A feeling of uncertainty and the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic are inextricably connected.
This uncertainty, as many might attest to, felt particularly strong at the beginning of March, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced a stay-at-home order and other pandemic-related restrictions to mitigate the spread of the virus. How long was this going to last?
By necessity, businesses locally and nationwide, depending on their area of focus, had to close their doors or, if they were able to, revise operations to ensure the safety of customers and employees.
Still, small businesses allowed to stay open were not universally prepared to not only rethink operations but also face seismic — potentially even damning — losses of revenue.
Akin to most small communities, Mercer Island and its residents were immediately anxious about what the short-and long-term impacts of the pandemic would be on the local business community.
Such concerns are in part what led Mercer Island Community Fund (MICF) members to start brainstorming what could be done to help endangered businesses. Chamber of commerce president Laurie Givan and other members of the organization were among those who soon joined fund personnel in planning, which, according to MICF president Erin Krawiec, started “maybe a week after the shelter-in-place orders came out.”
Several hours-long Zoom meetings a week for a short period eventually led organizers to cook up the WeLoveMI COVID-19-relief campaign, of which Krawiec is the leader and which officially launched April 15.
Inspired by Seattle’s All In campaign and other business-fundraising efforts both local and nationwide, WeLoveMI campaign members encouraged small businesses in the city to set up a GoFundMe page. On it, they would detail what their needs were and how donations would be deployed if received.
Then, a WeLoveMI website created by students of the Mercer Island High School’s International Entrepreneurship class went live. It aggregated all participating businesses and nonprofits on Mercer Island, with links to their donation pages.
The class, among other things, was also in charge of setting up advertising signage throughout the Island, writing press releases and updating social media in lieu of their canceled end-of-year Jogathon project. Students were organized into various “teams.” They got connected with WeLoveMI because their teacher, Jen McLellan, is a member of the MICF.
“They were searching; ‘what are we going to do?’” Krawiec explained. “The timing worked out perfectly. A light bulb went on. Jen said, ‘You know what? My class is searching for a project, and this is perfect.’ Everybody got excited.”
The ease with which business owners were able to start a GoFundMe page varied. Some difficulties arose for those with limited technology access or English skills, for example. Givan worked to ensure she was an accessible resource to community business owners facing these sorts of obstacles, regardless of if they were part of the city’s chamber of commerce. WeLoveMI efforts were highlighted in weekly chamber emails; there was further collaboration with the city’s business liaison.
“When we launched the campaign, we didn’t launch it as final,” Givan added. “People were still allowed to put in their application and be a part of it after the launch.”
A concentrated push for donations came on May 22, advertised across Mercer Island as “WeLoveMI Day.” On the 22nd, residents were encouraged to donate $22 (or some variation on the number, from $220 to $2,200) to their favorite local business. The city council additionally proclaimed support of the day-specific effort at a meeting.
“We wanted to be conscious that a lot of people are struggling right now with layoffs or frozen salaries, loss of bonuses — there’s a lot of financial challenges,” professional fund-raiser and recently appointed MICF board member Sharon Perez said of the May 22 push. “We wanted to keep it at an approachable level. So we thought $22 was something every household could do. And then if people were in a position that they could do more, then they could make a gift to multiple organizations, multiple businesses and nonprofits in the campaign.”
“It’s helped me pay my bills”
As of mid-June, some 26 businesses have benefited from WeLoveMI efforts. Across these 26 businesses, some $117,000 has been raised.
A release from the campaign noted that all participating businesses hit the $500 eligibility mark needed to receive a matching GoFundMe grant. Five exceeded their initial desired campaign amount.
WeLoveMI campaign organizers singled out the city’s rotary club as being its biggest supporter: in total, it gave about $26,000.
“They didn’t have to — they were not asked to do that,” Givan said. “They saw this campaign and they wanted to be a part of it.”
For many businesses, the WeLoveMI campaign’s efforts kept them steady for the time being. In an interview with the Reporter conducted earlier in June, Ginny Pietila, the owner of the Mercer Island Athletic Club, credited WeLoveMI for helping her business stay afloat.
“It was phenomenal,” Pietila said, adding, “It’s helped me pay my bills; the bills unfortunately don’t stop when you close…[the WeLoveMI campaign] was and still is amazingly helpful, and we’re just unbelievably grateful for that entire campaign. It just knocked our socks off how generous this community is to all the small businesses, all the nonprofits.”
This was echoed by Loann Nguyen of Mercer Nails and Spa, who additionally voiced thanks to Givan’s guidance.
“Laurie was so wonderful helping me get my GoFundMe set up,” Nguyen said in a WeLoveMI release. “Her helping me made a big difference in our ability to survive the period when we were closed. I’m very thankful to her.”
WeLoveMI campaign personnel are aware that while their efforts have significantly contributed to a business’s security, there is an understanding that the campaign can only do so much.
Still, organizers were heartened by the community support, as well as the strengthening of relationships with businesses.
“The most rewarding [thing] has been being able to work with some of our small businesses. People don’t realize the struggles they are going through right now,” Givan said. “Just getting in the trenches with these businesses and seeking the look on their face, and hearing it on their voice when I’m talking to them on the phone and even when we’re exchanging emails — they’re concerned, they’re stressed, they’re panicked. Really just hoping to provide a little glimmer of light…it’s been very gratifying to work with these businesses. They are just wonderful people that are part of our community — they might not [all] live on Mercer Island, but they’re here every single day serving.”
“It’s been humbling to have something that I could be involved in that I know is having a positive effect on our community,” Perez said, adding that in her 25 years of working in various sectors, from nonprofits to government, she has not seen a campaign come together as seamlessly as WeLoveMI’s.
Although WeLoveMI is wrapping up its more prominent promotional efforts for now, campaign personnel noted that this doesn’t mean collaborating businesses are now on steady financial ground.
“[Certain] businesses have gotten over $10,000 of community support, but we recognize that $10,000 may not be the total amount a business needs to stay afloat,” Perez said.
On June 19, Inslee announced that King County was approved to move into Phase 2 of his gradual approach to safely reopening the state. Even if this offers some rewards, it still poses numerous financial obstacles, given that businesses are typically not receiving assistance for costsincurred by supplemental health-mandate-related expenses.
“They’re actually having to invest quite a bit of money in buying all these things that they need for safety,” Krawiec said.
If coronavirus cases ramp up within the next few months, potentially bringing on a shut-down like the one seen earlier this year, WeLoveMI personnel say they are prepared to kick promotion back up.
“We have a really committed leadership team,” Krawiec said. “We definitely want to see the goal through. For us, the mission was to keep our business community thriving, our nonprofits thriving — to make sure that Mercer Island remains a place we all love to live. If that happens, then yeah — we’ll be there for our community.”