising portion of the event was stretched from one night to about six weeks. Morris Lee says the organization decided to do a longer fundraising campaign after watching and learning from other organizations’ events.
“Creating a longer-term fundraising campaign around the event was a critical piece, because you just aren’t going to get the same attendance online that you’re going to get in person,” Morris Lee says.
YWCA Spokane had hoped to raise $100,000. As of July 20, the fundraising campaign had received about $75,000. Now, Morris Lee says she hopes to reach $92,000 by Friday, July 31, when the campaign ends.
While an online event can provide a nonprofit with some funding, Vega says she still missed being in a roomful of people who have a long-standing relationship with the crisis nursery.
“It always feels like you’re going to a kind of reunion,” she says. “It’s always so fun to get to visit and catch up on things, and we just didn’t get that luxury this year. That was probably the hardest part of it.”
An emerging restaurant model known as “ghost kitchens” is gaining popularity in some parts of the U.S. and could find a foothold in Spokane, industry experts say.
The concept appears to be becoming more appealing as COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions continue to batter the restaurant industry.
Ghost kitchens refer to restaurants that operate exclusively on a takeout-and-delivery model, without in-house dining. There are three types: commissary kitchens, pop-up kitchens, and pods, according to digital food-tech publication The Spoon. Commissary kitchens are shared kitchen spaces owned and operated by a third party. Popups are areas within the main kitchen of a restaurant that are dedicated to fulfilling pickup and delivery orders and typically have a distinct menu and branding from that of the established restaurant. Pod kitchens operate within shipping containers and can be placed nearly anywhere.
Adam Hegsted, owner of the Liberty Lake-based Eat Good Group LLC., says the company had planned to open a ghost kitchen space in Spokane Valley, but it’s holding off until the area’s economy stabilizes.
Hegsted says Eat Good’s partner, GVD Commercial Properties Inc., bought the former liquor store building at 5004 E. Sprague earlier this year. Hegsted planned for four companies to share the space: Incrediburger & Eggs, Taco Suave, Doughlicious Bakery, and either a fried chicken or healthy food restaurant.
Hegsted has experience dabbling in the ghost kitchen model. Eat Good Group’s cafe, located in the Meadowwood Technology Campus, in Liberty Lake, also produced orders for Incrediburger Express, a takeout- and delivery-only version of Hegsted’s hamburger restaurant. That has been suspended temporarily, partly due to the impacts of the pandemic, Hegsted says.
“The idea works great, as long as you can get enough delivery orders,” Hegsted says. “There’s a lot of savings as far as the buildout. And same with labor. You don’t have to have as many front-of-the-house people doing customer service and helping guests. You just have a cook back there to create the food, and someone getting orders ready, taking orders, and cashing people out.”
Adam Stinn, director of business solutions at Rosemont, Illinois-based national foodservice distributor US Foods Inc., says the idea was catching on in some U.S. cities before the pandemic struck, but it’s become an important way for entrepreneurs to launch their food businesses, as well as a way for existing sit-down restaurants to add another revenue stream to compensate for lost revenue due to COVID-19-related occupancy restrictions.
“We have seen growing popularity and growing interest across all segments around ghost kitchens,” says Stinn, whose company operates the Food Services of America warehouse in Spokane. “I’ve seen some numbers saying that in the next 10 years, this could be a trillion-dollar industry. There’s definitely a lot of growth potential.”
Ryan Wilcockson, owner of Spokane Salad Delivery LLC, says he chose to use a ghost kitchen model to start his salad delivery business in order to keep overhead low. Wilcockson, the sole employee of Spokane Salad Delivery, works out of the Kitchen Spokane commissary space in the Northtown Mall.
“They have all the supplies we need, all the fridge space, freezer space, and dry (ingredient) space,” Wilcockson says. “It saves a lot, and I can afford to buy fancier products for the customers.”
Kitchen Spokane is a nonprofit that offers commissary kitchens as incubators for small food businesses. Jayme Cozzetto, director of Kitchen Spokane, launched the first commissary kitchen under the Kitchen Spokane name in 2014. Since then, it’s grown to include two locations in Spokane, two in Coeur’ d’Alene, one in Ponderay, Idaho, and another in Vancouver, Washington. Most of its commissary kitchens are in malls.
