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Fundraiser Confidence Increased in First Quarter 2021

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Stronger Optimism about Reaching Goals, Investing in Capacity


(Arlington, VA) Fundraisers are feeling increasingly confident about the current giving environment and reaching their goals in 2021, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) third Fundraising Confidence Survey.

The survey asked 14 questions about how optimistic fundraisers are in various aspects of their fundraising work and what they see ahead in terms of trends and challenges. The survey was conducted in early April 2021, while the first two surveys were conducted in September and December of 2020.

When asked how optimistic they were about reaching their annual fundraising goals (on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being "least optimistic" and 10 being "most optimistic”), fundraisers grew in optimism from 6.52 in September 2020 to 6.98 in December 2020 to 7.60 in April 2021.

Fundraisers are also increasingly confident about raising more money in 2021 than 2020—the confidence level is currently 6.46. That figure is higher than either confidence level from the previous year’s surveys—4.89 in September 2020 and 5.47 in December 2020.

Fundraisers also remain optimistic about donor receptivity to their fundraising communications. The current confidence level is 7.27, down slightly from a confidence level of 7.38 in December 2020, at the height of the “giving season”—the last three months of the year when there’s a significant amount of charitable giving. The confidence level in donor receptivity started at 6.47 in September 2020.

Fundraisers are also growing in optimism about their organizations having the capacity to hire staff and invest in infrastructure. Over the next three months, fundraisers have a confidence level of 5.28 in their organization being able to invest in fundraising, including staffing, support and technology. However, that level rises to 5.73 over the next six months and then to 6.41 over the next 12.

When asked if their organization was planning to hire fundraising staff over the next three months, 29% of respondents indicated yes. That figure is higher than in September 2020 (16%) and December 2020 (19%).

“Fundraisers are increasingly confident about many aspects of their fundraising activities in 2021,” said Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, president and CEO of AFP. “It’s especially good to see growing optimism about organizations investing in fundraising capacity, including hiring fundraising staff. The confidence figure for investing in capacity was only 4.74 in our first survey conducted in the middle of the pandemic, so the current level is a telling sign that charities feel more comfortable financially and are ready to consider expanding their fundraising operations. Our Fundraising Confidence Survey also aligns with what we’re seeing from other AFP research, including our Fundraising Effectiveness Project, which shows increases in giving and number of donors, so I feel this data is a good representation of how the profession is feeling.”

Future Fundraising Priorities

Respondents were also asked to choose the three areas they were going to increase their fundraising efforts over the next three months and six months. As with the first two surveys, fundraisers continued to focus on donor retention and major gifts.

Donor retention was chosen as a priority over the next three months by 58% of respondents and as a priority over the next six months by 60% of respondents. Major gifts were selected as a priority for 55% of respondents for the next three months and as a priority for 59% of respondents for the next six months.

The next two biggest priorities were email/online solicitations (45% for the next three months/42% over the next six months) and direct mail (41%/40%). Following those two areas were foundation giving (37%/41%) and corporate giving (34%/40%).

Overall, telemarketing remains the least priority (4%/3%), followed by donor-advised funds (10%/16%). In-person events are not a huge priority over the next three months (11%) but are growing in priority over the next six months (30%).

Respondents were also asked an open-ended question about what they thought the greatest fundraising challenge would be in 2021. Many responses related to restrictions, calendar changes, meeting donors and planning events related to COVID-19, vaccinations and the general “re-opening of society,” as one respondent wrote. Many also referred to expectations about how much they should be expected to raise virtually compared to in-person events, with concerns that donors gave a lot in 2020 because of the uniqueness of the pandemic, but they may not continue their engagement online so much in the future.

Donor fatigue was another issue, as expressed by this respondent: “I’m concerned about gaining new donors as the world shifts back to more in-person activities and everyone is exhausted from caring SO much about SO many things.”

“It’s interesting in that on one hand, the overall data is very strong and points to a lot of optimism among fundraisers,” said Kevin J. Foyle, CFRE, MBA, vice president of development and public affairs for UTHealth in Houston, Texas, and chair of AFP. “On the other hand, it’s clear from many of the open-ended responses that there are a lot of unique and personal challenges many fundraisers are facing, including donor fatigue, anxiety about the pandemic, concerns about heightened fundraising expectations, planning both in-person and virtual fundraising campaigns, and general exhaustion and burnout. The pandemic also affected different types and sizes of organizations very differently, so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution here. We’re all going to need to take some general guidance and ideas and personalize them for our own unique situation as we navigate through 2021 and beyond.”

Impressions on the Current Fundraising Landscape

Participants were asked to provide their own thoughts on the current fundraising environment and the impact of the pandemic on their fundraising at the end of the year. Some of the responses included:

  • How we will bridge to whatever the new "normal" might bring—will that be more of a hybrid reality of in-person connections and those that are virtual. Will the reticence of annual donors to engage with us more deeply as we have seen in the past 14 months or so continue as things reopen, etc.?
  • It's really important to begin conversations around race equity with major donors and foundation partners and move away from the donor-centric model of fundraising.
  • We are hoping for an upsurge in giving for the second half of 2021 based on planned events and donors' desire/capacity to give. However, there will be a huge concentration of such events in our community due to fundraisers postponed from 2020 and early 2021.
  • I think overall donors want to give. But I do worry that donors and foundations may not believe the need is as great this year as they did last year when COVID was new on the scene and impacting everyone. Once businesses reopen, adults are vaccinated, and the economy seems "ok", will they continue to be as generous as they were in the uncertain times of 2020?
  • I'm at a larger organization and we had a massive increase in giving last year but that is not sustainable. I worry about smaller nonprofits that don't have as much ability to weather these tough times. It makes me wonder about passing up some fundraising opportunities to make sure there are funds for all organizations and the orgs that need it most. Trying to engage exhausted and stresses out donors is a huge challenge.
  • I’m feeling optimistic—more donors seem to be open to in-person meetings and are anxious to see staff members face-to-face. This may pour over into events more slowly since large gatherings of people may be less appealing throughout the remainder of 2021. The stock market is healthy, so major donors seem to feel confident in making their gifts, although a change in administration has ruffled the feathers of some donors fearing tax increases on their assets. More people are creating estate plans and wills as their mortality has been brought to the forefront of their daily lives, so that's good for the beneficiaries if they're charities.
  • I am feeling optimistic about the fundraising landscape, but also uncertain. With the slow rate of rolling out vaccines in Canada, I imagine this will affect fundraising, especially events. However, there appears to be optimism among our donors, and they appreciate that we continued to offer programs and services and kept them updated throughout the pandemic. I have also been surprised by the amount of sponsorship support for our upcoming Walk. We have had more sponsor interest this year than we have had in the last several years.

About the Survey

A total of 319 AFP members in the United States and Canada submitted usable responses to the online survey that was available from April 15 to May 5, 2021. The survey was made available to all AFP members.

The next survey will be conducted in July 2021.


Since 1960, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) has been the standard bearer for professionalism in fundraising. The association works to advance effective and ethical philanthropy by providing advocacy, research, education, mentoring, collaboration and technology opportunities for the world’s largest network of professional fundraisers. AFP’s 26,000 members in more than 240 chapters raise over $100 billion annually for a wide variety of charitable organizations and causes across the globe. For more information, go to   

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