by Chris Carter and Kyla Winchester

2020… felt like a decade. So many things happened that changed fundraising last year, including things that continue in that trend for 2021 and beyond. Here are some things we think may continue, trend upward, or start this year.

People are at home

More office workers were working from home last year than ever before, some for the first time, and others just way more (wayyy more) than previously. Even people who weren’t working from home were certainly spending more time at home.

What does this have to do with fundraising? It affects how we interact with the world, including how we see and are influenced by fundraising asks. Fundraising is up for organizations with strong brands, who stayed the course, and had diversified fundraising bases, but anecdotally, we’re seeing that traditional channels like direct mail and DRTV are doing better. Even if everything goes according to plan and 2022 can be back to ‘normal’, people’s habits will likely have changed. With our clients we are seeing response rates in direct mail which haven’t been seen for decades. This means if you had a direct mail program which was cancelled or scaled back now is the time to revisit, in addition if you never had a direct mail program this might be the time to start one. Funnily enough a key trend is to stop chasing trends and revisit the tried and true. It’s worth keeping this in mind for long-term planning; and reviewing your organization’s data to see if things are shifting for your donors as well.

Move to virtual

People were working from home last year, and also, people didn’t go out. There’s a subtle difference between those two statements, with different implications for two different types of fundraising. For major gift officers, there couldn’t be the same coffee meetings, lunches and receptions; and event fundraisers worked almost entirely online. A lot of people got used to working virtually—video chats with friends and family, and even doctor’s appointments by Zoom. While a lot of people will hold on to the virtual things that worked—video chats instead of phone calls with personal connections across the country—some things can’t be replaced with a video screen. The art will be in teasing out how much people are okay—or even prefer—being virtual, and how much must be in person (or is more effective in person). Will major donors prefer a Zoom chat, or is in-person coffee still necessary? Will virtual fundraisers prove to be just as effective, or will we still need the races, the fundraising galas?

For some, income hasn’t changed, and disposable income has gone up

My mother commented over the holidays that she’s been saving money: she hasn’t been travelling, and with someone else in her household now getting groceries, she isn’t even indulging in the small extra but regular splurges she would make during her essential shopping. I know one person’s experience doesn’t make a trend, but the same happened to me and others I have spoken with: some households have had the same income but fewer expenses, leading to more disposable income.

With our clients, we are seeing response rates in direct mail which haven’t been seen for decades. This means if you had a direct mail program which was cancelled or scaled back now, is the time to revisit. In addition, if you never had a direct mail program, this might be the time to start one. Funnily enough a key trend is to stop chasing trends and revisit the tried and true.

From the info that’s available, those organizations that continued to fundraise in 2020 saw increased giving last year; when 2020 year-end giving is totalled, I expect giving to be up as we anecdotally saw earlier in the year. For 2021, this means we need to keep going: keep engaging, keep thanking, and definitely keep asking.

Demographic changes

If your org has done a deep-dive in your database, you may have done some modelling to identify which areas are more likely to have people who will support your mission. However, there was a lot of movement in 2020—with whole offices closing and staff moving to a combination of virtual and work-from-home, some people packed up and moved out of urban areas. Is it a big enough shift to change your geographic targeting? Further, some of our traditional beliefs in terms of interests and demographics of urban vs. rural will be out the window. Analysis done 2 years ago may now be irrelevant. That target demographic of tech savvy couples with kids may no longer exist where you thought they were. It’s worth reviewing to determine of your previous targeting is still valid, especially as virtual/remote work continues well into 2021 and households continue to move in response.

Continued shift away from traditional nonprofits

This trend was in full effect pre-2020: the movement to give to online funding platforms like GoFundMe, to directly help individuals or groups who weren’t charities or nonprofits.  With so many people financially affected both by changed individual behaviour (e.g. people avoiding restaurants even when they are able to be open) and mandated restrictions, it’s possible economic circumstances will drive more funding efforts of this type. Whether business or individuals trying to stay afloat, there were likely more of these funds-raisers in 2020, deepening the existing trend.

Connecting on social media

Many people forged and maintained connections on social media in 2020: people are now used to connecting online, with friends and family, influencers, and their favourite brands—including charities. Because of this, some even expect a more direct connection from charities they connect with on social media, including the assumption that they will of course make a donation and then post about it. Anecdotally, many regular people seem to be almost as dedicated to regularly posting content as brands and influencers, curating their feeds and spending hours on a new TikTok video (you never know what’s going to go viral). This could be an opportunity for social media-savvy charities who provide their supporters an easy way to demonstrate their support, and also to engage younger demographics who are trending away from traditional charities. Perhaps part of the appeal of giving platforms like GoFundMe is that there are made to be shared, allowing social media users to quickly demonstrate their passion for a cause. Developing one or several images, backgrounds, experiences or even videos made for sharing can encourage giving, allowing supporters to demonstrate their values to those in their social networks and boosting the org’s profile at the same time. And the more we must stat at home in 2021, with new lockdown restrictions in response to COVID-19, the more influential social media will be.

Risks have increased

With the internet generally, social media specifically, and the 24-hour news cycle, opinions can change quickly. Sometimes, one viral post is all it takes to turn someone from esteemed known name to a footnote. Because of this, the risks to an org associating itself with any individual have increased, and the stakes are high. Ethics of funders has always been a priority, but now more than ever there are millions of social media activists who will expose unethical behaviour—possibly exposing your organization too if you were associated with them. What if your spokesperson is suddenly caught on video harassing Starbucks employees? What if you announce a partnership with a major funder, and it prompts someone to expose their bad—or illegal—behaviour? Ten years ago it may have been a 24-hour bad news cycle where you can send out a press release and disassociate, but now think about millions of shares happening for weeks. The risks of these types of partnerships are exacerbated by COVID-19 and its economic fallout, and the lasting political divide. (Similar but slightly different: also consider the optics of lavish galas or cocktail parties. Anti-poverty charities have been wise to avoid them for too contradicting their mission, but other nonprofits may also receive poor coverage for high-expense events given the financial impact of COVID-19.)

Carefully consider what an individual funder, spokesperson of prominent partner received from the organization, and carefully review what steps can be taken under different scenarios. You may never need such preparation, but if you do, it’s vital to have it already sorted and ready at a moment’s notice.

Social justice at the forefront

For the nonprofit sector as a whole, there is still a reckoning on the horizon. At long last, Black Lives Matter came to the forefront in 2020 and received the attention the issues deserve, but fundamental systemic and structural barriers remain. Moreover, lasting changes from anything undertaken in 2020 are not guaranteed and require ongoing work, particularly by people in privileged positions who rushed to be associated with the cause (. And for MeToo—in past years, there was a wave of scrutiny for known abusers and harassers, but the nonprofit sector has not had to deal with it yet. We know charities are not exempt from people with ill intent, meaning that our MeToo moment is still to come. Keep social justice in mind at the core of all of activities, do what you can to move things forward this year, and we can be in a better place when that reckoning comes.