Winding Down the Emergency Response Fund

Now that the vaccinated among us have begun to remove our masks, it’s time to update the community as we enter the final phase of the Door County Emergency Response Fund.  As you may recall, The Board of Directors of the Door County Community Foundation activated the Emergency Response on March 19, 2020.  Working in partnership with United Way, this Fund was our community’s coordinated philanthropic response to COVID-19 and resulting economic crisis. 

The initial contributions to the Emergency Response Fund were entirely local.  It began with a gift from the Community Foundation itself along with local year ‘round residents whose jobs remained secure.  Then donations started to arrive from across the nation as seasonal residents sent gifts to help those who were unemployed in the place they love.  Nearly 70% of the $1.2 million donated to the Emergency Response Fund and other response efforts at the Community Foundation have come from people who live in Door County only part of the year.

While $1.2 million is a modest number in the grand scheme of philanthropy, on a per capita basis, it appears that the generosity of the people who love Door County has made ours the most generous response effort in Wisconsin. 

A joint Community Foundation-United Way Task Force established three priorities for the Emergency Response Fund.  First, our goal was to provide support for organizations offering immediate relief and assistance to people who were struggling during the stay-at-home order.  That work ended in June of 2020. 

The second priority was, and continues to be, to provide support for organizations helping people in who continue to struggle as the national recession threatens their family’s economic security.  Remember, during the summer of 2020, unemployment in Door County was double what it was during the summer of 2019. 

As challenging as it was for working families last summer, our single greatest concern was the looming 2020-2021 off-season.  For those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, jobs become scarce during the cold months.  If a family doesn’t make their usual summer wages during the busy season, their ability to survive through the winter would be severely compromised.  Hence, the Community Foundation and the United Way placed great focus on creating initiatives to address two very basic needs:  food and shelter. 

For food, we brought the 8 food pantries together to form the Door County Food Pantry Coalition (www.FeedDoorCounty.org).  For shelter, we created a new Door County Rental Assistance Program (www.RentReliefDoorCounty.org) and internally prepared ourselves to make a significant investment in rent relief.  Thus we launched these new programs and waited for the substantial demand on our resources to begin. 

While the economic crisis continued during the off-season – people were struggling mightily –we didn’t anticipate the massive federal response.  Instead of Door County having to bear the burden alone, federal and state money became the primary sources of rental assistance.  As a result, instead of being the sole funding source, the Emergency Response Fund was primarily used to fill the gaps when a particular family didn’t meet the rigid federal and state criteria.  Functionally, this meant that the Emergency Response Fund never needed to invest more than $70,000 into rent relief when we anticipated spending several times more.

The shifting of the cost of rental assistance to government funding has left us the resources to attend to the third priority of the Emergency Response Fund: providing support for the non-profit organizations themselves, whose long-term viability is threatened by the economic crisis in Door County.

“Our first two priorities were focused on helping people who are struggling during this health and economic crisis,” says my colleague, Amy Kohnle, Executive Director of the United Way.  “While that work will continue, our third priority is to look at the health of the non-profit organizations themselves.”

Arts organizations and environmental groups are major economic engines for Door County, bringing tourists here and creating jobs for our residents.  Historical societies and other kinds of charities are important to our quality of life.  While the primary focus of the Emergency Response Fund remains helping those families who are facing tough times, we also want to ensure that Door County’s most important charitable organizations survive this crisis as well.

If you’re an arts organization, environmental group, historical society, or other kind of non-profit that incurred significant expenses related to COVID-19, you are invited to join human service charities in seeking assistance from the Emergency Response Fund.  To apply, or for a complete listing of grants awarded, visit www.RespondDoorCounty.org.

For Many Charities, the Economic Crisis Continues

The Door is open! From the cars lined up on the highway to the people lined up at Al Johnson’s, it’s clear that Door County has reopened after more than a year of this horrible pandemic. The advance-reservation rates reported by our lodging establishments indicate that this may be the busiest season in Door County ever.

Yet as we look around at all the people who are enjoying their stay in this wonderful place, it’s easy to forget that some of our greatest community treasures were hit hard by this global health and economic crisis and are still struggling, even now.

