July 9, 2020 - Readers of many Wisconsin newspapers in the USA Today Network probably saw the same article that drew the attention of Observatory staff and board members.
“Wisconsin nonprofits could be in dire financial straits in the months, and possibly years, ahead as they continue to cancel or scale back vital fundraising events due to the coronavirus pandemic. One in five nonprofits that responded to a University of Wisconsin System survey said they worry about meeting payroll for the next eight weeks. Almost 50% have laid off staff already, and 93% said they’re considering future layoffs.”
The survey of more than 500 nonprofits statewide to assess COVID-19’s effect on Wisconsin nonprofits was led by UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management with the Institute for Nonprofit Management Studies at UW-Whitewater.
“This survey tells people not to forget about this sector. The nonprofit sector helps our quality of life,” said co-author Lora Warner of the UW-Green Bay Center for Public Affairs. “Businesses will struggle and do the best they can. Governments will serve whom they can with fewer tax dollars, but nonprofits step in with shows, environmental protections, trail management and more. They’re doing so many things for our communities.”
According to Bob Holzrichter, the Observatory’s Treasurer, the economic effects of COVID-19 on our own situation have not been kind. “By March of this year,” he reports, “it became obvious to the board that our fund balances needed to be watched closely.”
We have weathered the pandemic so far—thanks to the diligence, planning and ingenuity of our two staff members, the hard work of our volunteer directors and the continued financial backing of a growing group of supporters. There have been no layoffs, although the Observatory did suspend its seasonal Waterbird Watch at Harrington Beach State Park at the end of the spring survey.
“We’ve been facing multiple challenges all at the same time,” says Board Chair Charles Hagner. “While we were retooling our research objectives under a new science director, we reached the expiration of a significant Fish and Wildlife Service grant connected with our leadership of the Midwest Migration Network and we were forced to cancel many of our spring educational events, which double as fundraisers.”
These included a World Migratory Bird Day celebration and native plant sale that draws hundreds to Forest Beach Migratory Preserve each May, as well as a field trip for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin. More recently, the Observatory has had to cancel a planned pollinator tour and Monarch workshop at Coal Dock Park and our annual Monarch tag-and-release celebration.
To compensate, the Observatory is taking advantage of the social-media skills of recently hired administrative assistant Sarah Harsson Stoll to greatly expand our outreach via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Holzrichter points out an additional challenge: “After the Land Trust decided to close the clubhouse at Forest Beach, we were obligated to rent office space in Port Washington at a cost of $3,600 a year, but we haven’t been able to occupy it since early March.” Both Sarah and Science Director Jennifer Phillips-Vanderberg are working from home.
So the board tackled the things they could control on both the revenue and expense sides. Actions taken so far include:
1) Conducting our first spring giving appeal. The campaign has raised $11,521 so far (it’s not too late to contribute!) and is helping offset our lost events revenue.
2) Offering for sale our own “United by Birds” shirts, which emphasize our work for birds of the Great Lakes. The shirts may generate only a modest amount of funds, but they’re causing a big increase in awareness of the Observatory.
3) Securing a $16,000 Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan, with the anticipation that the entire balance will be forgiven under current Small Business Administration rules. This will, in turn, help offset the loss of federal grant support.
4) Taking several cost-saving measures. Since wages are by far our largest outlay, we reluctantly suspended our Waterbird Watch after avian technician Calvin Brennan (an independent contractor) announced plans to seek a similar position elsewhere, and we opted not to replace our part-time development specialist when she took a full-time position closer to her home.
In addition, planning continues for an alternative to our annual fall conservation summit, which last year drew nearly 200 people to the clubhouse at Forest Beach and this year had been scheduled for the Pieper Power Education Center at the Mequon Nature Preserve. Some form of virtual meeting(s) seems in the cards instead, perhaps coupled with an online silent auction.
Meanwhile, the board and staff are reaching out to brief supporters on two key initiatives:
Motus: The Observatory is working to expand the Motus wildlife-monitoring network by partnering with environmental-education organizations to use Motus as part of environment, science, technology, engineering and math (E-STEM) programs. Environmental-ed organizations offer both knowledge of E-STEM and great locations for Motus towers, while we provide expertise in bird migration and the cutting-edge technology of Motus. Together we aim to gain both an increased understanding of migration and hands-on opportunities for students to engage in real science.
Habitat: The use of nonnative and invasive species in urban and suburban areas is a major cause of habitat loss and degradation. The Observatory is developing a program to minimize the use of nonnative plant species in yards while studying the effects this shift to native plants would have on birds. Building on successful past outreach about monarchs and native plants and our experience with ornithological research, this program is a hybrid educational and biological research program. By doing these two things together, we can gain insights into how to maximize benefits for birds and help homeowners make bird-friendly decisions.
Both programs will require dedicated grant funding and the continued support of Observatory donors. COVID or not, with your help this will be an exciting growth year for the Observatory. You can make a donation at https://wglbbo.org/donate .