No Gala, No Problem

El Rio Foundation Embraces Creativity for Fundraising Success

By Rodney Campbell

When COVID-19 hit the country last spring, El Rio Health faced a pair of daunting challenges.

The clinical side had to pivot to a new telehealth platform to keep people safe and offer options for care. 

El Rio also performed more than 28,000 COVID-19 tests in about eight months, most of them done by drive-up. More than half of those were for El Rio’s patients and more than 4,500 people tested positive.

“It was hard for our providers and health teams on the frontlines, working long hours and putting themselves at risk,” said Brenda Goldsmith, executive director of El Rio Foundation.

The pandemic also made the team’s fundraising efforts more challenging. Their duties, which often involve face-to-face meetings and tours of the clinics, had to drastically change because of social distancing measures. There were no big events and only limited contact with donors. But private dollars were still sorely needed so patients could be served.

“The conversation started early with our board about whether we needed to pivot,” said Goldsmith, who has been with El Rio for 16 years. “Fairly quickly, when the pandemic hit, we got emails and calls from existing donors, particularly foundations and several new donors, asking if we needed help.”

Coincidentally, last year was El Rio’s 50th anniversary. The center had big plans, including a gala that would have drawn hundreds of donors and significant support. Goldsmith quickly went to work with volunteers and staff to find alternatives once it became necessary to cancel large in-person gatherings.

Foundation staff and volunteers set up crowdfunding pages, and board members hosted mini-fiestas, social media live activities and a virtual gala. Combined with other major donations and challenge gifts, donors gave $750,000. 

“We were grateful that the community helped us,” Goldsmith said. “I’m proud to say that 95% of our donors have stayed with us through the pandemic.”

The fundraisers helped El Rio Health fulfill one of its goals: purchasing a former Wells Fargo branch at Grant Road and Dodge Boulevard. The price tag was $1.8 million with improvements expected to cost another $13 million. With no federal funds for this new clinic, support from donors and foundations, a low-cost loan and clinic revenues are critical.

When it opens, the new clinic will be a 30,600-square-foot medical and behavioral health center with a laboratory, radiology services, a pharmacy and dental care. It will serve 4,000 people.

“We have been focused on raising money for the new building and direct care for uninsured,” Goldsmith said. “The needs are great. We have 300 people a week trying to establish care at El Rio.”

El Rio Health is still busy coping with COVID-19, and the foundation is continually searching for ways to engage with donors at a distance, using Zoom calls, testimonials, texts, emails, social media and cards.

In a twist, Goldsmith has had children of board members make personalized posters for El Rio’s busy healthcare providers. Goldsmith and her team visited the clinic on Congress Street to hand out the mementos to grateful recipients.

“I am very proud of the foundation team and the board,” said Kate Breck Calhoun, president of the foundation board. “It is wonderful to see the team come together in different ways to reach new and existing donors to support El Rio’s mission and patients in need.”

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