“COVID nearly destroyed our organization,” said Amy Frank, managing director of Third Avenue Playhouse (TAP). “We haven’t sold a ticket in over 15 months. In March of 2020, TAP was in the final week of rehearsals for the first show of the season. The majority of our production expenses – construction of the set and costumes, salaries for the rehearsal period, promotional and advertising costs, and royalty fees – are all incurred prior to the first performance. Closing the theater right before opening night immediately put TAP in the red, and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.”

TAP’s story is far too common on our peninsula. So many arts and cultural organizations that are both essential to our quality of life and critical to our tourist economy faced similar stories of financial carnage last season.

“COVID devastated our budget last year,” said Mona Christensen, executive director of the Birch Creek Music Performance Center. “We not only lost all of our tuition revenue from our academy, but ticket sales from our concerts, advertising and sponsorships as well.”

“In 2020, our major conferences were canceled,” said Lauren Ward, managing director of Write On, Door County, “leaving us, like many artistic nonprofits, searching for ways to stay afloat and continue furthering our mission.”

These cultural treasures aren’t merely nonprofit organizations. They also employ real people who bore the brunt of this economic devastation.

“We had to cancel contracts for 63 company members,” said Dave Maier, managing director of Northern Sky Theater. “That’s more than $500,000 in lost wages to our performers and production staff.”

And this revenue loss wasn’t limited just to arts and cultural charities.

“We closed the Nature Center and canceled programs and events, including the Festival of Nature for the first time in 18 years,” said Andy Gill, executive director of The Ridges Sanctuary. “We count on those visitors to pay trail fees, make donations, shop in our Nature Store, sign up for memberships and take advantage of our programs. They are critical to our earned-income model.”

Environmental charities faced a significant added challenge during the pandemic because unlike arts groups whose stages went dark and buildings were closed, environmental organizations experienced a surge in the use of their facilities as the desire to be outdoors created unprecedented demand. Unfortunately, the increased use of trails and outdoor spaces translated into significantly higher maintenance costs without a commensurate increase in revenue.

“Demand for our programs is at an all-time high, but the decline in income has made it uniquely challenging to meet those demands,” Gill said.

It’s easy to look around at the incredible number of tourists we’re seeing this season and conclude that the economic crisis for these community treasures must be over. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the reality. Whether the source is guidance from public-health officials, restrictions from governing associations or labor contracts, or simply following best practices in a given field, ongoing COVID-19 restrictions are continuing to limit the ability of our charitable organizations to take advantage of these massive visitor numbers.

“This year, because of COVID protocols for music schools, summer camps and vaccinated/unvaccinated youth, we are operating at half capacity for our academy,” Christensen said. 

Similarly, Maier noted, “We already know that 2021 will also be a compromised season due to reduced audience capacity.”

That’s where you can help. The next time you walk the trails at Crossroads at Big Creek, be sure to leave an extra charitable gift behind. If you enjoyed a Midsummer’s Music concert, put something in a donation envelope before you leave for the evening. Charitable organizations such as these are essential to our quality of life and a major economic engine for our visitor industry.

“The ongoing donations from our friends and supporters are not only paying our bills, they are feeding our spirits,” Frank said. 

This season, make an extra gift to the charities you love the most.

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

Giving Is a Key to Success

As the fifth of our six children moves into her first apartment this weekend, I cannot help but pause for a moment to celebrate the giving person she has become. This daughter spends hours dreaming up wonderfully imaginative birthday celebrations for others because she knows how much it will make them smile. When she heard that a person she knew couldn’t afford a Christmas tree one holiday season, she left a tree anonymously outside her friend’s door. This young woman is filled with a generous spirit, and as it is with all her brothers and sisters, her mother and I are both so pleased about the adult she has become.

Fostering a generous spirit in children is something many of us do simply because generosity is a fundamental human value. Interestingly, research has shown that a giving attitude also has a very practical value because it helps to further a person’s career. There is abundant evidence that being a giver is a key component of many people’s professional success.

Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, studied how people relate to each other and summarized his findings in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. According to Grant, our interactions with other people divide us into three categories: takers, givers and matchers.

Takers are easy to understand. They want to get more than they give.

“Takers believe the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place,” writes Grant, so “they tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs.”

Givers do just the opposite: They tilt reciprocity in the other direction.

“Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them.”

Yet most of us are neither. Most people approach others as a matcher. When we act as matchers, we’re “striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting.” 

Grant writes, “If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by an even exchange of favors.”