Donita Humrich, kitchen manager for Kitchen Spokane, says malls are a good fit for commissary kitchens because the infrastructure already exists, and clients can access the space at all hours. Also, mall security keeps the space safe, and the mall itself is responsible for maintenance. With many malls struggling to fill spaces, it’s a partnership that works for everyone, she says.
In the early days of the pandemic’s presence in the U.S., Kitchen Spokane’s revenue dropped by about 30%, Cozzetto says. Around late April, that changed.
“We started to see something we did not expect: a rise and growth in the industry,” he says.
In the past few months, nine new businesses have signed up to use Kitchen Spokane’s spaces. That brings the total number of businesses operating through Kitchen Spokane’s locations to nearly 90.
Cozzetto says the organization is continuing to expand, with two new spaces in the Spokane Valley mall and one in Coeur d’Alene’s Silverlake Mall expected to be established within the next two months. He claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought rental rates for commercial spaces, especially those located in malls, down significantly.
Kitchen Spokane charges clients $15 an hour to use its space and equipment, with dry and refrigerated storage space offered at a starting rate of $3 a day.
Cozzetto says many new clients had planned to launch elsewhere but have found their options severely limited by the pandemic.
“We’re seeing people who maybe had an idea before that they were going to do, and they were going to (sell at) farmer’s markets and public festivals,” Cozzetto says. “What I’m seeing is that instead, they’re focusing their efforts online. They’re selling everything online, and they’re doing remarkably well.”
Stinn says that when Washington restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms in March, many eateries grappled with switching to takeout- and delivery-only models.
“While there was definitely revenue and continued sales there, it was clearly not what restaurants are used to, and there’s also additional costs that come with those delivery and carryout mechanisms,” Stinn says.
Some restaurants have embraced the ghost kitchen model, either by starting a second ghost kitchen restaurant that has a separate menu within their existing kitchen, or by adding a “digital franchise,” Stinn says.
In the digital franchise option, for example, a local restaurant that makes its own Mexican-inspired food could add revenue by partnering with a national pizza franchise, enabling the franchise to use part of its kitchen to produce pizzas for delivery.
“I think the most attractive thing about the model is if there’s consumer demand for a certain menu type, a lot of operators already know their fixed costs, whether it be a lease, cost of utilities, those kinds of things,” he says.
The ghost kitchen model enables restaurant operators to continue to have a sales channel, even if it means providing a different menu altogether, Stinn says, adding that it can be done with relatively low startup costs.
“You’re not starting an entirely new brick-and-mortar location,” he says. “You’re really just expanding a menu, which can be done with relatively low risk.”
However, launching an unconventional restaurant through a ghost kitchen comes with its challenges. Chief among them, Hegsted says, is brand recognition.
“If you don’t have an established name, it’s difficult to get the marketing out there, because you don’t have a physical space for people to connect with,” he says.
Spokane Salad Delivery’s Wilcockson says the technological aspects of running a delivery-only business have created an unforeseen obstacle.
“Not everyone is tech-savvy, so unfortunately for people who aren’t used to it, using the internet or their cell phone makes it complicated,” Wilcockson says.
Vying for time in the kitchen also can be challenging, he says. If another Kitchen Spokane client reserves the space for the time Wilcockson had intended to use it, he’s in a tight spot.
Despite these hurdles, Wilcockson says he believes the ghost kitchen model will stick around.
“Not only in Spokane, but nationwide, worldwide. With the whole COVID situation, it’s kind of going to have to go that way,” he says. “I think it’s going to be the way of the future, at least for a couple of years.”
Hegsted likens opening a take-out or delivery restaurant through a ghost kitchen to launching a restaurant in an unpopular neighborhood.
“In the beginning, it may be a little more difficult to get people to latch onto the idea of coming to that neighborhood,” he says. “It’s the same with people figuring out the idea that it’s delivery only. But once you get that clientele and build that loyalty, people are willing to get food delivered that they know is going to be good quality.”
Long before the era of COVID-19, Laura Kasbar was a Spokane mother who merely wanted to find a way to address her children’s autism.
