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What a year! What did we learn in fundraising?

Life’s most valuable lessons are often learned in the crucible of hardship.

There’s no question that 2020 brought more than its share of difficulty for many nonprofit organizations. I’ve never seen a year like this—and I’ve seen a lot in my 40-plus years in the nonprofit sector.

Yet there is much to celebrate, too, and much we have learned.

I’ll start with a celebration of the entire nonprofit community—especially the donors who support great causes.

What a wonderful year for generosity! Despite the personal struggles and hardships, folks stepped up time and again to help those less fortunate than themselves.

Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the social services sector, where RKD Group has a major presence. Food banks, for example, saw unprecedented philanthropy as people felt compelled to help those suffering in their communities.

Just look at this year-over-year revenue comparison of 57 RKD Group food bank clients:

After Giving Tuesday Now raised $503 million online in May, many wondered whether donors would have more to give by the time December’s Giving Tuesday event rolled around. Giving Tuesday proved they certainly do, with an astonishing $2.47 billion in donations in the U.S. alone.

When the dust settles on year-end giving, I have no doubt that 2020 will break all records in several categories of nonprofits.

But what have we learned, other than to be reminded yet again of Americans’ remarkable generosity? I see four key lessons:

1. Never stop fundraising in a crisis.

Back in March as we were all hit with the grim reality of COVID’s impact, I repeated this advice based on what we saw during the 2008 recession and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Despite some inner reservations, it’s not insensitive to ask for donations during an emergency.

That’s because people will do whatever they can to help in tough times. And donors who feel a deep connection to your cause want two things from you:

  • To know that your organization cares about them
  • To make sure you survive through the tough times

When the next crisis, disaster or emergency arrives, keep this in mind. You can’t pause your mission because the need will still be there. Don’t pause your fundraising, either.

2. Digital giving is here to stay.

This year was truly all about survival for some nonprofits. And the importance of digital readiness has never been more apparent.

Fortunately, many organizations had done the work to prepare for a big influx of online giving. Those that did not make the investment in digital transformation likely missed out.

Even before the pandemic, donors had come to expect a high level of sophistication in their transactions thanks to retail giants like Amazon and Apple. Now, even grocery stores and local restaurants have developed complex digital platforms for their services and products.

We’ve heard for years about the coming shift to online giving, and we’ve seen steady growth. But the shutdown of in-person events and the need for social distancing have made 2020 a pivotal year for donor behavior changes.

We won’t be going back to the way things were before. The game has changed.

3. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Speaking of events, another lesson we can take from this year is the importance of diversifying your revenue.

Nonprofits that rely heavily on in-person channels—like events, runs, face-to-face, etc.—got clobbered financially when those sources of revenue dried up this year. Some were able to pivot to virtual events, while others were left with a big gap on their books.

This is where data can help. Understanding donor behavior and trends can help us identify opportunities for growth.

Going forward, nonprofits must analyze their data to look for new channels, new products and new ways to reach donors and connect with them. The more options you have, the less you’ll be impacted by the loss of one area.

4. Focus on retaining new COVID donors.

Finally, as we look forward into 2021, nonprofits must focus heavily on donor stewardship.

Many organizations saw an influx of donors who were new to their organization—many even new to charitable giving altogether.

During disasters, donors tend to give money to help right away and never give again. But we’ve already seen quite a few indicators that COVID donors are different from emergency donors.

Retaining these donors and engaging with them is crucial. They must see us as relevant to their needs to make a difference in the world. We must also be compelling and authentic.

This next year is a great opportunity for the nonprofit industry to put these lessons to the test:

  • Can you transform your fundraising program to meet donors where they are today?
  • Can you diversify your revenue to lower your risk and build a more stable organization?
  • Can you build a bridge from new donor acquisition to a long-term relationship?

Who knows what 2021 will bring? I’m confident that if fundraisers wisely apply the lessons from 2020, they can make gains, grow stronger, and do more to fulfill their missions.

Tim Kersten

Widely regarded as one of the nation’s top direct response fundraising, strategic and creative talents, Tim Kersten brings more than 40 years of experience to his role as CEO of RKD Group. Prior to joining RKD, he served as Chief Creative Officer and Executive Creative Director at two national advertising agencies and ran his own successful direct response fundraising consultancy for nearly 25 years.

Some of the nation’s largest and most respected nonprofit organizations that have benefited from Tim’s insightful and persuasive communication strategies include the Smithsonian Institution, American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, National Park Foundation, Covenant House, and dozens of others. Tim’s work has been recognized by his receipt of four Direct Marketing Association Echo Awards (gold, leader and two silver from 1986 to 2010) and a prestigious International Caples Award (2010).

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