Although no one is entirely one type, Grant notes that there is ample evidence to demonstrate that most people develop a “primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time. And this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent and luck.”

It’s easy to stereotype givers as “chumps and doormats.” Indeed, Grant finds that givers occasionally drop to the bottom of the ladder of professional success, and they can be at a disadvantage if they “make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.” Yet when you seek out those who have reached the highest rungs of the success ladder, you are most likely to encounter givers.

“When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses,” Grant writes. “Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them.” He says that “there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: It spreads and cascades.”

The key to a givers’ success is grounded in what Grant (and other researchers) commonly refer to as the “strength of weak ties.” Strong ties are the people we trust most, such as our family members, close friends and colleagues. Weak ties are those people we only know casually. 

Unlike matchers, who give only when they get – and far different than takers, who insist on taking what they want – givers share of themselves generously without any expectation of compensation. As a result, over the course of a lifetime, they develop extraordinarily rich networks of acquaintances whose lives are better because of their interaction with the giver. It’s the strength of these weak ties that is the secret to the giver’s success.

When a giver encounters an obstacle, a distant acquaintance often arrives to offer a helping hand. When a giver needs counsel, a casual friend often has knowledge to share. 

“It takes time for givers to build goodwill and trust, but eventually,” writes Grant, “they establish relationships that enhance their success.”

This article was written by Bret Bicoy, the President and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation and originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

An Accounting-Fraud Tool Applied to Nonprofits

Frank Benford was a physicist in General Electric’s research laboratory almost a century ago. During that era, data sets were typed or written out by hand. One day, as he was looking through pages and pages filled with numbers, he noticed a fascinating pattern that was consistent across all his voluminous ledgers of work.

First, some background. The “leading digit” of any number is the first digit on the left other than zero. For instance, in the number 8675309, the leading digit is 8, and in the number 42, it’s 4. The numbers 1 through 9 are the nine possible leading digits because 0 is excluded.

People reasonably assume that if you have a page filled with numbers, all of the nine possible leading digits should occur equally, with each one showing up about 11% of the time. However, Benford noticed that in every large list of numbers, the number 1 is by far the most common leading digit. 

What Benford discovered – and what has since been confirmed to be correct – is that about 30% of all the numbers in any large data set will have 1 as the leading digit. The number 2 will be the leading digit about 17% of the time, the number 3 about 12% of the time and so forth, with each successive number being less common until you get to 9: by far the least common leading digit, appearing less than 5% of the time.

In 1938, Benford published the Law of Anomalous Numbers, which we now call Benford’s Law. It’s a distribution pattern of leading digits that you expect to see in every large data set of numbers that haven’t been manipulated by a human. That’s why Benford’s Law is such an exceptional tool in rooting out fraud.

Today, forensic accountants scan in the tax returns, financial statements and other transactional data of a business – basically pages with lots of numbers on them – and a computer checks to see whether the leading digits of all those numbers are consistent with the pattern of Benford’s Law. If these “naturally occurring” numbers haven’t been manipulated or fabricated, they will normally fit the pattern. If they don’t, then it’s reasonable to suspect that something fishy may be going on and a deeper investigation is warranted.  

In their recent paper “Abiding by the Law? Using Benford’s Law to Examine the Accuracy of Nonprofit Financial Reports,” academic researchers Heng Qu, Richard Steinberg and Ronelle Burger published their findings regarding the first application of Benford’s Law to the tax returns and financial statements of an enormous sampling of charities to see whether any trends were apparent.

The good news is that the financial statements of the nonprofit field as a whole conform to Benford’s Law. In other words, as a group, the numbers of the whole universe of charities do not raise any suspicion. The bad news comes when you look at specific subsets of the data. 

“We find close conformity with Benford’s Law for the whole sample, but at the individual organization level, 34% of organizations do not conform,” the researchers wrote.

What immediately jumps out when looking at the research is that charitable work benefits from the involvement of paid professionals.  Charities with a paid, professional staff have financial statements that are far more likely to conform to Benford’s Law than those that operate only with volunteers. 

“Organizations with paid directors/officers are significantly more conformant by all tests,” the researchers concluded. Further, volunteer-run organizations that pay professional accountants to audit their statements are also far more likely to conform to Benford’s Law. Thus, it behooves charities that deal with significant amounts of money to hire a professional staff person or pay an outside accountant to ensure that funds are being properly handled and protected.

