'Biggest challenge we’ve ever faced': How B.C. non-profits survived COVID-19 and at what price

Restrictions on live events have had a devastating impact on theatres and other non-profits - which count on in-person galas for a good chunk of their fundraising dollars. Kristen Robinson looks at how some have survived and at what price, in the final instalment of the casualties of COVID.

For the first time in 20 months, the Arts Club Theatre Company opened its marquee venue to the public on Nov. 18, with a new twist on a holiday classic.

The Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage’s 620 seats had been empty since the start of the pandemic – before Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol kicked off the theatre company’s 2021/2022 season.

COVID-19 is the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced,” executive director Peter Cathie White told Global News.

Western Canada’s largest theatre company cancelled more than 20 productions before becoming one of the first in the country to resume live performances – with one-actor shows, strict pandemic protocols and audiences of 50 in September 2020.

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“We usually employ between 300 to 500 artists every year and we went down to like 20,” said Cathie White.

With revenue down 92 per cent, the non-profit relied on subsidies, fundraising and its rainy day fund to stave off up to $5 million in losses this season.

“This was the rainiest day that you could imagine for the arts,” Cathie White added.

As B.C.’s biggest artist employer, the Arts Club Theatre Company scheduled only five productions in 2021/2022 so it would have the ability to sustain any further losses.

Restrictions on capacity limits for organized gatherings and live events have had a devastating impact on theatres and other non-profits, which count on in-person galas for a large chunk of their fundraising dollars.

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“More than 60 per cent of our revenue declined last year with the virtual galas,” said Denise Praill of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice.

Down over $1 million, the non-profit which serves more than 800 children and families as the province’s only pediatric palliative care provider, worked hard to close the gap on fundraising.

“At Canuck Place we’re the little house that can,” chief development officer Denise Praill told Global News.

“Our team has been incredibly creative over the past 18 months.”

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Canuck Place Children’s Hospice launched a successful 50/50 raffle and managed to raise more than $1.5 million with its 17th annual Gift of Time Gala on Oct. 30, a hybrid event that welcomed hundreds of guests both virtually and in-person.

The BC Children’s Hospital Foundation paused its three galas and in-person events for two years and turned its Miracle Weekend fundraiser into a virtual storytelling event.

“The care of our children doesn’t pause for a pandemic,” president and CEO Malcolm Berry told Global News.

The non-profit that helps fund the care of nearly 100,000 sick kids a year, was able to combat a seven per cent revenue shortfall with online events, its dream lottery and the support of generous donors.

“I think we’ve worked hard to ensure that the business model is able to weather the really tough challenges like COVID,” said Berry.

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Tickets for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation’s 35th anniversary Crystal Ball on Nov. 20, which offered an in-person and at-home experience – sold out except for the $500 virtual-only option.

Like other non-profits, the Arts Club Theatre Company is hoping the recent easing of restrictions in much of the province to allow 100 per cent capacity at indoor events and theatres where the BC Vaccine Card is in place – will help stage a comeback.

The Stanley Theatre's marquee ahead of the first performance of 'Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol'.

The Stanley Theatre's marquee ahead of the first performance of 'Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol'.

Global News

“We saw a big surge in ticket sales when people realized that everyone around them was also going to be double vaccinated,” said Cathie White.

“It means a path forward, it means that there is a future.”

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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