Pandemic fuels innovation at this Hamilton nonprofit


Published October 28, 2020 at 5:00 pm

For many organizations in the not-for-profit world, pivoting around a global pandemic has proven incredibly challenging, but one grassroots Hamilton-based agency has proven time and again how to adapt with grace and great success.

Hamilton’s Cancer Assistance Program (CAP) has continued throughout 2020 to provide their specialized services, albeit much scaled back, to cancer patients who are among the most at-risk when it comes to COVID-19.

“I’m really proud to say that through all of this, we’ve been able to continue to service cancer patients in our community,” said Debbie Logel Butler, CAP’s executive director.

“Our clients have told us how much it means to them that we’ve kept going and that feedback is what pumps our tires.”

For an agency that depends solely on in-person fundraising events and donations, figuring out a way to adapt to the new reality that the pandemic presented was vital.

When CAP’s offices were forced to close in March, just weeks away from one of their biggest fundraisers of the year — the CARE Walk that is usually held at Bayfront Park — the staff and committee came together (from a distance) to figure out a way to salvage the event and equip CAP with the tools to weather the storm and continue to support their clients.

Pivoting in a pandemic

The team, with the support of a small group of volunteers, developed the ‘Drive to Deliver’ program that brought food and some essentials to the doorstep of cancer patients across the city and beyond.

They also managed to keep their home health equipment loan service going throughout 2020, in fact, they were able to provide home-care equipment safely to hundreds of patients being released from hospital.

“Through all of this, donors have really stepped up to help,” Logel Butler told InTheHammer. “There has been a lot of support all across the community.”

Collyer Benson Capital, Hamilton Community Foundation, Johnston Chrysler, FirstOntario Credit Union, Zarky’s and so many others provided support in a variety of ways, from helping to launch the ‘Drive to Deliver’ program and event sponsorship.

Ashlee Leggett, CAP’s manager of fund development, said they looked at what other non-profits were doing to make up for the drastic changes in the sector and saw the opportunity to host the event virtually.

“At the time, we didn’t know what to expect,” Leggett said of the decision to pivot into unfamiliar territory.

“It turned out to be the best Walk to date.”

The virtual event raised tens of thousands of dollars more than CAP’s initial goal.

Rising to the challenge

Although this was quite a boon for a grassroots agency, CAP still struggled with one major component of their fundraising strategy: third-party fundraisers and private donations.

“”The restrictions placed on gatherings of all kinds hugely impacted revenue coming in,” Leggett said. “Also, people are really challenged right now and don’t feel right about asking for donations.”

These third-party events account for a major portion of CAP’s total revenue, so while the Walk helped address shortages, there was still more that was needed.

In September, CAP’s annual Golf Classic fundraiser was held at a much lower capacity and the celebration that typically follows the event was cancelled.

“We did very well considering the circumstances,” said Logel Butler. “Everyone was so generous.”

The biggest change, however, has been to the event that is traditionally CAP’s biggest fundraiser of the year: the annual Gala.

An evening out…at home

This is the night of the year where everyone gets gussied up and gets together to wine and dine in style. The event typically features guest speakers, a live auction, entertainment and a catered meal.

For obvious reasons, this was not possible in 2020. So now, the event has pivoted in grand style to be delivered virtually on Thursday Nov. 12 from 7 to 8 p.m.

“Of all three events, this is the most drastic change,” said Leggett. “It’s almost like we’re movie producers. It’s a completely different world for us.”

Rebranded as ‘There’s No Place Like Home Virtual Gala,’ the organizers are striving to recreate an evening out for viewers at home.

The event will instead offer a silent auction — which will be open online starting Nov. 8 — and will feature remarks from CAP’s staff, board of directors and event sponsors as well as testimonials from volunteers and clients, as well as the traditional Mystery Envelope Raffle, which typically sells out quick.

This year, the event will also feature performances by Hamilton’s own COVID Elvis.

“We are nervous about this event but hopeful,” Leggett said, noting that more work has gone into creating this virtual event than any event they have done before.

“It’s exciting and new and we’re really working together to make this happen. We’re trailblazing.”

To really ramp up the at-home experience, CAP is offering a VIP Experience Bundle for $150.

The bundle for two will include bottles of wine, craft beer, charcuterie, gourmet popcorn and nuts, bundt cakes, a candle and blanket, a promo code for Equal Parts Hospitality take out, a tote bag and tax receipt. The sale of the VIP bundle is limited and wraps up on Monday Nov. 2.

“Usually, people buy tables for the Gala,” Logel Butler said. “This year you can still get together with those people for an intimate viewing party or maybe over Zoom.”

While both Logel Butler and Leggett say they’re nervous about the turnout the night of the gala, they’re confident that the experience of organizing it during a pandemic has only made CAP more resilient for what’s yet to come.

Forging ahead

“We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights,” Logel Butler said. “This is the way of the future and it’s been exciting to look at how to do things differently.”

“Our board of directors has supported us every step of the way,” added Leggett, noting that with such a steep learning curve for everything they’ve done this year, that unconditional and unquestioning support has been a comfort.

“We’ve had no choice but to forge ahead, like everyone else. Everyone’s been rallying around us and it goes to show that everyone in this together.”

To find out more about Hamilton’s Cancer Assistance Program and their upcoming Virtual Gala, visit their website or give them a follow on Instagram.

The Gala is free to watch and will be available to watch for several weeks following the live-streamed event.

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