The other significant conclusion to draw is that charities need to be held accountable by an entity that knows how to evaluate their work. 

The researchers wrote, “Organizations that receive government grants and those receiving indirect support [such as grants from a community foundation] are significantly more conformant by all tests than those that do not receive these funds.” 

Everyone performs better when they are accountable to someone for their performance. Charities that receive support from government agencies and grant-making foundations – and are therefore held accountable by them – are far less likely to have nonconforming financial statements that might raise suspicion.

This article, written by Bret Bicoy, President & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

An Extraordinary Response to an Unusual Request

In December, I did something I rarely do. Rather than talk about charity generally, I asked you to join me in making a gift to a specific charity: United Way of Door County. As I noted in my column titled “An Unusual Request in an Extraordinary Year,” United Way Executive Director Amy Kohnle shared with me that the early contributions to United Way’s annual campaign were lagging. Even more troubling, similar reports were coming from United Ways across the state.

My concern was that Door County had already been remarkably generous to the Door County Community Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund, which we activated in March in partnership with United Way as a response to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis. At the time when I wrote December’s column, more than $1 million had been contributed to the Emergency Response Fund and our other relief efforts. That number has grown to $1,150,458 as of the end of January.

The Emergency Response Fund is well positioned to continue to help families through the off-season, but it cannot also cover for a hobbled United Way campaign. Remember that your United Way gift is a contribution to 30 local charities because it’s shared with programs to assist victims of domestic violence, offer loans of free medical equipment, orchestrate activities for young people and support many other forms of charitable work.

Although United Way always plays a critical role in supporting human-service programming in our community, it’s important that the organization is successful now more than ever before because of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

I’m pleased to report that under the leadership of United Way volunteers and staff, the people of our community responded to the call during this time of crisis in an overwhelming and extraordinary way. Prior to this campaign, the most money United Way had ever raised was $563,578. This year, because of the generosity of people like you, our community simply blew past that old record by raising $752,541. That’s a whopping 34 percent increase over the previous all-time high!

This year’s campaign success was fueled almost equally by an increase in giving among current donors and a significant number of people who gave to United Way for the first time. A total of 1,078 donors contributed to the campaign. Of that number, 18 percent were new to United Way, and collectively, their gifts constituted 51 percent of the total increase in contributions. The other 49 percent of the increase came from existing donors who reached deeper into their pockets.

It’s hard for me to overstate how incredible this is.

“Most United Ways across the state have closed out their campaigns flat or down,” Kohnle said. Some of her counterparts have even extended their campaigns into 2021 in an effort to capture a few more dollars.

That our neighbors opened their wallets yet again to help United Way and its constituent charities – even after donating $1.1 million to the Emergency Response Fund – is a remarkable testament to the generosity of our year-round and seasonal residents.

With all this extraordinary generosity, two things immediately come to mind.

First, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your gifts to United Way will help make life easier for many of our neighbors who are struggling during these difficult times. Both individually and collectively, you are a reminder of what makes Door County such a wonderful place to live. Your generosity is heartwarming.

Second, and more practically, I couldn’t help but wonder what United Way is going to do with all that extra money.

“This is the first time in the 21 years that I have been here that we have surpassed a goal by enough to be able to go back and make increases,” Kohnle said. “We are putting these dollars to good use. We are investing in nearly 30 nonprofit program partners. These programs are working to help Door County residents achieve their full potential through education, financial stability and healthy lifestyles.”

Kohnle recently reconvened the United Way Community Investment Committee and said, “We are pleased to be able to invest 21 percent more into our community than last year. The committee members were thrilled to have more dollars and were all smiles during the meeting.” They are smiling because of people like you.


We are enduring the difficult challenges of this unprecedented time because we are supporting each other and remaining united as one community. You are an inspiration!

This article, written by Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

Generosity, the Next Beauty Trend

There’s something wonderfully lyrical about the idea that beauty and generosity are inherently linked. Perhaps the classical Greek poet Sappho said it best: “He who is fair to look upon is good, and he who is good will soon be fair also.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that giving and perceived attractiveness are intertwined, yet for perhaps the first time, just-published research has documented a clear link between generosity and physical beauty.

