Fundraising During COVID-19—Episode 3: The Night Ministry

Read Time: 10 minutes


COVID-19 has challenged nonprofits like never before—and nonprofits have risen to the occasion in their own unique ways.

In this podcast series, we explore how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising strategies to a difficult moment. We sat down (virtually, of course) with leaders from across the sector to hear what they have been doing and what they have learned. Follow us as we discover strategies that have helped a diverse array of organizations survive and thrive during a challenging time. 

Our third episode features Campbell & Company Consultant Kelsey Nelson speaking with Christy Prassas, Vice President of Development and External Relations of The Night Ministry.


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Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below:  

Kelsey Nelson: So glad to have you on, Christy. We're going to be discussing how The Night Ministry is rising to meet the challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 pandemic and everything that's happened since March.

Can you start just by telling our listeners a little bit about The Night Ministry?

Christy Prassas: Sure, The Night Ministry is a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides housing, healthcare, and human connection to individuals struggling with homelessness or poverty. We began 44 years ago in 1976 with one employee reaching out to people on the streets at night, providing coffee, blankets, and compassion. Today, we are an organization employing nearly 140 people that serves more than 6,000 young people and adults every year.

An estimated 77,000 individuals experience homelessness in Chicago every year. Healthcare is a challenge for many of them, with healthcare conditions often being a precipitating factor in someone becoming homelesswhile the conditions of homelessness can create health problems and make existing ones worse. Individuals experiencing homelessness also face significant barriers in accessing healthcare.

That is why our health outreach program brings free healthcare directly to those whom we serve. Our health outreach bus visits neighborhoods across Chicago with high concentrations of poverty and homelessness. Our street medicine team travels directly to where our city's unsheltered are, whether that is an encampment, under an expressway viaduct, in a park, or on a street corner.

Healthcare is not the only need for those who we serve. We also offer food, clothing, supplies, and supportive services, such as helping a client get an ID, sign up for government assistance, or find more stable housing.

More than 11,000 of Chicago's homeless are young people between the ages of 14 and 21 who are on the streets alone. The Night Ministry's youth programs help young people experiencing homelessness meet their needs for shelter, food, and safety while assisting them in building stable futures. Our youth outreach team connects with young people living on the streets and links them with resources at The Night Ministry and other partner agencies.

Our youth housing programs provide structured, safe, and supportive living environments for youth from all backgrounds who face multiple challenges. Ranging from overnight shelter to short- and long-term housing, they include the only shelter in Chicago to reserve beds for pregnant/parenting young mothers, as young as the age of 14, and a residence for high school students experiencing housing instability.

At the root of everything we do at The Night Ministry is human connection or relationship building. Homelessness and poverty are incredibly isolating, traumatizing, and demoralizing experiences. We approach the community members we serve with acceptance and compassion, and we know we have to earn their trust. And once we do, that's when we can not only provide real comfort but help our clients improve their situations.

Kelsey: That's wonderful. Thank you so much for that really comprehensive answer, Christy.

I think it's just a little mind boggling to think about all of the things that The Night Ministry does, and I will say, from my perspective, hearing you talk about the compassion and the trust building as a core part of your mission delivery, it's so wonderful to hear.

Also, as you know, our offices are downtown and occasionally I'll see teams from The Night Ministry out and about it. I think it's so obvious from anybody who sees the work in action that it is really true, and it's really lived and embodied by your employees and volunteers. Thank you for sharing.

I'm curious, can you share a little bit about how your programs and operations have been impacted and shifted during the pandemic? One of the things that you might not get to right away, but I want to come back to, what you just mentioned about volunteer coordination as well, because I'm sure that there has been a difference in how you recruit and mobilize volunteers. First, we'd love to hear just about how your work has changed during the pandemic.

Christy: Yes, definitely. The Night Ministry has remained committed to serving Chicagoans who are experiencing homelessness and poverty throughout the pandemic, and we've had to definitely get creative in order to do so.

