It's no exaggeration to say that the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally changed nonprofit fundraising. That's because ever since March 14, 2020, the only constant we've all experienced is change.
Along the way, we’ve been forced to adapt. To innovate. To grow.
Now, we find ourselves at an inflection point. The wave of unprecedented support that many organizations felt during peak COVID is slowing down as the pandemic and its impact fades. Donors are returning to their pre-COVID giving routines. Some nonprofits are prepared for this shift, others aren’t, which brings to mind Warren Buffet’s well-known quip, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.”
With the tide of COVID-giving ebbing, we’re beginning to see which organizations have prepared for long-term shifts in the industry and which have lagged behind. And one major trend has certainly emerged: a focus on the audience and the donor experience.
A quick recap of the last 3 years
In 2020, we saw the economy shut down and lockdowns put in place to slow the spread of the virus. That summer also saw a dramatic wave of social unrest, with millions raised for racial activism. Together, these events shifted where donors chose to spend their money and how donors gave—with a surge in online donations.
In 2021, the global economy started to get back on track, but the reverberations of the economy shutting down continued to cause issues. Many sectors (including ours) experienced employee shortages as people focused on new career paths and priorities, such as remote work. The result was massive supply chain challenges that affected fundraisers through paper shortages and increased printing costs. Yet through it all, donors continued to show their support.
In 2022, many expected a recession, but the economy continued to grow. Instead, what we began to see was a massive wave of inflation that hasn't been felt since the 1970s. At the same time, the emergency of the pandemic began to fade from everyday life. These combined factors have led to a softening in donations from the dramatic highs of 2020 and 2021 for many organizations across the U.S. Yet giving is still up compared to 2019.
When we step back and take a high-level view, there are three clear things we've learned:
1. Focus on the donor experience
One size does not fit all for today's donors. Communication touchpoints must make sense to each individual. These experiences must draw them closer to the organization through multiple forms of communication.
The key here is knowing your donors better through data. You must know your donors’ behaviors and attitudes. Know what motivates them to give. Know how they like to be recognized. Understand their journey with your organization and how to make it better.
Nonprofits must build trust and loyalty through meaningful conversations with their constituents. Our research shows that when donors feel valued and included, their relationship with the nonprofit strengthens, and their giving increases.
Take a step back and think about all the different ways donors experience your organization. Are you meeting them with the right message at the right time in the right place and letting them know you appreciate them?
2. The digital future has arrived
Today's nonprofit organizations can no longer afford to think of digital as a "companion" to their direct mail program. Thanks to online grocery ordering, remote work and streaming video, the pandemic has accelerated digital adoption for consumers. And that means donors have shifted their behavior online.
Nonprofits must build a robust program that meets people where they are today. Direct mail still has a critical place in this program, but we’re seeing challenging cost pressures and a low response rate from younger donors.
It’s no secret that we all consume content much differently than we did five years ago. We live online today. Investments in digital growth and in the quality of your donors’ online experience with your organization are essential to not get left behind.
3. Nimble programs are a must
With everything we've experienced in the last three years, who knows what 2023 has in store? That's why nonprofits need a nimble fundraising program that can react quickly to change.
This goes back to the first point of knowing your audience. At its heart, marketing and fundraising are about understanding human behavior. What do people want? How do they find meaning? How do they like to be noticed or acknowledged?
As current events shift and new trends emerge, how we understand behavior and how we reach people will continue to change. A great example is when in-person events shut down in 2020. We saw some organizations that were able to adapt quickly to virtual events and those that simply weren’t ready.
With data and technology at the forefront of your program, you can maximize your investment by pivoting quickly when necessary and even get ahead of the curve by anticipating what’s next, and planning accordingly.