For the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a financial toll on many types of businesses and industries, including fire departments that typically hold annual fundraising events to raise the money needed for bills, new PPE, equipment, fuel, etc. Many of the popular and most successful money-raising events are held in person with large crowds, but in 2020 departments had to cancel their community events like summer barbecues, carnival events, chili cook-offs, and pancake feeds. Cancelled events that typically raise thousands of dollars can be a big blow to fire departments, especially volunteer departments that rely on those funds to pay the bills. Some departments are struggling to survive because of it.
Many agencies have had to change and adapt the way they do things this past year, and despite the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations, the social distancing requirements still in place in many states means fundraising efforts will remain challenging in 2021. Here are some ideas your department may want to try to get around those challenges and raise the funds you need this year:
- Host a drive-thru pancake feed: In previous years, Kearney Volunteer Fire Department’s pancake feed fundraiser has been one of their big events, bringing in crowds averaging 1,500 people. They didn’t want to cancel the event this past October (like they had to do for their holiday dance and county fair bingo stand in 2020), so they turned it into a drive-thru event by masking up, donning gloves, and handing out to-go boxes with pancakes, syrup, sausage, and coffee or juice.
- Hold a food truck rally: Lower Burrell Volunteer Fire Company No. 3 missed out on thousands of dollars by not being able to hold their annual weeklong Fireman’s Carnival, but then they decided to try something new – a food truck rally with 10 different food trucks – and were surprised by how lucrative it was. According to President Mike Ogurchock, they made more money in one day than they did in a full week of their carnival event.
- Take your Bingo Night online: If your annual bingo night typically brings in the big bucks, you may not want to cancel the event entirely. Try turning it into a virtual bingo event using video conferencing software like Zoom to take the place of your in-person venue. Find some tips on hosting a virtual bingo event here. (Be sure to check your state’s gaming laws to ensure you’re in compliance). An online event may not bring in as much cash as the in-person event, but at least you’ll be making more than if you cancel the event entirely. Some fire departments have had success turning their gun bashes, purse bashes, and auctions into virtual events.
- Play it safe with a car wash: Holding a summertime car wash event is a great way to get your community to stop by the station, maintain social distancing guidelines, and contribute money toward their local fire department. A car wash is quick and easy to set up, and with people staying in their cars, it’s already a “socially distanced” event by nature.
- Go virtual with your raffle: Some fire departments are successfully raising money with raffles held via Facebook Live. Sutersville Fire Department lost about $30,000 after having to cancel two fundraisers and close its social hall, but they were able to recoup some of their losses with a Facebook Live raffle, which became “instantly popular”.
- Offer department-branded merchandise: Raise money year-round by offering custom merchandise. Community members will love to support their local fire department by wearing your department’s logo on t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and even masks.
- Get creative! Think outside of the box. What can you do you that will be fun for your community and help get people to open up their wallets? How can you take your normally successful events and turn them into an online or socially-distanced version that complies with your state’s COVID-19 guidelines?
Aside from fundraising events, here are few other ways that departments are getting much-needed funds during this time:
- Applying for grants: Check out https://www.usfa.fema.gov/grants/ for fire service grants offered by the U.S. Fire Administration. Check out Emergency Reporting’s Grant Resources page at https://emergencyreporting.com/grants/ and the free “How to Get More Grant Funding” white paper.
- Raising funds from private sector sources (private foundations, corporate donations, and public/private partnerships)
- Direct solicitation of community members: depending on the type of community you’re in, you may have success with door-to-door solicitation or doing direct mail fundraising to ask for donations.
- Finding a “Sugar Daddy”: Yes, you read that right. Although in this case, the “sugar daddy” isn’t always an old rich guy. According to Firehouse.com, “your sugar daddy could be an industry or a corporation, a high-profile individual in the community or the quiet older lady down the street from the fire station. Whatever the source, the only way these blessings are found is by keeping your ear to the ground and asking the right question at the right time.” When a department is lucky enough to have this so-called “sugar daddy”, the article says it’s usually because the organization “was visible, had a legitimate need, and had leadership aggressively pursuing alternate avenues of funding.”
Get more ideas from the U.S. Fire Administration’s “Funding Alternatives for Fire and Emergency Medical Services.”
Without knowing what’s in store for the coming months as far as the pandemic goes, it can make planning this year’s fundraisers difficult. But being able to get creative with your events, learning how to play things by ear, and having the ability to “pivot” and adjust plans if necessary, means that you can still have successful fundraisers during this challenging time. Who knows, you may end up finding new ways to do things that are even better than what you’ve done in the past.
Photo c/o Cortland Fire Department (IL)