The Global Impact team has spent the past 18 months helping our partners and peers respond and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have frequently issued findings and updates on the status of philanthropy throughout the pandemic, including tips for fundraising in a more open USA, insights for the future of fundraising events and a three-part series on pandemic fundraising. Recently, a number of new resources have become available, including the the Fundraising Effectiveness Report from Giving Tuesday and the Giving USA 2021 report, which offers a comprehensive catalog of charitable giving in the United States during the year 2020.

In this post, we will compare the findings of these reports to our own experiences and further research to project where the philanthropic marketplace will go moving forward, accounting for the persistence of COVID-19, economic trends and key areas of philanthropic interest.
1. Donors in 2020 stepped up massively
Despite the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, Americans gave $471.44 billion to US charities in 2020, a 5.1% increase from the previous year. While data cannot capture the change in giving related to anomalies like the COVID-19 pandemic, natural and man-made disasters, or “mega-gifts,” it stands true that 2020 was recorded as the highest year of charitable giving ever. Foundations were the fastest-growing source of giving, with grant-making soaring 17% over 2019. Many foundations also allowed for much more flexible grant terms, allowing their partners to adapt as needed to the rapidly changing landscape.

Individual donors, who represent almost 70% of all giving, stepped up to support the organizations that they care about in a time of extreme need. Keeping and driving this momentum forward is the challenge that fundraisers now face. So far, the numbers are good: according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, Q1 2021 continued to see high levels of donor growth and retention, allowing for cautious optimism that increased fundraising will be sustained.

Moving forward: The biggest key to maintaining this momentum is taking advantage of relationships made in the past year. Those donors that came to you when things were bleakest have the potential to be truly impactful partners for years to come. Meet with them as thought partners, share your process, and make them feel like they are part of the family. Creating that kind of buy in and emotional investment is important fundraising at any point in time, and it is particularly critical now. As we transition from a crisis mode to resilience, showing and telling that journey will generate true successes.

2. Giving moments drove conversation and action
Despite the physical separation of the past year, social media and other digital platforms still provided opportunities for collective experiences and shared cultural moments. Giving Tuesday Now (May 5, 2020) and Giving Tuesday (Dec. 1, 2020) offered opportunities for givers who were seeing real need in their communities to step up – and they truly did. The two events raised a combined $3 billion, providing crucial support for organizations that were at risk of closing their doors.

Beyond these events, some of the greatest catalysts for giving in 2020 were viral videos and social media posts that swept across the internet and galvanized huge swaths of the population around particular issues. The quintessential example is the reaction elicited from the traumatic video of George Floyd’s murder and the mass outcry demanding for change. The accessibility of online giving platforms allowed for swift donations in response to these crisis moments.

As small-dollar donors flocked to support inflection-point causes, organizations with high visibility in those spaces and strong track records of success could see millions of new donors appear overnight. Organizations that were primed and ready to put themselves out there when their mission became a national focal point were able to rapidly grow individual, foundation and corporate giving.

Moving forward: Investing in visibility and thought leadership before these “giving moments” occur can generate huge returns when the time comes and your organization is ready to seize the spotlight. Additionally, being nimble and proactive enough to respond to new or unexpected fundraising efforts and current events in a timely fashion can have a significant return.

3. Deferred needs will come due
In the past 18 months, many organizations shifted their focus dramatically to reflect the “new normal” brought on by the global pandemic – and rightly so. In fact, Global Impact has been championing the use of a COVID-19 lens for over a year. As the pandemic continues and shifts, aspects of your work that have been deferred or adjusted will need to come back in focus.

Moving forward: Work with your project teams to identify what has been delayed, which programs need to be reset and how to ensure your organization remains positioned to do its work in the best way possible. Note, this does not call for forgetting the pandemic – COVID-19 will not suddenly vanish. The goal is to be able to speak to the adjustments your organization made and demonstrate your continued flexibility and responsiveness. We mean that you must prepare for a world where your organization will return to making a case for itself based on the core of your work without the urgency granted by the pandemic.

4. Inequities within international relief and development have been magnified throughout the pandemic
The dual trajectory of the global fight against COVID-19 is a microcosm of the larger world, even as the pandemic enters this new stage. In the United States, vaccines are widely available – to the point of going to waste for want of takers. The greatest challenge facing public health officials is building trust and interest among the unvaccinated population. In contrast, vaccines are largely unavailable in the developing world, extending lockdowns and worsening health outcomes as infections continue to spread.

Each of these struggles must be dealt with in its own way, without interfering with the progress of the other. These interlocked problems and their intertwined solutions have parallels with all areas of international development: The fight against global hunger requires investments in infrastructure and climate resiliency, yet diverting funds from feeding those currently starving is not an option. Refugees desperately need safety and services in the short term, but relying on temporary camps and local infrastructure can permanently delay investments in safer and more sustainable resettlement, either in their home nation or further abroad.

Moving forward: Organizations should study and speak to the complexities of their work, then tailor approaches to donors based on will best connect with their philanthropic goals. No issue is simple, and panaceas are rare: Include your donors on your problem solving journeys, generate buy in, and enjoy long and fruitful partnerships.

5. Offering a variety of engagement options is a requirement for successful fundraising
Many Americans are very excited to return to in-person gatherings for social, professional and philanthropic reasons. Alternatively, perhaps just as many Americans are in no rush to do so, for a variety of reasons that include health considerations, childcare obligations and travel restrictions.

Moving forward: As a fundraiser, it can be tempting to jump back into the tried-and-true methods of in-person meetings, since it can feel much more natural to connect and make a large ask in person. However, you should always have a virtual option, particularly if there are multiple donors involved or if the national health considerations change. Keeping conversations inclusive and stress free will always be more important than the marginal gain of an in-person chat.

If you can demonstrate to your donors that you care about their preferences, needs and personal safety, that will go further than the chance for a firm handshake. This lesson extends to thought leadership events like webinars or other fundraising gatherings. Refer to our blog on insights for the future of fundraising events to provide more guidance on how to manage larger groups.

As we all know, 2020 was a groundbreaking year for philanthropy, and 2021 can be just as successful if we can correctly meet the moment. We hope these insights can help your organization rise to the occasion and thrive in this new world. Thank you for joining us for another installment of the Give Global Blog, and please send a note to our team to learn more about how we can help you achieve your fundraising goals.