Almost by chance, she noticed that video lessons would help, particularly with a child who doctors had declared would never speak.
Nine years later, in 2011, her son Max was mainstreamed, and her Gemiini Systems, still based in Spokane, has become a worldwide leader in online distance learning for people with autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia, speech delay, stroke and other issues.
Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, Gemiini has seen “an avalanche” of interest as families and school districts seek virtual solutions to real-life challenges of learning from home, Kasbar said from her home in Southern California.
The company, with about 50 employees, is run by her son Nicholas out of the Holley- Mason Building in downtown Spokane. After an initial adjustment, Gemiini has adapted to a surge in business.
Gemiini has opened its certification program to professionals and has waived the $490 fee for certification.
Gemiini is also offering schools and clinics the use of its system at no cost as long as they agree to submit the cost of the program to Medicaid.
Gemiini has proven to be a valuable solution for special education administrators, who are struggling to navigate this crisis to continue to meet the needs of special needs students and families.
For many children, “this can be the only link to therapy,” Kasbar said. “And now with COVID everyone is on that boat.
“Our team has been able to get to work immediately. Our subscription base has increased dramatically.”
Gemiini – the unique spelling is Kasbar’s tribute to her autistic twins, Max and Anastasia – was the product of Kasbar’s yearslong search for a solution.
It was in 2001 that Kasbar recalled walking into a room in her Spokane home, saw all six of her children lined up in front of the television and “couldn’t really tell which were the autistic ones.”
At that time, conventional wisdom dictated the television should be turned off if autistic children were nearby. But that experience told Kasbar video was the answer.
She and her husband Brian had noticed that young Max wouldn’t make eye contact with them but would interact with the television.
“I thought, ‘I’ve got to get my mouth on the TV,’ ” Kasbar said.
That night, they made one-minute videos of a cup and Barney, the TV dinosaur.
“It was a close-up of my mouth saying the word ‘Barney’ next to the actual Barney and then saying the word ‘cup’ next to a cup. We did three sets in a row,” Kasbar said.
That night, after watching several times from his highchair while eating, Max made his biggest breakthrough.
Kasbar held up a cup and he said “cup,” his first word – 3 years and 8 months of age.
During the next decade, and with the help of her oldest son, Nicolas – who also had been on the autism spectrum – Kasbar developed the video program.
In 2012, thanks to funding from the Spokane Angel Alliance and Inland Imaging, Gemiini was launched.
Backed by studies from four universities, Gemiini serves 30,000 clients in 40 countries.
Its use of discrete video modeling, which presents only a specific piece of audio information, was showed by a Portland State University study to be 300% more effective than standard video modeling.
Kasbar was so inspired by the success of her program that she shared her experiences in a book, “Embracing the Battle: Secrets of Victory from a Warrior Mom.”
Closer to home, Gemiini has worked with former NFL star and Spokane native Mark Rypien to develop an application to address suicide prevention.
The goal, Rypien said last fall, is to connect circles of friends of persons at risk so they can better monitor their state of mind.
Lately, the main focus has been reaching children who have been isolated by COVID-19.
“It’s been pretty easy,” said Nicolas, who runs the Spokane headquarters. “After a few headaches, we’ve been able to keep going and helping people, and we’ve updated a lot of our instructions on Facebook Live to walk people through how our lessons work.”
Jim Allen can be reached at (509) 459-5437 or by email at [email protected]
Not even the COVID-19 pandemic has been able to blunt the tide of growth the design-build construction company Verdis is experiencing.
Since becoming a member of the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program in 2016, Verdis has secured 99 federal projects, 19 of which are currently active, says Sandy Young, founder and principal of the Coeur d’Alene-based company.
The 8(a) program is a nine-year business development program that provides business training, counseling, marketing, and technical assistance to small businesses that have applied and then been accepted to the program.
Verdis has a greater ability to secure federal work with certifications as both a woman-owned business and an 8(a) operation. The federal government’s goal is to award at least 5% of all federal contracting dollars to small businesses and women- and minority-owned businesses.
Now doing business in 13 western states, Verdis recently secured its largest federal contract to date, an almost $4 million project in Alaska, where Young is from originally.