We've essentially, since just before the pandemic started in early February, developed what we call a “COVID-19 taskforce” made up of individuals from different departments throughout The Night Ministry. So across all of our programs, staff members have been responding to the evolving needs of those we serve, as Chicago's homeless and poor have been greatly affected by the wider social impact of the virus.

This has led to some really innovative programming. We made some immediate modifications earlier this year to our services basically to promote safety. For example, our healthcare services are usually provided on our vehicles, a 38-foot health outreach bus and a street medicine van.

In order to prevent clustering of people in a combined space, we stopped providing those services on the vehicles and moved all patient care onto the street, which is a challenge. And we're continuing to provide that patient care on the streets for the foreseeable future.

We also reduced onsite staffing levels. Our youth programs and health outreach programs are limited to essential workers only. This has meant setting up remote ways for our residents of our youth programs, for example, to continue meeting with their case managers and mental health counselors.

In terms of what you just said about volunteers, we temporarily suspended volunteer shifts, which was really difficult because volunteers are such an important part of our mission. But we needed to reduce the number of people in our facilities, on our vehicles, and at the sites where we provided our services.

Happily, we've started to bring back volunteers over the last six weeks. I think we're allowing currently one to two individual volunteers to come out and serve with us on the buses. In terms of meal groups, because we have meal groups come out and serve with us every night, I think we're allowing up to four people to come out and serve with us at a time.

So I know volunteers have been eager to come out and be with us. We’ve been eager to have them come out; we're really excited about that, but we just want to make sure we're doing it in a very safe way. So hopefully we can continue to have them come out. And then also, we’ve been recognizing the challenging conditions of serving during the pandemic. We provided additional compensation to our staff members who work directly with clients.

So as I mentioned, many of the people that we served or that we do serve have been affected by the pandemic, and The Night Ministry has responded to the various challenges that they face during this time.

And some of these challenges are as follows: increased food insecurity; our clients have had loss of income because they've been laid off, or there's been reduced foot traffic for those who rely on panhandling in the downtown area; they've had reduced or curtailed services from other organizations that they rely upon, such as public transit, or drop-in centers that are closed or cut their hours, or health clinics.

Even more than usual, our staff has been consistently assessing what our clients need and how to help them get those needs met. During the State of Illinois shelter-in-place order, we kept our overnight shelter for young adults, The Crib, open around the clock. So, 24 hours to give young people who had no place to shelter in place a safe environment in which to do so.

Our case managers worked with clients to track down their stimulus checks and to sign them up for benefits like food assistance. Some of our staff delivered food to former residents of our housing programs who lost their jobs, or maybe they had difficulty shopping because of transportation issues or health concerns.

We began outreach on the CTA when some of our staff noticed that large numbers of Chicago's homeless population were riding the trains overnight instead of staying in the city shelter system.

We've been connecting clients with substance use challenges who want to get clean with a tele-supported medication treatment program. We're seeing a lot of overdoses during this time. And lastly, despite the challenging environment, we've helped a lot of young people and adults move into their housing during this time with the help of a partner agency.

So we've still been able to do a lot of work. The demand has increased, and even with less staff because we've had only essential workers out there, we're still doing more.

Kelsey: Wow, thank you. I think it's overwhelming to think about how all of these problems have compounded upon each other, but thank you for everything that you just shared and all of the work that's happening. It's really heartening to see the fast pace at which your organization and others like it have responded to this incredibly challenging time.

Christy, I want to shift now and ask you a little more about fundraising. Obviously, it takes funds to keep our organizations going and to respond to this need. I'm wondering if you can share the most innovative fundraising practice or new thing that you and your team have tried since the onset of COVID-19.

Christy: So I think there have been a few things that we did rather quickly. I don't know how innovative they were, but I definitely think they were effective. The biggest thing we did was move to virtual programming.