First, some background. Since the 1920s, social scientists have documented the “halo effect.” This is the bias most of us have in favor of those who are physically attractive. When we see people who are good looking, we tend to assume they have other positive characteristics even before we know anything about them. 

For example, we assume that the pretty woman we’ve just met must also be charming and intelligent. Upon meeting a handsome man, we immediately conclude that he’s insightful and trustworthy as well. It’s as if people who are attractive walk around with a halo, resulting in positive personality traits being ascribed to them simply because they’re good looking.

Sadly, I do not suffer from the halo effect.

Interestingly, researchers have also long documented the halo effect in reverse: essentially, that those who do good things are perceived to be more physically attractive than an objective analysis would otherwise conclude.

The quintessential experiment in this area is to ask a study group to rate physical attractiveness simply by looking at pictures of people. Then researchers show those same pictures to a second study group, but this time, they tell stories about the generous and giving things those people have done. Inevitably, the people in the pictures are rated as significantly better looking by the second study group. When people get a reputation for being generous, they tend to be perceived as better looking than they really are.

If you need further evidence of the efficacy of this halo effect in reverse, note that my work in philanthropy is the only logical explanation for why my lovely and charming wife, Cari, has remained married to me for the last 25 years.

What’s different with the latest research is that for the first time, it separated out physical attractiveness and giving behaviors. “The Good-looking Giver Effect: The Relationship Between Doing Good and Looking Good” was published earlier this year in the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly

In this study, researchers Sara Konrath from Indiana University and Femida Handy of the University of Pennsylvania considered whether generous people are more likely to be rated as physically attractive, even when we didn’t know they are generous people. It turns out that they are.

“We find a ‘good-looking giver’ effect – that more physically attractive people are more likely to engage in giving behaviors, and vice versa,” Konrath and Handy wrote. “Thus, in ecologically valid real-world samples, people who do good are also likely to look good.”

Perhaps the most fascinating finding originated with the data set from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study. The researchers found that the relative physical attractiveness of generous people actually increased as they aged. Those people who were significantly more generous in their late 50s were rated as better looking by the time they reached their early 70s.

Keep in mind that the rating of their relative attractiveness was done by a study group whose members did not know anything about how generous – or cheap – they had been during their lifetime. Hence, the reverse halo effect played no role in how the study group perceived physical appearance.

The researchers concluded, “Overall, financial giving in older adulthood was associated with more attractiveness several years later.” 

Of course, the causal relationship remains an open question. People who are generous tend to experience a sense of joy and well-being from their actions. Perhaps that contentment helps ease the aging process. Giving people also tend to have broader social networks, and we know there is a direct link between stronger interpersonal relationships and happiness. Maybe sustaining greater levels of happiness over time can be seen in a person’s appearance.

“While we cannot fully explain why the link between giving behaviors and attractiveness exists,” Konrath and Handy wrote, “we find remarkably consistent overall effects across the three studies, despite being conducted at different times, using different participants and using different methods and measures.”

One can only hope that the researchers’ final summation proves to be true. They wrote, “Our results suggest that beauty products and procedures may not be the only way to enhance an individual’s attractiveness; perhaps being generous could be the next beauty trend.”

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President & CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

An Unusual Request in an Extraordinary Year

It is not my habit to write columns asking people to give to a specific charity.  At the Door County Community Foundation, we track and monitor the work of every non-profit organization in our community.  More than anyone else, we know how many effective and deserving charities there are in Door County.  When I encourage people to give to the Door County Emergency Response Fund (www.RespondDoorCounty.org), I’m really asking folks to give to a pool of money to be distributed to numerous organizations in our community.  There’s nothing in it for the Community Foundation because we charge no fee nor take any percentage of those gifts.  Elevating a single charity over all others is uncomfortable for me and something I never do except in an extraordinary situation. 

Yet if there is one common theme running throughout this year, it’s that we’ve been in one extraordinary situation after another.  Thus it seems appropriate that in my final column of 2020 I embrace the extraordinary nature of this year and ask you to join me in giving to a charity that is critically important right now, namely, the United Way of Door County.

The first goal articulated in United Way’s Agenda for Change is “helping to meet basic needs for food, transportation, housing, safety, and jobs.”  That’s the goal most of us associate with United Way and the role they’ve ably played in Door County for decades.  When the Board of Directors of the Community Foundation activated our Emergency Response Fund, we invited United Way to partner with us precisely because we wanted to borrow their deep experience in helping meet the basic needs of the people of Door County.

