CHEBEAGUE ISLAND — Summer is fundraising season for thousands of Maine nonprofits. The uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic – the duration of sheltering-in-place and fears about a resurgence – hang like a large thunderhead over organizations whose survival depends on the support of summer visitors.

Reports of local protests targeting nonresidents in North Haven and Vinalhaven made national news. Anecdotes about obscenities hurled at out-of-state drivers, protest signs at the Maine-New Hampshire border and not-so-veiled postings on community web pages about seasonal returnees have heightened tensions.

Protecting the health of all Mainers must be everyone’s highest priority. And while the repeated advisories from state health authorities about the need to stay put to stay safe seem to be having the desired effect, the prospect of a summer of empty tollbooths on the northbound Maine Turnpike has already forced many organizations to cancel major events – events that fill coffers and enable these nonprofits to provide essential services in their communities year-round.

Not surprisingly, this “pull up the drawbridge” attitude has left many longtime seasonal residents of Maine with mixed feelings. No, let’s be honest: hurt feelings. It has also left many of us who work hard to ensure the financial sustainability of small nonprofits through aggressive seasonal fundraising in an awkward position.

What are we really saying? “We don’t want you here, but we want – no, make that, we need – your money.” In other words, stay home but write a check. I’m afraid that’s how the message is being perceived.

Case in point: The Island Commons is a seven-bed assisted living facility on Chebeague Island that enables islanders to remain in their small community near family and friends when they are no longer able to live independently. Most of our residents are dependent on MaineCare, which fails to cover our operating costs by more than $100,000 a year.  As a result, we live or die by our ability to raise funds, and many of our most generous donors are longtime summer residents.

They are members of families that have been coming to Chebeague for generations, with very deep roots. They return to their island homes every summer to share in the sense of community and joy of place. They may not be here for the January blizzard or the March nor’easter; they may not fill seats at the Christmas concert or vote at Town Meeting. But for many, the opportunity to summer on Chebeague comes with the understanding that they also need to help sustain the island they love.

Often, the easiest way is to give generously to the nonprofits that keep the wheels of island life turning all year. Small wonder that the summer calendar on Chebeague and in most Maine communities is crowded with cruises, bake sales, raffles, auctions and every other ingenious event that inspires generosity.

What will the summer of 2020 hold for all of us so reliant on this fundraising blitz? Summer calendars across Maine have been stripped of most events as a precaution.

Will that keep us safe?

So little is known about the spread and life cycle of COVID-19, the cancellations seem a prudent decision health-wise. But financially, they also threaten our ability to deliver needed services, for which there is now an even greater need amid the economic collapse that accompanies this pandemic.

Is bolstering our bottom line worth jeopardizing the security of our communities? Absolutely not.

So, what’s the answer – if there is one? Will a summer of 14-day quarantines upon arrival, handwashing and social distancing halt the spread and keep our communities healthy? How do those of us who have followed all the rules deal with those who flout them?

Will the generosity of seasonal donors continue as a measure of their love of this fragile jewel as well as a tribute to all who labor to keep it functioning? That’s another big unknown. Yes, we’d love to receive your donations, summer people, but we’d also love to have you safely back among us (well, 6 feet away), adding to the vibrancy of life again this season. With care, let’s hope we can have both.


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