The Samaritans of Rhode Island is a nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention and education.  The Pawtucket-based organization is the state's only nonprofit group that dedicates itself exclusively to helping those who are feeling lonely and hopeless. The vast majority of its $130,000 budget is generated through donations and fundraisers.  But when the COVID-19 pandemic forced an economic shutdown back in March, the Samaritan’s Executive Director Denise Panichas says things took a turn for the worst.

"Everything came to a grinding halt, our capital campaign, our special events.  We were in a very difficult place." 

The Samaritans had to change the way they provided their services, which include a suicide prevention hotline and a grief support group.  

"The programs actually suffered because we were not allowed to have a presence in our building.  The hotline volunteers weren't able to go in, we couldn't have our grief support group meet.  We couldn't have our volunteers go into the prisons, I couldn't go into the schools."

In addition to operational challenges because of the health threat, nonprofits like the Samaritans also had to deal with the indefinite postponement of their fundraising efforts.  Many faced immediate budget problems.

On March 17th, the Rhode Island Foundation announced the creation of four COVID-19 relief funds to support individuals and non-profit organizations financially hurt by the pandemic.  Hundreds of individual and corporate donors contributed over $14 million.  The Samaritans received $50,000 in relief funding.  

In a normal year, the Rhode Island Foundation distributes about $56 million in grant money. But it’s generally a longer, more involved process to get funding. What was different about this is that the money was made available immediately.  Here’s Rhode Island Foundation president and CEO Neil Steinberg.

"So this was different for us, this current use, meaning the money comes in, the money goes right back out.  We have a civic leadership fund that we do every year on that, but the magnitude of this was much higher.  So what we saw was an unprecedented response to an immediate need."

The United Way jointly-established one of the COVID-19 relief funds with the Rhode Island Foundation. President and CEO Cortney Nicolato says the response of everyday Rhode Islanders during the pandemic clearly shows that philanthropic groups have a great opportunity to increase their donor base.

"What's really great is we've seen an emergence of new donors to both the United Way and to nonprofit organizations throughout the state.  It's up to the non-profit sector to maintain and cultivate those relationships over time."

Nearly all of initial COVID-19 relief money has been distributed, and nonprofits are beginning to worry about the uncertainties of the year ahead and beyond.  The Samaritan's major fundraiser is the Pell Bridge Run, which is held in the fall.  If that gets cancelled, Denise Panichas says her group could lose up to $25,000.  She says nonprofits as a whole will continue to need financial assistance for quite some time.

"We're all going to have problems for the next couple of years.  This isn't easily fixed.  An awful lot of people are out of work, people who would normally donate.  People who would go to our concerts, fundraisers.  This is going to hurt everyone for awhile."

Norah Diedrich is among those hoping for additional COVID relief fundraising efforts. Diedrich is executive director of the Newport Art Museum.  She’s hoping for specific funding to help arts and cultural organizations across the state stay alive.

"I think we're going to need it.  If a second wave hits, it could be fatal for a number of organizations."

Neil Steinberg says he understands that the economic impact of COVID-19 may require the Rhode Island Foundation to establish more special funds in the fall.  But he says his group and other philanthropic organizations are already talking about that.  In fact, he believes the pandemic may have laid the groundwork for a new kind of philanthropy, one that involves more people giving money to help with immediate needs.

Joe Tasca can be reached at jtasca@ripr.org