United Way spreads our contributions among several local charities that provide the basic needs for our less fortunate neighbors.  They provide financial support so that groups like HELP of Door County can assist victims of domestic violence, WICHP can offer services on Washington Island, Neighbor to Neighbor can loan out free medical equipment, and so much more. 

Unfortunately, there are ominous signs that COVID-19 is beginning to hinder the ability of United Way to reach its campaign goal this year.

“The majority of our companies [that run workplace campaigns] pushed back the timing of their employee campaigns by at least a month or two,” says Amy Kohnle, Executive Director of the United Way of Door County.  “They are just running their campaigns now.  They have until the end of the year to complete those campaigns.”

The early results have not been promising.  For those companies that completed their workplace campaigns on the normal timeline, they have experienced a significant decrease from last year.  “We have seen an average of a 20% decrease in the companies that have already wrapped up their campaigns,” says Kohnle.  “In weekly conversations with other united ways across the state, this is the trend that they are seeing as well.”

To make matters even more challenging, Door County’s scarcity of large employers means that there are fewer places for our local United Way to run a workplace campaign.  The average united way receives 93% of gifts from employee payroll deductions and other forms of workplace giving.  In Door County, it is 35%.  This makes the United Way of Door County highly reliant on individual donations that come from outside the workplace.  Unfortunately, during a global pandemic, it’s hard for United Way to hold fundraising events or visit potential donors in their living room.

Just a few days ago, our Door County Emergency Response Fund and other relief efforts (like www.FeedDoorCounty.org and www.RentReliefDoorCounty.org) collectively surpassed $1 million in contributions.  All of those dollars are needed to respond to the challenges caused by the COVID-19 crisis.  Further, many federal and state assistance programs end by December 31 and if the politicians in Washington and Madison cannot come to agreement, we’ll be on our own as a community.  Thankfully we’ve planned ahead and the Emergency Response Fund is well positioned to deal with the increased COVID-19 related demand over the winter months even if the government fails to act.  However, we cannot also fill-in for a hobbled United Way campaign.

My wife’s and my ability to give is modest, but we spread it out over a wide range of organizations about which we care.  This year, we’re also making sure to do our little part for the United Way.  Perhaps more than ever before, we need United Way to be successful in its campaign.  Please join us and give at www.UnitedWayDC.com.

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

COVID-19’s Impact on Charitable Giving

While the story of COVID-19 in the United States is still being written, the first bit of research is shedding some light on how the virus and the resulting recession is beginning to affect charitable giving. 

The Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy’s Women’s Philanthropy Institute just released “COVID-19, Generosity, and Gender:  How Giving Changed During the Early Months of a Global Pandemic.”  It’s perhaps the first legitimate research into how people’s charitable giving is changing during this health and economic crisis.  Note that for purposes of the study, the “early months” of COVID-19 is based on data collected through the middle of May.

In normal times, giving tends to track well with the state of the greater economy.  For instance, during the Great Recession when the economy was in turmoil, total giving declined by 7.2% in 2008 and fell another 8.0% in 2009.  The same seems to hold true for the early days of the current recession.  A survey at the end of April found that 63% of non-profit organizations reported decreased fundraising revenue during the first months of the pandemic.

Yet those declines are not falling equally across all types of charities.  During recessions contributions to basic human needs increases while all other categories decline.  Indeed, during the early months of the pandemic the study found that 21.4% of households plan to decrease their giving to education, arts, and environment related charities.  The study notes “early data show that, similar to previous recessions, organizations dedicated to basic needs and health could fare better than those focused on religion, and especially better than those serving all other purposes.”

Yet COVID-19 hasn’t just caused a recession, it’s also analogous to a natural disaster.  While I recognize it’s not precisely a disaster event, the virus has similarly inspired a dramatic and sudden outpouring of organizations directly responding to the “disaster.”  In the early months of this crisis, 32% of households made a charitable gift to an organization that serves people struggling because of COVID-19 and the resulting recession. 

We experienced the overwhelming philanthropic response in Door County as well.  The United Way – Door County Community Foundation Emergency Response Fund (www.RespondDoorCounty.org) received perhaps 80% of its contributions in the short period from when we activated it in March until Governor Evers’ Safer-at-Home order was terminated in mid-May.

