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Key Findings Among Social Change Nonprofits

Senior Vice President (Former)

As we enter 2021, Graham-Pelton surveyed development leaders at a select group of top social change organizations regarding their opinions, expectations, and concerns about fundraising for the coming year and the strategies they intend to utilize to maximize success over the next 12 months. The 25 organizations we spoke with have operating budgets ranging in size from $1.5m to $900m with a mean budget of $61m and a median budget of $15m. About half receive the lion’s share of their funding from individual donors. Below are highlights of key findings from the survey.

Organizations are optimistic about fundraising prospects for 2021

Eighty percent of survey participants said their organizations were either highly (42 percent) or somewhat (38 percent) optimistic about fundraising in 2021. Only 8 percent said their organizations were pessimistic, with another 13 percent saying their organizations were neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Many organizations reported high fundraising numbers for 2020. As one CDO stated, “We had a very good year in 2020. We attracted many new supporters. There are a lot of unknowns going into 2021, but from a fundraising standpoint, I still feel optimistic. That optimism is shared by the board and by other colleagues.”“ This sentiment was underscored by another survey participant who said, “Our supporters remain invested and in many ways are even more invested. The needs are so extreme that we have had to change delivery of projects, rethinking how things happen. But our fundraising numbers have stayed high.”

Survey participants at organizations focused on economic and/or racial justice issues expressed especially strong optimism. “We have raised more money in the last 4 months than we did in the last 4 years. It”s not because we have done something dramatically different but because people have become genuinely interested in racial justice, and we are doing credible work in that area.”

Others were more tempered in their projections going into 2021 but still relatively sanguine. Examples of their comments include:

  • “We are cautiously optimistic and are projecting continued operations at the same dollar level. We have not had to make any drastic cuts.”
  • “I’m optimistic, but we’ve been thrown enough curveballs that nothing would surprise me.”
  • Or as another participant put it: “I’m optimistic but anxious as hell.”

CDOs are optimistic about the election’s effect on fundraising

Fifty-seven percent of survey participants said they believe the election will have a net positive effect on fundraising. To quote one participant, “We did well when Trump was elected and I feared that Biden’s election would make people complacent about reproductive rights, but I think in fact progressives are energized and concerned and that Biden will be great for us.”

Some organizations saw a temporary decrease in funding during the run-up to the election but have made gains since then. “Our fall numbers were down because of the election, but December is trending nicely. People were distracted, so we were not as relevant those months.”

Others said it was too soon to tell what the impact of the election would be on philanthropy. In the words of one participant, “The election is a big wild card.”

Survey participants were divided about the future impact of COVID-19 on fundraising

Forty-six percent of participants said they believed COVID-19 would most likely have a positive impact on fundraising in 2021, whereas 41 percent said they suspected it would have a negative impact. “Donors came out in droves because of COVID,” said one CDO, who also noted, “We are seeing our recurring gifts go down, but our end-of-year gifts are rising.”

Organizations providing direct or indirect assistance fighting COVID-19 saw an increase in funding. “In reality, the pandemic has brought us new donors,” said one CDO. Said another, “The need for good hygiene is bolstering our existing case.”

One participant stated, “COVID has helped us because cities and states recognized right away that they would need to think of new and different ways to engage in redevelopment. They reached out to us right away, and we were part of their reopening plans.”

Still, many participants acknowledged how the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has created serious challenges:

  • “COVID affects our ability to plan in a very significant way.”
  • “Our largest funder was not able to honor their commitments, and COVID has impacted many of our programs.”
  • “If we have to stay isolated for another whole year, that could be a real problem.”

Organizations that focus on high-net-worth donors are doing well and are very optimistic about the future

A strong theme emerged in our discussions. Organizations with high-net-worth donors feel confident about their fundraising for the longterm. As one participant stated, “Sixty-five percent of our revenue comes in as $100k+ annual gifts, so our donors have assets and are not concerned about fluctuations in the economy.”

“Folks are giving very generously and in ways that are not as restricted as they historically have been,” said another. By contrast, that same CDO expressed concern about foundation support: “We are seeing a lot of volatility with our foundation fundraising.”

The remarks around high net-worth donors are perhaps best summarized by this CDO”s observation: “Our top donors haven’t been hit by COVID or the economy, knock on wood. The rich still seem to be rich.”

Most respondents said that meeting virtually had made their fundraising efforts more productive

Fifty-nine percent of participants said that operating virtually had made their fundraising efforts significantly (13 percent) or at least somewhat (46 percent) more productive. “It”s easier to do meetings,” said one CDO expressing a common sentiment, further adding, “I think we will stay virtual. I was doing 10 days a month of travel before this.”

Said another, “We are, of course, doing all our conferences virtually now. Our audiences have gone up to thousands of people. We have donors all over the place, so it has been very helpful in terms of stewardship. Going forward I imagine we will do a hybrid model. Of course, we miss the in-person aspect, but we are doing more asks now, our ask amounts have been up, and our gift numbers have been up.”

Operating virtually has resulted in a range of benefits, from decreased gala costs to greater efficiency. “Virtual fundraising showed us that development, in general, is more productive working from home. I had staff who were writing one or two proposals in a month. During COVID (from March to today), we have put in 84 proposals.”

Others noted the personal benefits for staff working remotely. “Its silver lining is that people feel comfortable and can have their pajama bottoms on in a meeting. They can be closer to their families, which for some people is hellish, but for others is great.”

One participant predicted, “There will be a sea change in terms of how people function, work, and travel. We are learning that we don’t have to jump on a plane every time we want to talk to someone, and we don’t have to go into the office to get the job done.”

Still, some said they are eager for a return to in-person fundraising. Said one participant, “I am actually much better in person. You can’t read people’s energy [virtually]. Fundraising is a people business, and that makes it harder.” Said another, “It’s worked well for us, but it’s not the same. Our strength is to get out and convene groups. My guess is that we will be out on the road as soon as they let us.”

Most of the organizations we surveyed said they would likely continue to employ a hybrid approach to events through 2021.

A majority of organizations will be increasing their fundraising efforts in 2021 by launching new initiatives

Forty-eight percent of the organizations we surveyed indicated that they will be investing in new fundraising efforts in the coming year, compared to 35 percent that said they will not be doing so. Seventeen percent said they are undecided.

Organizations are exploring a wide range of new fundraising strategies independent of programming, from building a major gifts campaign, to moving to a volunteer model of fundraising, to raising money specifically for new programmatic endeavors.