Fundraisers foresee busiest season with the tightest budgets
I’ll never forget my first CIAC fundraising party: There was cheap beer, costumes, a killer bluegrass band and, of course, swag. I saw old friends, met new ones, made plans for the coming season. Sure, I didn’t score the airbag pack I’d had my eyes on during the raffle, but when I stumbled out of the bar that night I was filled with the warm fuzzy feeling of being part of a community of people looking out for one another (and, of course, I was a little buzzed from the beer…).
But this winter, avalanche fundraising parties and in-person events are going the way of all social gatherings in the Covid age: either online or not at all. And this is making the organizations who raise funds for forecasting centers a little nervous.
“We are expecting it to be the busiest year we’ve ever had while also being one of the most challenging years financially for the organization,” Chad Brackelsberg, Executive Director of the Utah Avalanche Center, said in an interview last week.
In-person events, which typically occur in fall, early winter and late spring, make up 25% of the UAC’s annual budget. That money goes directly toward forecasting, education and awareness. Revenue from the UAC’s yearly Backcountry Benefit — an event which usually brings in $100k alone — makes up 12% of that budget. In other words, says Brackelsberg, those events are “critical for the sustainability of our organization.”
Friends of CAIC, the fundraising partner for the government run CAIC, is seeing a similarly dim outlook on the season. Though the organization gained Dynafit and Pomoca as principal sponsors this year, they lost the big budget The North Face. Live events — which typically make up 26% of their annual revenue — will be cancelled this fall with no clear outlook on the spring. This reduction of revenue will have a direct impact on the funding Friends of CAIC can support CAIC with, which goes to forecaster salaries, technological support (including that handy CAIC app we all use), and education and outreach.
Because of cuts associated with the above, Friends is budgeted to give CAIC 50% of what they did last year. “Due to CAIC’s reserve funds, their forecasting operations will retain its operation budget for this year,” Friends Executive Director Aaron Carlson assured me in an interview, “but the Friends of CAIC will have to cut funding to technology advances and education programming.”
This comes at a time when avalanche forecasting could meet its most crucial moment. Whether resorts open at full capacity, half-capacity or don’t open at all, it’s likely people are still going to seek their snowy fix in settings where social distancing is easier. And if last March is any indication, they’ll do so in the backcountry.
“What we saw last year when the ski areas closed was an influx of backcountry users. I’m fully expecting to see a dramatic increase this fall and winter,” says Carlson. “With so much uncertainty with ski area operations, I think people will continue pushing into the backcountry or will start to consider going into the backcountry.”
Brackelsberg echoed the sentiment. “When the resorts closed in March, we saw a massive growth in backcountry use, almost overnight. We are expecting the same and talking with gear manufacturers. They’re expecting and predicting the same type of growth.”
“We anticipate there to be a huge demand for backcountry resources this season,” he continued. “How we reach these new users get the word out to deliver this messaging and resources is going to be more important than ever before.”
That’s not to say all is lost for fundraising events this fall. The UAC is charging ahead with a Covid-friendly version of its annual Backcountry Benefit, scheduled to take place on September 10. Rather than having the typical 1000 person gathering, the event will be a combination of livestream and community parties hosted by shops, brands, other organizations and civilian supporters. Party hosts can buy ticket packages for gatherings of up to 16 people that offer coolers, raffle opportunities and swag characteristic of the in-person event.
Friends will host its annual CSAW as well as the Backcountry Snow and Avalanche Workshop. Both are offered as virtual programs that feature similar content as years prior, with the exception that participants needn’t leave the couch. They will also offer some variation of their annual CAIC Benefit Bash, though the details on that are still emerging.
This season, Friends is also debuting a membership program. “The membership will give people the opportunity to directly invest in their own safety and have a voice in avalanche safety throughout Colorado,” says Carlson. It will be similar to an Access Fund membership in terms of benefits and will open later this fall.
Both organizations will continue to contribute to Know Before You Go programming, which also is being adapted for Covid times. The program, which is now available in over 35 countries, will include pre-recorded talks, livestream events and an e-learning component to allow courses to be completed in a virtual setting. The online program will remain free. Any in-person on-snow sessions offered through the UAC will have low student to instructor ratios to manage distancing.
Carlson stressed that despite reduced budgets, backcountry users can count on the daily forecast to assist in decision making. “Our overall goal is pretty clear for the season: we want to maintain funding for the CAIC at a level that will allow them to provide the same level of service the people of Colorado have come to appreciate and rely on.”
Parties or no parties, that’s something to appreciate.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.