We can all agree 2020 was a year like no other—and almost entirely in negative ways. However, it was also a year in which American philanthropy was tested and came through. Donors rallied to worthy causes, old and new. Nonprofits proved themselves by and large to be agile, resilient, and invaluable to the communities they serve. And fundraisers stepped forward as well, continuing to make those all-important asks and, in doing so, to power missions that never mattered more.
At the outset of 2020, none of us could have foreseen any of this, a fact that calls into question the general wisdom of prognostication. Yet here we go, looking to the year ahead and the top trends we and our colleagues believe are worth watching.
#1. Virtually Phenomenal—As weary as we all may be of Zoom and as eager as we may be to meet again face-to-face, the clearest lasting lesson of 2020 may be that we can accomplish more things remotely that we ever imagined. Going forward, that means that we will see far greater openness to virtual and hybrid models of work, particularly when it comes to staff who are not in donor-facing roles. Employees will prize the new flexibility now possible in their working lives, but the advantages are even more consequential: the chance for organizations to hire the most capable people, regardless of their location, and on the flip side, for some candidates to vie for positions anywhere in the country without relocating.
#2. Building Back Different—Organizations that were forced to lay-off significant numbers of development staff will be eager to rebuild as soon as possible, but many will not simply refill the same slots in the same org chart as before. In part, that’s because a year of crisis provides a new lens for understanding which roles really need to be filled and how. And in part, it’s because of Trend #1, which presents the possibility of hiring people you couldn’t before and outsourcing functions you might not have thought to, particularly in the areas of development operations/advancement services.
#3. Retention Attention—For certain categories of organizations, the crisis of 2020 inspired waves of crisis giving. Their challenge now is to turn all those gifts into donors, converting people who were inspired by the needs of a moment into partners inspired by the value of a mission. It’s a two-part challenge: First, to connect and communicate in meaningful ways with this new audience. Second, to know when to stop, realizing that some acts of generosity may prove to be one-time only.
#4. Minding the Middle—As organizations work to get that all-important second gift in the door from new donors, more and more will also be focusing on strengthening the pipeline from annual giving to mid-level giving. This is not so much because 2020 taught us something new about the value of the mid-level donor, but because of a long, gradual awakening we expect will continue. More and more organizations will realize that they have not be as intentional and sophisticated in cultivating mid-level donors as they should be and that this is too important an opportunity to miss.
#5. Data-Centric—Another continuing trend will be ever-increasing investment in data analytics and in the key prerequisite for successful analytics, data hygiene. Some development offices that were forced into relative inactivity during the crisis used the time to focus on infrastructure, often discovering that their databases were not in the kind of condition necessary to support best practices in prospecting and trend analysis. Other organizations may not have reached this realization yet, but will do so as the nonprofit sector as a whole continues closing the gap with the rest of the world when it come to the sophisticated use of data.
#6. Prioritizing Planning—2021 promises to be a record year for strategic planning activity. We see two main reasons. First, the world changed so much last year that key parts of organizations’ existing plans simply can’t remain relevant. The way nonprofits intend to fulfill their missions—and in some cases the missions themselves—need to evolve to reflect new realities. Second, people are simply eager to look forward. Board, staff, and leadership all want to envision brighter times and new possibilities, and so will donors.
#7. Dedicating to Digital—When it came to digital fundraising, 2020 was a time for a stark and instant reckoning. Organizations that had made a long-term investment to put the right infrastructure in place found then when they needed to move quickly into crisis appeals they were poised to do so. Conversely, those who had not laid the right groundwork discovered that it’s not something you can do in a week. Going forward, many of these organizations will now take the opportunity to make overdue investments. Later, others will probably wish they had.
#8. Emphasizing Endowment—The pandemic proved in a powerful way what many nonprofit leaders have always said: For an organization to thrive over the long term and fulfill its mission in both good times and bad, the financial foundation of a healthy endowment is key. This always made sense, but never more so than when organizations saw entire streams of earned revenue suddenly cut off. No doubt, strategic plans now taking shape will place new emphasis on growing endowment and so will the campaigns that follow. To be seen: just how many donors agree and are prepared to invest.
#9. Navigating a New Not-Normal—It’s difficult to point out, but of course no surprise to any of us—2021 may be a turning point and a brighter year than the one before, but we are a still long way from life as we once knew it. For fundraisers, it will be some time before in-person calls with donors resume with regularity and before live events again dot our calendars. When are organizations realistically looking to restart galas, dinners and shows? Most commonly, we are hearing spring of 2022. Hopefully, we will see uplifting instances of incremental steps forward before then, but most likely we will all have to keep finding resourceful ways to make do.
#10. Pulling Through—This final predicted trend is a direct corollary to #9. As this post-crisis year continues to prove challenging, we believe fundraisers and nonprofit leaders will find ways to keep stepping up the challenges. We will see unexpected creative solutions take shape. We will also see an even greater need for personal connection and support. We will help our colleagues make it through and we will relate to donors on fundamental human-to-human terms because, of course, they are not only philanthropic investors but people dear to us.
Those are our ten trends, from the practical to the philosophical. We hope the most optimistic of our predictions all come true. And we dream that a year from now the only trend worth noting will be a widespread return to normal life and business as usual!