By Chris Carter and Kyla Winchester

History repeats itself, as they say. And we might be on the verge of a particularly significant repeat: the Roaring Twenties. In the first iteration, the 1920s, the world was just coming out of a pandemic and a war that spread to several continents. The decade saw an economic boom, technological advances, and a cultural and social explosion paired with a feeling of optimism. For us in 2021, experts have been predicting a fast economic rebound post-COVID—but not only that, the feeling of anticipation, of something about to burst open, is almost palpable.

They also say, fortune favours the prepared. To full take advantage of social movements and associated growth, it helps to be ready. Fortunately, knowing what’s likely coming allows nonprofits to position themselves accordingly. Let’s take a look at some of the social factors that may be coming into play.

"For when it's time"

First: have you seen that post-pandemic commercial for gum? You might have actually seen someone sharing it—it went a bit viral for elegantly tying in its product with how so many of us are feeling right now. It’s an intoxicating mixture of cautious excitement and pure delight, as we wait for the joy in our lives to bloom again. We say sometimes that for-profits have big ad budgets, so they often can take risks and try new things—and this is an example of getting it right.

This particular ad’s success is likely due in large part to its messaging—they struck a fine balance between awareness that safety is still paramount and many people’s interest in making up for lost smooching time (with minty-fresh gum). They acknowledged what we’ve been through while going against human nature and not socializing for months on end—then put a positive and comedic effect on how exciting it is to be out with people again. That’s how Extra got it right: while promoting the product, the ad tapped into the pent-up feelings we’re all having and also showcased a diverse community including same-gender couples and people of different races kissing. Charities can do the same: communicating differently, emphasizing hope and making a difference; being aware of their brand and how they’re perceived; and staying current by aligning with larger social trends into 2022.

People notice ads like this: we notice when people in an ad reflect who they are, especially when it so beautifully mirrors the current pulse of society. People also notice when an ad doesn’t reflect them or their community. Not only will charities do well communicating this renewed spirit of hopes and dreams, the sector needs to be attuned to how well they reflect the communities they serve and from which they get support. It’s not just a “nice to have” option, it’s increasingly (finally) becoming necessary in order to not become obsolete.  

The Bezos Effect

The billionaire backlash is just as significant. How many articles were written about companies making huge profits during the pandemic and handing out huge bonuses for executives? How many about companies that called their employees heroes one month, then eliminated pandemic pay the next? Or made non-essential employees unnecessarily come back to work, putting themselves and those around them at greater risk? The optics of these actions are well known, and the ethics of commonplace practices are shifting as social media allows us to amplify these outrageous stories with a single swipe. The online world is making the culture of accountability very powerful, meaning that a charity’s misstep could be not only public but making headlines in a day. This democratization of information increases the likelihood of a single misstep leading to a devastating outcome: accepting a large gift from a dodgy owner of a dodgy company or hosting a gala with $1000 tickets could result in tens of thousands of tweets with exactly the wrong message.

With more and more people attuned to ethics, charities need to be as well. Ten years ago it was exclusively about the ethics of charities and fundraisers, now it’s about the donors themselves too: gift policies need to be very clear about who, when and how the org will accept gifts from, and when they can be refused or returned. A million-dollar gift can’t be accepted with no conditions.  Sure, the donor could possibly get naming rights, but the gift can’t just go to beautifying the donor’s new wing—every gift has to be furthering the charity’s mission too. Nor can nonprofits allow their brands to be used for green-washing, pink-washing, rainbow-washing or otherwise making amends for a company’s bad deeds.

Multichannel is still queen

Social media has been mentioned a couple times thus far, but we need to emphasize that it isn’t the end-all-and-be-all of nonprofit marketing and fundraising. Yes, if you’re fundraising on your social, your org absolutely needs to clarify the brand, the messaging and the types of posts that will be shared there. (Mission-oriented? Donor thank-yous? Branding reinforcement? Sharing info with supporters/potential supporters?) However, social isn’t your only fundraising tool, and even for nonprofits with robust social media, it’s only a small slice of their fundraising pie. Direct mail is still successful in its own right, especially with Gen X and Boomers, who respond to traditional channels (including DRTV, telemarketing and direct mail). These generations also have outsized importance for charities because of their stable incomes and finances. As well, being mostly at home for more than a year has changed our habits—more TV, both network and streaming, and more opening the mail—and some of these changes are here to stay.

All of this to say, there are 3 things orgs in the nonprofit sector can do to position themselves well for possible growth in the next Roaring Twenties:

  • Consider messaging and tone, emphasizing positivity and making change. We’ve all had a year of terrible headlines, and some of us in our lives too, and more of the same will make people scroll down, turn the page, or change the channel. Doom-and-gloom messaging has always been tricky, but after the stress of a global pandemic and its fallout, people want positivity. Demonstrate impact: tell new supporters and past donors alike how their gifts make something better, how their support of your mission is changing lives in big or small ways.
  • Take stock of how their brand is perceived. With increased awareness of staggering economic inequalities, splashy events and expensive campaigns don’t hit the way they used to. If your organization isn’t attuned to this, one ad or one partnership or one scandal can topple a charity’s reputation. Risk-aversion and due diligence are increasingly necessary, with charities revisiting how much their brand is worth and who or what they align with for a donation. A gift isn’t just a gift, or a chance to fulfil our mission, or a new opportunity to get supporters: it’s a demonstration of the charity’s values, and people are watching.
  • Consider how they show their values in light of social progress. For decades, taking money from Big Tobacco was a given; in a generation or two, this became taboo as the industry continued lying about tobacco’s link to cancer. Ten years ago, a rainbow logo for Pride Month felt like a breath of fresh air, as companies saw the winds shifting and joined in: companies are very attuned to cultural changes they can use to get an edge in their marketing, gaining market share with a show of progressive values. For a long time, a charity was assumed to be well-intentioned and doing good things simply because they’re a charity; soon people will want to know if a charity hiring’s practices are equitable and how many women, LGBTQ2SIA and BIPOC are in executive positions and on the board. People are increasingly savvy and aware of issues: in the last few weeks, I have seen plenty of rainbowified companies, but I’ve seen twice as many people posting about rainbow-washing. This increased savviness means the same old tactics won’t be as effective anymore, requiring a fundamental change in how charities demonstrate their values—not just for their mission and the community they work in, but for all their staff and volunteers, and for people everywhere.

These aren’t just one-step tactics that can be checked off in an afternoon, but are possibly big, sweeping changes for a charity to undertake. The alternative is becoming an obsolete charity, out of touch with their supporters and the communities they serve, or at worst, rightfully being at the center of a scandal. (I’m thinking of you, WE Charity.) Fortunately, starting a review now of gift policies, branding and messaging, and inclusion—in both external pieces and within the organization—means being well-positioned for a bright 2022.