By Chris Carter and Kyla Winchester

Do I need to say it? 2020 will never be forgotten. For those of us who have seen it unfold, the changes came quickly at first, then more slowly as the year continued. For fundraising as well, it was a year like no other: here are our highlights of what happened with nonprofits/charities and fundraising in 2020 (in roughly chronological order).

The end of events as we knew them

One of the earliest signs that the year was going to be different than before was when events started getting cancelled. At first it was only events over a certain size, or events happening soon, but it very  quickly became all events everywhere. Organizations had to pivot, fast: some turned to virtual events, some changed their supporters benefits entirely and some even thrived in the new environment. This is where events staff demonstrated their ability to be responsive, to achieve the same goals with new means, and find a workable way forward. If anyone working on events now has thoughts on what events in 2022 will look like, I’d love to hear them!

Surge of activism and mobilization

I can’t speak for all media and social feeds, but the first response I saw to lockdown was a surge of activism and mobilization. Personally, I saw the creation of groups whose sole purpose was to help other people, individuals suggesting organizations to donate to in order to help those who needed it most, and an outpouring of public support for essential workers. When government support programs (such as the CERB in Canada)  were announced, they provided some short-term relief for interruptions to incomes caused by the lockdown’s effects, but the activism and mobilization has not stopped. There still appears to be higher levels of support for basic income and other actions that will provide support long after COVID is resolved.

Data became more important than ever, because we’re fundraising on different platforms

As part of the pivot, many organizations used new tools and new platforms to connect with supporters and to undertake fundraising. With new tools come new data and more complications in terms of data integrity and database management. Donors with more time on their hands may be paying more attention than previous years, so an errant email or duplicate phone call may get noticed more than it used to—making clean data a priority.

Black Lives Matter

In the years to come, there will be much analysis of the surge of Black Lives Matter activism and awareness. Why did it resonate so strongly this year? What lasting effects will there be? Long overdue, the resurgence of BLM issues has already increased calls to reallocate and differently prioritize police funding (in favour of other programs, like housing and mental health care) and emphasized equity in places which have thus far escaped scrutiny. In terms of fundraising, there has been more awareness of organizations led by people from the communities they serve (e.g. Black-led organizations working in communities with large Black populations); and lack of diversity in the nonprofit sector generally.

The rise of the ‘bad billionaire’

There were always risks for an organization to attach their name to any company or individual for funding or other partnerships. Typically these risks would be managed with clauses noting that the funding agreement can be terminated under certain conditions, and the fact that nonprofits are not required to accept any particular donation, and can accordingly decline when necessary. However, these risks have increased somewhat with societal awareness of the “bad billionaire.” For example, would you accept money from someone who made their wealth by underpaying or even exploiting their workforce? Would you accept money from a pharmaceutical executive whose company profited off speculation of COVID “cures”? Would your answer depend in these scenarios depend on whether you worked for an ant-poverty charity, or a health care org? Questions like this would have been less concerning in 2019, but 2020 saw a backlash against those who achieved wealth at the expense of others, making some funding scenarios more risky than others.

For example, very well-known Canadian philanthropist families have actively campaigned against things such as increasing the minimum wage. Is it ethically acceptable for charities to continue to accept large donations form these families who have made millions from under-paying their workforces? Large swathes of the charitable sector have built up huge infrastructures to facilitate these sort of major gifts, often to the detriment of other forms of mass fundraising, which is far less ethically fraught.

WE Charity scandal

The less said about this, the better? It was a scandal that rocked the nonprofit sector and shook donor confidence. While the news cycle has largely moved on, donors may still be hesitant to support new charities or give as generously as before.

For those working in the charitable sector, the issues arising out of the WE Charity were not necessarily surprising. Large funders and ethically questionable connections were unfortunately commonplace in organizations, particularly ones very dependent on a few influential large funders. For those wondering if they needed to make more of a priority of mass fundraising, the WE scandal clearly demonstrates a clear yes.

The importance of mental health

One of the early discussions in terms of lockdown was its effect on mental health: for people dealing with the stress of the pandemic, with financial stress, with child-care pressures, and with the effects of isolation, without their usual support systems to help. Experts are still calling for increased funding for mental health, and even to include it provincial health plans; whether this comes to fruition or not, even the discussion and awareness of these issues is a big step forward, considering how little people typically talk about mental health and its importance. Clearly more is still needed, but there may be changes to come that will affect mental health organizations and their fundraising. 

Empathy shines through

If giving was based on finances, giving would be down, but it’s not. Many organizations have anecdotally reported increased giving, or increases in some aspects, like acquisition, or certain campaigns. This demonstrates that giving is about other things: not the economy, not even necessarily individual income, but about empathy, about caring, about making a difference. This is often neglected in discussions on giving: the importance that giving back actually has to the individual making the gifts. It’s a proven scientific fact that making gifts to charity has many personal benefits.

 While 2020 was the worst in so many ways, one of the bright lights in the year was the proof that the people who care about your missions are still—even in the worst year—moved to help.