So some examples of that are, since 2003, we have been hosting tours of our programswhat we call van tours. Typically, once per month, we give a tour of one of our youth shelter programs and one of our health outreach buses. It gives our supporters a chance to view programs in action and also a chance to talk to staff and ask them questions about our work.

The tour typically lasts about three hours in the evening, 5:30-8:30. With COVID, we developed an online tour with staff and client interviews and tours of the youth shelter and health outreach bus. It's a couple of hours long, but it’s online instead of in person.

We also moved twice in the past eight months. We moved from our office in Ravenswood to a temporary location in early December 2019 and then again in May 2020 to our permanent office in Bucktown. Of course, it's a perfect opportunity for us to host tours of our new space and have an open house, but we knew that wasn't possible, so videotaping virtual tours of the new space and making those tours available to our supporters.

We've also had to conduct online or virtual volunteer orientations. Even though we haven't been able to bring volunteers on at the rate at which we want to, we are still conducting orientation so that when we are ready to bring them on board, they're ready to go. We have a couple of pretty large groups of volunteer orientations that we've done virtually, and it's worked out really well.

Then lastly, we've hosted a Facebook Live interview series to provide content and additional context for supporters to learn more about our programs. Some of the topics have been meeting homeless youth where they are; helping young people to thrive; taking healthcare on the road, sort of a mobile approach; and then discrimination, racial inequity, and homelessness and poverty.

We hope to continue that Facebook Live interview series throughout the rest of the year. It has been very successful for us. So I think that the virtual programming has really been effective for us.

Kelsey: Definitely. Well, I think you might have already answered the question, but I wanted to ask if you've learned anything or imagine that you will carry on any of the practices fundraising-wise or engagement-wise?

It sounds like virtual programming is definitely an area where you might continue to meet audiences. Is there anything else that you're looking forward to continuing to do or that you've learned is a better delivery method for some of your donor and audience engagement in this time?

Christy: I think I mentioned that human connection and relationship building is sort of at the root of everything we do at The Night Ministry, and I think that we've seen that human connection with our supporters is more important now than ever during the pandemic.

In quarter four of this fiscal year, we've acquired more than 500 new donors as compared to 150 last year during the same time period. I think it's because we've been very visible. We've been out there. We've been featured in more than 20 media stories. Since we've been out there, our staff have been out there, our vehicles have been out there, people have noticed us.

We've been also connecting with our donors more. We’ve always found it very important to make thank you calls to our supporters. Our staff or volunteers call just to say “Thank you for your gift.”

But I think what we're seeing now is that people are home and wanting to know what's going on. So those calls that used to last five minutes before may last 45 minutes now because people want to talk and people want to know what's happening and what's different. I think that connection with our supporters is stronger now more than ever.

We developed a COVID-19 impact report that shows how The Night Ministry made program adjustments during this time and how we responded to clients. We sent that out mostly to new donors and some of our major donors. That was really also impactful.

So just being transparent during this time, adaptable, flexible, and also just making sure to communicate as much as we can to people and letting them know, “This is what we're doing and here's how we're changing to meet the needs right.”

I think the silver lining is people have been so helpful and generous and wanting to help in different ways. I think that has been very heartwarming and really a blessing for us. I think that's what’s come out of all of this.

Kelsey: Thank you. I think there's a lot in there that I heard reflected by other organizations across the city and certainly the idea of transparency. I think everybody understands that, in this time, being upfront about needs as well as the shifts that have had to be made is really smart.

But I love what you were talking about in terms of human connection and that it's something that was in your mission all along. That really is a guiding principle and value, and you've found a way to authentically communicate that and amplify that to your donors. I love hearing that.

Well, thank you so much, Christy, that will wrap up today's podcast. I want to thank you. I hope that her insights and experiences inspire you all.

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Duncan Reilly

Duncan Reilly is a Marketing and Business Development Associate at Campbell & Company. He works to help consultants and nonprofit organizations start their partnerships off on the right foot.