What’s fascinating is the universality of COVID-19 related giving.  The study shows “no direct relationship between charitable giving in response to the pandemic and how greatly the state in which one lives was affected by the virus during the initial months of the crisis.  This runs counter to studies on disaster giving, which show that those living in areas closest to a disaster are most likely to give for disaster aid.”  This seems to imply that at least in the early days of the pandemic’s arrival in the United States, our citizens were united as one country and we were willing to help our fellow Americans, regardless of in which state they lived. 

One surprise was the amount of giving that did not involve a non-profit at all.  48.3% of households gave to their community by doing things they wouldn’t otherwise have done such as “ordering takeout to support restaurants and their employees or continuing to pay individuals and businesses for services they could not render.”

Like many families whose jobs were secure, my wife and I ordered take-out meals far more often than normal and when I finally got a haircut, I also paid for the previous three appointments that were cancelled. 

The study highlights one important statistically significant demographic difference among the households included in the study.  Among single men whose giving is declining, 23.4% attribute it to furloughs or business closures reducing their personal income.  For single women, that number was a markedly higher 31.8%. 

“There are also gender difference in the pandemic’s effects,” the study notes.  “Women have been on the frontlines of the crisis at work and at home – from comprising the majority of essential workers to having greater caretaking responsibilities for children and older relatives.  It follows, then, that these roles have left little room for donating time and money, despite a strong body of research demonstrating that women are particularly included toward these behaviors.”

While the recession will likely result in lower giving overall in 2020, the study concludes that “the fact the majority of households did not adjust their giving during [the early months of the pandemic] can be viewed as a positive sign for philanthropy.”

This article, which originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse, was written by Bret Bicoy, President and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation.

My Frustration with COVID-19

I counted 146 cars lined up for food in an aerial photo of the Door County Food Pantry Coalition’s distribution at the Sturgeon Bay fairgrounds Aug. 5. The photo was taken 15 minutes before the first box was even handed out. Looking at the line, I was frustrated, and I was embarrassed.

Like so many of us, I’ve been frustrated by how much COVID-19 has disrupted my life and that of my wife and children. Yet I’m embarrassed because my personal discomfort is nothing compared to the struggles some people are facing in our community – people such as those who lined up Aug. 5 for that most basic of necessities: food.

I’m frustrated that we didn’t get to properly celebrate the accomplishments of our youngest son, Kekoa, who graduated from UW-Madison at the age of 19 after completing his degree in just two years. Instead of marching into Camp Randall to accept his degree in mathematics and economics, Kekoa stared at a computer screen and watched a commencement speaker make an address from his kitchen table.

I’m frustrated because our middle son, Bret Jr., worked hard to graduate from college in three years and earn an enormous scholarship from Michigan State College of Law, only to be told just four days after he arrived in Michigan that his classes were all moving online.

I’m frustrated because our middle daughter, Nalani, moved into her freshman dorm at UW-La Crosse but has to remain largely isolated from other students. I’m frustrated because our youngest daughter, Malia, is attending her junior year of high school online from a lonely corner of our house.

The list of my frustrations goes on and on. My wife, Cari, and I didn’t play volleyball this summer. We can’t spend Sunday mornings with our church family. Our trips to Florida, Texas and South Carolina were all canceled. Our weekly trivia night with friends over dinner and beer at the Brick Lot is a distant memory.

But my family is incredibly lucky compared to many others. We are not one of the 6 million Americans who have contracted the virus. My wife and I were not furloughed from work, nor are we among the 40 million people who have lost their job. There are many people whose lives have been disrupted in ways far more profound than anything my family has endured.

That day at the fairgrounds, 500 people received food from the coalition. A week later, the coalition set up another food-distribution event in Sister Bay for families in northern Door County. It has been doing this all summer long. The coalition (FeedDoorCounty.org), in partnership with United Way, has been hosting food-distribution events at various locations for several months. These massive efforts are coordinated by people who are far more organized than I am, so when I do attend, I simply try not to get in the way.

At one of these events, the coalition ran out of food, so I was asked to speak with families that we had to turn away. I told an older woman whose husband had dementia that we couldn’t help them that day. I told a young woman with three small children in the back seat of a very old car that we had run out of food. She broke down crying.

