Social Distancing Creates Challenges for Volunteer Fire/EMS Fundraising

The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has been hearing from members who are having difficulty with fundraising in light of social distancing restrictions that are in place across the country to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many fire, EMS, and rescue departments host community events as a means of raising money to pay for needed equipment, training, vehicles, and other operational needs.

According to the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) 2015 Fire Service Needs Assessment report, fundraising makes up 15 percent of the budgets of volunteer fire departments protecting communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer residents. There are more than 14,000 such fire departments throughout the country, and the NFPA report found that there are volunteer fire departments of all sizes that rely on private fundraising to some degree.

Fundraising struggles are starting to be reported on in detail by local news outlets. On March 26, Pittsburgh’s Action 4 News reported that the inability to fundraise was causing a “financial crisis at volunteer fire departments” in the area that had been forced to cancel activities like bingo, hall rentals, and Lenten fish fry. On March 20, ABC 27 News reported that volunteer fire departments near Harrisburg, PA, are having similar struggles.

Inability to fundraise is a more critical problem for some volunteer emergency services agencies than others, depending on how they are organized. Although the largest source of funding for volunteer fire departments nationwide is local tax revenue, many private, nonprofit agencies receive little funding from local governments and are almost entirely reliant on donations.

The downturn in revenue comes at a particularly challenging time for agencies that are also experiencing an increase in call volumes due to COVID-19. 55 percent of fire departments protecting communities with populations of 2,500 or fewer residents provide at least Basic Life Support EMS, and many of the remaining 45 percent provide Emergency Medical Response services. On average, fire departments in more populous communities are more likely to provide EMS.

Departments have ways to raise money using means other than community gatherings, including by soliciting for individual or corporate donations online or through direct mail campaigns. Social media can be a particularly effective, low-cost means of raising funds. However, with private businesses experiencing revenue declines and millions of Americans getting laid off, furloughed, or having their hours reduced in recent weeks, the environment for fundraising can be challenging. Additionally, putting together a new fundraising campaign in the midst of higher call volume demands is not an easy task.

On the bright side, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which was recently enacted, will provide payments to most taxpayers of $1,200 for single filers, $2,400 for joint filers, and $500 per child. While many recipients will use that money to make up for lost income, or save it to guard against potential future loss of income, at least some people receiving checks have not experienced any reduction in pay or benefits and may be looking for opportunities to donate to people or organizations that are in need. Additionally, many retailers like grocery stores have seen revenues increase in recent weeks and may be reasonably inclined to help local emergency services organizations that need assistance. The CARES Act encourages donations to charitable organizations in 2020 by permitting non-itemizing taxpayers to deduct up to $300 of cash contributions from their taxes and increasing limitations on deductions for individuals and corporations that do itemize.

A thread was created last year in the NVFC’s Volunteer Voices member forum to share fundraising ideas that have proven successful. An article outlining some of the ideas posted in that thread was published on October 7, 2019. A new thread on fundraising challenges specifically related to social distancing was started on March 27. Join the conversations to share ideas with fellow responders from across the country.