Desert Museum turns to online auction, progams to help offset financial impact of pandemic

Desert Museum turns to online auction, progams to help offset financial impact of pandemic

At a time when “alone together” has taken on new meaning, nonprofits face new challenges — particularly in the fundraising arena.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is turning to an online auction and other innovative virtual endeavors in lieu of its canceled 27th Annual Desert Gala.

“This is our signature event and it was heartbreaking to make the decision to cancel it, but with the COVID-19 pandemic we had no other choice. In order to make lemonade out of sour lemons, we went with an online auction forum so people can enjoy that portion of the gala while safe at home and still supporting the Desert Museum,” said Lynnae Wenker, associate director of philanthropy for the museum.

The online auction, comprised of 150 items, is in progress and will close at 5 p.m. Sunday, April 26.

Wenker is optimistic that the online auction platform will bring the museum increased exposure.

“Normally we have 500 people at the gala, but now we have the potential for thousands of people to have a little fun bidding and hopefully learn more about the museum’s messages of conservation, education and research,” said Wenker.

The auction fundraising goal is at least $30,000 in hopes of offsetting losses from the canceled gala, which typically generates at least $250,000. All funds raised are funneled directly to operating costs for the 98-acre property, which has been voted one of the Top 10 Museums nationwide by TripAdvisor.

Wenker said the museum is renowned for its unique “fusion experience” featuring a zoo with 242 animal species, a botanical garden with more than 56,000 individual specimens, an art gallery, a natural history museum, an aquarium and one of the world’s most comprehensive regional mineral collections. Operating as a nonprofit, it welcomed more than 400,000 visitors last year.

“Many people may not realize that the Desert Museum doesn’t receive any state, federal or tax subsidies. The majority of our support comes through admissions, memberships, other earned incomes and donations. Right now we have zero visitors and since our operating costs are just shy of $29,000 daily, we really need to generate support from the community,” said Kat Rumbley, marketing and group sales manager for the Desert Museum.

Like other Arizona nonprofits, the forced closure during the peak spring tourist season has already taken a very real financial toll on the museum, according to Wenker.

“The last two weeks in March we had $1 million in losses. In response, we have started a $5 million campaign to help see us through to the next fiscal year,” said Wenker.

The campaign was kick-started with a $500,000 leadership gift by the P & M Baldwin Foundation, which inspired a $200,000 gift by Mary Price and Nick Waser.

The museum is also promoting awareness about new 2020 tax benefits through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act will permit taxpayers to deduct up to $300 in cash contributions to charitable organizations, whether they itemize tax deductions or not.

“Essentially, a donation up to $300 is totally tax-deductible on federal income taxes. People can make a donation for basically no cost. The CARES Act is a huge help to nonprofits because it gives people the opportunity to direct funds to charities of their choice,” said Wenker.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also motivated the museum to up its virtual conservation and education game.

It has developed online programming called Discover the Desert featuring 30-minute sessions highlighting plant and animal experts geared toward families. Adults can enjoy Sips with Scientists, a Happy Hour/Comedy session and other educational classes. Most classes are free, but donations are welcome and the programs have brought in more than $2,000 in the past few weeks.

“More than 5,000 people worldwide have participated to date. People from countries around the world are getting involved; many may never have seen a javelina or a saguaro rib and now they are engaged in our messages. These are really neat opportunities and we hope to expand them to collaborate with scientists around the world. We are adapting and will continue to do so after our gates open again,” said Rumbley.

Contact Loni Nannini at

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