As frustrating as COVID-19 is to me, I cannot fathom how frustrating this health and economic crisis is for those who aren’t as lucky and privileged as I am.

Although July and August have been strong months in tourism, Door County got a late start. It also seems likely that far fewer buses with leaf-seeking visitors will be here this fall. The most recent Door County unemployment rate was almost three times normal. Many local families that live off seasonal wages won’t earn enough this summer to carry them through the winter.

It’s unrealistic for me to feel no frustration about the many life experiences that this virus is stealing from my family. Yet I must also remember how comfortable my life truly is. Although it’s beyond my power to solve my family’s small frustrations, it is completely within my power to help alleviate the much bigger struggles that many in our community face.

Please join me by giving to the Door County Emergency Response Fund (RespondDoorCounty.org). As a partnership between the Door County Community Foundation and United Way, the Emergency Response Fund creates and supports projects such as the Food Pantry Coalition and the Rental Assistance Program (RentReliefDoorCounty.org). As the weather turns cold and jobs dwindle, we will face a very difficult off-season. We can get through it if we support one another as a community.

This column was written by Bret Bicoy, the President and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation and originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.

Think About Who’s Asking You to Wear a Mask

Pretend for a moment that the governor did not issue an order requiring everyone in Wisconsin wear a mask. Imagine that you’ve never heard of Dr. Fauci, and the president doesn’t tweet. Consider a world with no talking heads on cable news fostering division to drum up ratings, and no politicians exploiting the pandemic for partisan political purposes.

In this imaginary world, COVID-19 is still here, but the only people you can hear from are the health professionals around you.

In that simpler and quieter existence, how would you respond if your friends at Door County Medical Center told you that wearing a mask will dramatically reduce the spread of the virus in Door County? What would you do if your neighbors at Door County Public Health asked you to wear a mask because it protects vulnerable people around you?

During our evening exercise walk through Sturgeon Bay, my lovely wife and I regularly cross paths with the CEO of our hospital. Every day, we walk by the home of our public-health officer. These aren’t Washington politicians or Madison bureaucrats. They are Door County folks whom we know personally. They and their colleagues are the same people whom my wife and I have been trusting to look after our family’s health for many years.

I suspect that in this imaginary world, the hyperbole and vitriol that have characterized the wearing of masks would quickly come to an end. There would be no politics involved. It would just be our friends and neighbors – who also happen to be our trusted health professionals – telling us that if everyone wears a mask, we will dramatically reduce the spread of the virus and keep our vulnerable friends and neighbors safe.

Still, if only a handful of us wear a mask, nothing will happen. It takes all of us to act if we’re going to accomplish our goal of eradicating this virus. And there’s something beautiful about the symmetry of this truth: The path to protecting the Door County community requires us to come together in a spirit of community and take collective action as a united community.

We human beings are at our very best when we support one another. Working for the Door County Community Foundation, every day I see generous people doing incredible things to improve this community.

The most obvious form of generosity is the money they give to help others. For instance, at the Community Foundation, our Emergency Response Fund has received about $800,000 in contributions that are now being used to provide food, pay rent and help families that are struggling during this global pandemic and the resulting recession. (You can learn more at RespondDoorCounty.org.) But generosity isn’t limited by your ability to write a big check.

We all know about the heroism of emergency responders: the professionals we count on to be on the front line of any crisis. During this crisis, our community has also been blessed with “everyday responders”: ordinary people who have stepped forward to volunteer and help however they can. Everyday responders have been delivering meals, staffing food pantries, taking care of kids, sewing face masks and doing many other selfless things to keep our community strong.

Yet perhaps the simplest form of generosity is ultimately the one that will have the most dramatic effect on our community – but only if we all do it together as a community. It’s the simple act of wearing a mask.

Goodness knows that I don’t know about the legality or constitutionality of the governor’s order requiring all of us to wear a mask. I do suspect that if it’s constitutional for a government to require me to wear pants so that the community is spared from having to look at my private parts, it’s probably also constitutional for the government to require me to wear a mask so that the community is spared from any virus I might spread. But hey, what do I know?

Regardless, wearing a mask isn’t about legality, or constitutionality, or even liberty. Wearing a mask is about community. It’s an act of generosity. Wearing a mask is each of us doing our part to keep our community safe.

This article, written by Door County Community Foundation President and CEO Bret Bicoy, originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse.