BIG SKY – Leaders from the Big Sky nonprofit community gathered online for the 11th installment of EBS’s Big Sky Virtual Town Hall to discuss operating during the pandemic, and how they’ve been meeting greater community needs with fewer resources.
“The interesting thing about our organization is…since the pandemic has hit, we’ve actually been dealing with higher use and resources than we’ve ever seen before and we’re doing it on less resources,” said Big Sky Community Organization CEO Ciara Wolfe. Wolfe said that trail use increases have ranged from 25-350 percent, parks are often occupied and during Montana’s shelter-in-place, 14,000 people participated in their virtual community programming that offered things like online cooking classes and kid’s activities.
Similarly, the Big Sky Community Food Bank, which typically recounts the greatest need during the fall, reported servicing the community this spring three times more than they usually do in the spring, surpassing even the fall counts.
“While it was shocking to happen in the spring, it wasn’t something that we were unused to,” said Sarah Gaither-Bivins, operations manager and services navigator for the BSCFB. Gaither Bivins said that while this year hasn’t yet come in with the highest numbers, anecdotally, clients of the food bank have been distinguishably more fearful due to factors like housing and income insecurity.
“By the numbers…2017 has been the worst year for people, this spring has been the scariest for people,” she said.
Jean Behr from Women in Action shared the collaborative efforts that WIA has been a part of over the past four months with a particular emphasis on behavioral health needs, which have spiked since the start of the pandemic. WIA, in addition to working on community programming with BSCO, provided two months of free mental health counseling and continues to work with interested individuals on sliding scales.
“We don’t believe that it’s enough just to offer access to mental healthcare, but we need to ensure that it’s affordable to all,” Behr said.
The Gallatin River Task Force has also taken on additional work with a recently filed lawsuit claiming that elevated nutrient levels in the water around the wastewater holding ponds is due to a leak. As part of a 20-year contract that GRTF has had with the Department of Environmental Quality, the task force monitors this part of the Westfork watershed. According to Kristin Gardner, executive director of GRTF, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center’s claim that the ponds are leaking is “in fact likely not the case.”
Even with the increase of services, organizations are left with their standard, if not sub-standard, budgets. Gardner said that even after significantly reducing its request, GRTF’s resort tax award was still well under their ask. BSCO also stated that their resort tax request was dramatically reduced this year.
Many of these organizations historically rely heavily on fundraising opportunities, most of which have been stunted. GRTF’s annual fundraiser Hooked on the Gallatin, usually a banquet hosted at the Gallatin Riverhouse Grill, will be a week-long virtual auction event this year from August 7-14.
“We anticipate we will have less income from the banquet this year but hoping to make enough to get by,” Gardner said. To compensate for the funding disparity, Gardner said the task force has been writing more grants, which takes more time and management.
“We need to survive and we definitely want to make sure that the Gallatin is there for our future generations and so we’ll do what we can to make it work,” Gardner said.
BSCO also has an adapted version of their usual Parks, Trails and Recreation Celebration, with a week’s worth of honoring BSCO’s community outdoor spaces. Throughout the week, BSCO will be offering guided hikes, selling raffle tickets for an e-bike and an online auction. BSCO’s fundraising goal is $150,000, just shy of the $200,000 Wolfe said is typically brought in at the event.
The food bank has also diversified options for support, offering opportunities for interested donors to sponsor families receiving services from the food bank or a specific commodity, such as eggs.
Despite the challenges that these 501(c)(3)s have faced recently, they continue to press forward on their missions to support the community of Big Sky’s people, resources and landscapes.
“[I’ve] always been a big believer in the not-for-profit sector,” said Wolfe. “You listen to your community, you serve your community with what they’re greatest needs are and the resources will somehow fall into place.”