CEO Update: Navigating 2020 & Looking Ahead to 2021

We ended fiscal year 2020 in September on solid ground and poised to navigate what we believe could be another challenging year. This update shares highlights about how we closed out the fiscal year and what to expect in the coming year.
Tom Vogl Tom Vogl
Mountaineers CEO
November 05, 2020

For most of us, putting 2020 in the rearview mirror is something we’re looking forward to. As I’ve shared before, the COVID-19 crisis has created significant challenges for organizations such as The Mountaineers. The biggest headwind we faced this year was the dramatic reduction of program revenue as we largely shut down. At the beginning of the crisis, we literally wondered if we’d have enough cash in the bank to get us through the summer because the courses, camps, lodges, and books retailers that traditionally support our organization had nearly ground to a halt. In what felt like the blink of an eye, we were facing a more than 25% revenue gap for the year. To successfully survive this COVID-induced storm, we’ve had to adapt to significant changes and redouble our commitment to our mission and core values.

As I reflect back on this year, I’m in awe of how well we’ve collectively responded to the deep challenges of the pandemic. In an effort to keep our greater communities safe, we modified so much, including socializing, working, schooling, shopping, and even hiking trails or taking walks in our neighborhoods. And especially with the holidays coming up, it’s also important to mourn the loss of those no longer with us and people otherwise impacted by effects of this crisis. 

From an operational and financial standpoint, I’m proud of how we navigated the time since the first wave of COVID-19 shutdowns implemented in March. Our first priority was to adjust our program operations to ensure we kept our community safe. The decisions we made in those early days of the pandemic were very successful in preventing the spread of the virus and keeping our community safe but required aggressive cuts to expenses as we paused most of our in-person programs. Volunteers responded by moving some classes and events online to creatively generate revenue. Program budgets were slashed to reflect only the most necessary costs and we laid off staff, furloughed others, and implemented pay cuts that will last into next year. 

The creativity and commitment of our volunteers was matched by the generosity of our donors. More than 3,000 people offered gifts of all sizes, contributing $1.48M to help protect our core operations. Members from around the world showed up in full force in July for our rescheduled gala, donating and bidding to raise $471,000, nearly a third of the year’s entire philanthropic contributions. We also aggressively sought available relief programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable loan through the Small Business Administration that helped pay for essential expenses during the most difficult days of the shutdown. And over the summer we collaboratively determined ways to restart some programs with reduced group sizes.

Another high point of recent months was the exceptional performance of our publishing division. After the near-total shutdown of book sales and shipments in March and April, we restarted operations. The combination of strong interest in our new titles and more people getting outdoors over the summer resulted in robust sales. We ended up beating our original publishing sales budget over the summer, finishing the fiscal year just shy of our original budget. Our publishing division plays a critical role in how we connect people with the natural world, it’s been an important contributor to our financial sustainability always, especially in the months following the pandemic shutdowns.

The net effect of all these actions and decisions has been nothing short of amazing. If we hadn’t responded swiftly and aggressively, we would have been at risk of running out of cash reserves this summer. Instead, we ended our fiscal year 2020 at the end of September with short-term cash reserves of nearly $800,000 and $3.2 mil in long-term, board-restricted reserves. For an organization of our size and complexity, these reserves are still very lean and require us to closely monitor and manage our situation in the coming year. 

THE YEAR AHEAD

I remain confident in our ability to continue navigating the challenges ahead, yet we are preparing ourselves for another year of difficult route finding. When building our budgets for the coming year, we made the important operating assumption that we will continue in the current phase of COVID-19 reopening restrictions until next spring. Our plans assume that in spring, the reopening restrictions will ease and will begin the gradual process of returning to normal. 

Several weeks ago our Board of Directors approved a fiscally-conservative budget, which assumes program revenues will be down more than 40% compared to a normal year. This accounts for the anticipated constrained group sizes for courses and youth programs. We also have uncertainty about whether we can open our lodges and relaunch Global Adventures. As in 2020, we will once again be tasked with doing more with less while finding creative ways to generate program revenue in a time of social distancing. 

Though programming will look a little different, what’s not changing is our rock-solid commitment to making the outdoors accessible through programs such as scholarships for courses and youth programs, our conservation and advocacy efforts to protect wild places, and our partnerships with volunteers to help people connect with the outdoors safely and responsibly. Now, perhaps more than any other time in Mountaineers history, our community needs us to deliver on our mission to protect and enhance the outdoor experience.

While we’ve built a plan for the coming year that is conservative and fiscally-responsible, our ability to sustain our core programs and adapt as the COVID-19 reopening process evolves will continue to be dependent on the commitment and generosity of our community. Cost-cutting and, in particular, sacrifices by staff and volunteers, was certainly a key to our success in the last year. Without the steadfast and generous support of our volunteers and donors, we wouldn’t be standing as strong as we are today, prepared and ready to face tomorrow.

We expect 2021 to be another challenging year, yet we are more and more confident that we will weather this storm by working together as a Mountaineers community. 

Main Photo by Cheryl Talbert.


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Danielle Graham
Danielle Graham says:
Nov 05, 2020 05:22 PM

Three cheers for staff who have been AMAZING over the past 8 months.