The Real Impact of 2020 on Fundraising: What We Lost, What We Gained

The natural experiment forced on us by COVID-19 has pushed everyone to pivot and think differently. The planned giving world was no exception.

In 2020 (and well into 2021), we grieved, we lost control and we weren’t able to connect as we had before. On the other hand, we innovated and learned the value of authenticity.

Let’s look at how the recent past can direct our fundraising future.

Navigating the Unknown

I’m not going to belabor what we’ve all experienced, however, I’ve recently referred to this chart on grief from McKinsey & Company. Certainly, we all experienced some of these during the pandemic.

There are two that I feel relate directly to our work:

Loss of attachment. Many of our Silent Generation donors may have been particularly limited in their ability to be with loved ones. They lost physical and social connections.

(Anecdote: My wife teaches at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa at the pharmacy school. She was part of a team that vaccinated more than 10,000 members of our local community. Drake placed sticky notes in the recovery area after the second shot, asking people what they were going to do next. So many of the responses were “connecting with family” or “hugging someone I haven’t seen in a while.”)

Some tips: Use your marketing to connect donors with stories of people like them. Use surveys to give them space to share and be listened to. Offer yourself as someone to connect with—be sincere in asking to hear their story.

Loss of identity. Revisiting personal values was a natural response to the pandemic. Demonstrating those values through philanthropy came next. In fact, Americans gave a record $471.44 billion in 2020. (Did you catch our blog on Giving USA’s year-in-review numbers?)

Some tips: As appropriate, use your marketing to tie the donor’s identity—as a Minnesotan, as a naturalist, as a caring person—to your organization’s mission. Remind them that through an estate gift they are linking themselves to a better world.

Making Authentic Connections

Socially, the lack of connection in the past 16 months was and is a very real thing.

The need for connection was further emphasized during a great webinar, “How to Love Your Donors During Covid-19,” by Jen Shang. (We’ve asked Jen to share a version of this during Stelter’s FREE webinar series.) A widely published professor with degrees in psychology and philanthropy, Jen is the world’s only philanthropic psychologist. She co-founded the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy.

The Institute studied more than 4,000 adults in the US and other countries, measuring 30 feelings people experience each day. The study began at the beginning of the pandemic. The standout feeling people reported? Lack of connection.

The data point was so telling that Jen suggested that “it is in this certainty of people’s higher need to connect in the coming months that we see the biggest opportunities for charities…They could use this opportunity to re-shape the nature of what relationships mean for their supporters.” (This was published in May 2020, but the human desire to connect remains. Have you been on an airplane recently?)

In short, we have the chance to:

  1. Ask donors what they need.
  2. Listen to what they say.
  3. Pause here until #2 is complete.

Above all, these two-way conversations have to be authentic, but they don’t have to be in person.

Note: Innovation happens faster during times of crisis. For example, how many of you used Zoom before 2020? Now can you imagine a day without it?

Video tours, virtual coffee dates, surveys sent by mail—these are all winning strategies nonprofits have been using to connect with donors.

Uncertainty’s Impact on Trust

Doubt and change altered the world around us. It made people more cautious. Oxford professor and author of “Who Can You Trust?” Rachel Botsman shared a helpful definition of trust via a graphic:

To Rachel, trust is “a confident relationship to the unknown.” There’s plenty of unknown today. A great article from LinkedIn’s Marketing Solutions Blog explored it further.

The blog discusses the critical difference between reputation and trust. What is our personal and our organization’s reputation? That’s a reflective measure; we earned it through past performance. Do our donors trust us? That’s a projective measure of the future.

What makes trust so difficult right now is that the future itself is murky.

Success in 2021

With the uncertainty, lack of connection and wavering trust that last year threw on us, one silver lining was the spotlight on the importance of being honest, authentic, transparent and ultimately more human.

That’s where the best fundraisers and the top nonprofits stand out.

As we think about all the things shifting our playing field, another great article I read last year shared a thought-provoking idea on a new key performance indicator: Humanity. It’s not the quantity of clicks or dollars, it’s how we make people feel.

I’m not sure how we put an ROI to that, but it is intriguing.

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