A 7.1-magnitude earthquake that struck south central Alaska on Nov. 30, 2018, continues to generate engineering and construction repair work through the federal pipeline.
Despite the flourishing federal work, Young says one of the requirements of 8(a) status is to maintain local work in the community. While she declines to disclose the firm’s annual revenue, she says close to a third of all income is generated by local projects.
Deemed as an essential business, Verdis anticipates annual revenue to double in 2020 over 2019. First-quarter revenue alone this year exceeded calendar year 2019, she says.
The company forecasts a nearly four-fold increase in revenue by 2022, compared with 2019 earnings, Young says.
“We’ve been able to self-perform much of our work, which is a big deal for an 8(a),” she says. “Very few firms do both engineering and construction. We seal fish ladders, rip up rails in powerhouses at dams, and restore old buildings and windows.”
With 25 employees, Verdis occupies roughly 2,000-square feet of space in a second-floor suite at Parkside Tower, located at 601 E. Front. It’s the company’s fifth location since its founding in 2007, Young says.
A vice president of construction, Colin Meehan, oversees five project superintendents and six members of a field-personnel team, constituting the firm’s largest concentration of employees.
Young, who is 64, moved to Idaho from Alaska in 1997 and spent the next decade working in Kootenai County’s community development department. Along the way, she met her late husband, Gary, who worked as the director of community development for the city of Post Falls, she says.
The two married in 2006, and the following year, Young says the couple began the process of going into business for themselves.
“He had been in business for himself for a while; he was a licensed landscape architect,” she says. “He’d say, ‘It’s not as easy you think, not every hour is billable.’ I remember sitting on a plane—we were going on a trip somewhere—and telling him, ‘Let’s do it.’’’
In the basement of a building in Post Falls, the couple set up an independent development and planning operation.
“Fortunately, because of our public-sector jobs, people knew us,” she says. “There weren’t many planners around, so we got a few clients right out of the gate.”
Young says the company steadily grew. Landscape architecture work quickly expanded, and Verdis began using subcontractors for civil engineering projects.
In 2012, Verdis was granted woman-owned business status through the SBA, but the business didn’t qualify for the 8(a) program due to the couple’s combined assets, she says.
Then, in 2014, Gary Young contracted cancer and died the following year. It was his death that allowed Verdis to qualify for 8(a) status, she says.
“On his death bed he said, ‘Get the 8(a). I want you to kill it. I don’t want to have to worry about you,’’’ Sandy Young says, fighting back tears.
Reflecting on that time, Young says the business took off as she poured herself into work as way to deal with the grief.
“That wouldn’t have happened if I would’ve had a spouse at home, right?” she asks rhetorically. “Who doesn’t want to be home at night?”
Young says she bought a new car and “hit the road” religiously in an effort to generate new business.
“Honestly, it seemed like such a longshot because you’re sitting there trying to sell your capability, and I really didn’t understand the world I was in,” she says. “We didn’t have any idea how to put a bid together, we didn’t know what we were going to do. We were designers.”
As Young tried to recruit clients, she was asked if Verdis did construction work. Upon answering no, she was met with a consistent message: Come back when you do.
“Three times I heard that. The fourth time I was asked, my answer was, ‘You bet we do,’’’ she says. “I came back and told staff we’re going to figure this out.”
A year later, Verdis secured its first federal contract, a $327,000 Kachess River Bridge project in Cle Elum, Washington, Young says.
Stephanie Blalack, a senior planner with Verdis, has a perspective about Young and the firm, unlike any other employee. She is the company’s first hire.
“I hired Steph out of college (2004) when I still worked for Kootenai County,” Young says. “When I jumped ship, I brought her with me.”
Says Blalack, “She was a phenomenal boss at the county, so when she left in 2007, I was just devastated.”
Seven months later, Young reached out to her with a job offer.
“I was 25, 26, and I’m thinking of leaving my government job? My parents were like, ‘Are you crazy?’’’ says Blalack.
“But I just had this feeling that I knew she was going to make it,” she says. “If it were anybody else, I would not have left my government job.”
Contact author at [email protected] or 509.344.1267