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2021 Ends With Highest Fundraising Confidence Levels in Past Two Years

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(Arlington, VA) Responses to the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) latest Fundraising Confidence Survey reveals that fundraisers are the most optimistic about giving and prospects for the future they have been since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020 

The survey, conducted in late December 2021 and early January 2022, asked questions regarding how confident fundraisers are in various aspects of their fundraising work and what they see ahead in terms of trends and challenges. The survey looked at fundraising trends and expectations for both the last half of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022.

When asked how optimistic they were about reaching their annual fundraising goal in 2021 and raising more money in 2021 than in 2020, fundraisers displayed record confidence levels since the Fundraising Confidence Surveys started in 2020. On a scale of 1-10 (with 1 being "least confident" and 10 being "most confident”), fundraisers reported an average confidence level of 8.04 for reaching their 2021 fundraising. The confidence level for this category at the end of September 2021 was 7.63 and was at 6.52 in September 2020.

In terms of raising more money in 2021 than compared to 2020, the confidence level was 7.52. In contrast, the same confidence level was 6.59 in September 2021 and stood at 4.89 in September 2020 (when fundraisers were asked if they would raise more money in 2020 than in 2019).

“It’s not a surprise that we’re seeing higher confidence in fundraisers as the charitable sector and the entire world slowly but surely moves out of ‘pandemic mode’ and transitions into a new normal,” said Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, president and CEO of AFP. “I think this new data really shows how far we’ve come over the past two years, even though we have to acknowledge that the recovery has been uneven and that charities are facing different kinds of challenges in their fundraising. I’m most excited about the data about hiring because if charities are feeling confident about hiring fundraising and investing in fundraising infrastructure, that’s a very good sign for the profession and the entire sector.”

Confidence Growing in Hiring, Investing in Capacity
The confidence that fundraisers have in their organizations’ capacity to hire staff and invest in fundraising infrastructure and capacity is also at an all-time high. Optimism about hiring and increasing capacity was 5.64 for the first quarter of 2022, significantly higher than the 4.76 confidence level a year ago for the first quarter of 2021. 

The optimism extended when looking at the next six months of 2022 (6.23 now compared with the level of 4.28 a year ago) and the next 12 months (6.78 now compared to 6.06 a year ago). 

When asked specifically if their organizations are planning to hire in the next three months, the trend flattens but is still higher than a year ago. One-third of respondents (33%) indicated that their organization would be looking to hire fundraising staff over the next three months, the same level as September 2021. However, that figure is higher than the survey from December 2020, when just 19% indicated their organization would be hiring. 

Future Fundraising Priorities

From a list of 11 categories, respondents were asked to choose the three areas they were going to increase their fundraising efforts most over the next three months, six months and 12 months. 

Donor retention was identified as the biggest priority, as it has been in most versions of the Fundraising Confidence Survey. More than 6 in 10 respondents (62.0%) selected it as a priority over the next three months, 56.9% as a priority over the next six months, and 56.5% as a priority over the next 12 months.

Major gifts was the second most important area, selected as a priority over the next three months by 54.5%, over the next six months by 59.5%, and over the next 12 months by 61.0%. 

The biggest change was in direct mail, which in previous versions of the Fundraising Confidence Survey has been selected by 50% or more of respondents as a priority and was the highest priority for fundraisers in September 2021. However, in December 2021, just 26.5% of respondents selected direct mail as a priority for the next three months, 30.2% over the next six months, and 35.2% over the next 12 months.

“This is the most significant change we’ve ever seen in the Fundraising Confidence Survey data so far,” said Kevin J. Foyle, CFRE, MBA, chair of AFP. “My sense is that there are two reasons for this shift. First, there is a cycle with direct mail, with many charities relying on it significantly at the end of the year, so we expect to see a drop in priority with a new year. Second, as we continue to move out from the pandemic, there are now greater opportunities for in-person donor cultivation and solicitations, so it’s likely that direct mail will decrease in priority overall throughout 2022. That will be a trend we’ll be following closely in future surveys.”

In-person special events, which dropped significantly in importance at the beginning of the pandemic but had been slowly growing in priority over 2021, actually saw a slight decrease in importance. Just 16.4% of respondents rated in-person events as a priority over the next three months (January – March 2022), compared to the 17.5% of respondents in September 2021 who indicated in-person special events would be a priority in the October – December 2021 timeframe. “This change might represent concerns at the time over the omicron wave, and I would expect to see much more interest in special events over the course of 2022,” added Foyle.

Overall, telemarketing remains the lowest priority (a priority for 1% of respondents over the next three months and a priority for approximately 3% of respondents over the next six and 12 months), followed by donor-advised funds (12.3% for the next three months, 13.8% for the next six months and 18.7% over the next 12 months), which have stayed relatively the same in priority over the last year. 

Current Fundraising Challenges and Opportunities

Respondents were asked open-ended questions about their current greatest fundraising challenge and opportunities.

The greatest challenges identified by respondents tended to group in the following areas:

  • Lack of staff, staff retention and/or lack of time to reach fundraising goals;
  • Difficulty in building, developing and/or continuing relationships with donors because of the pandemic; 
  • Uncertainty and pessimism because of the pandemic;
  • Finding new donors and expanding the organization’s donor base; and 
  • Donor fatigue/donors engaged elsewhere/too many other causes

Responses to the question of greatest opportunity were more diverse, but several key areas emerged, including enhanced opportunities to solicit and cultivate donors, especially with respect to major and planned gifts; taking advantage of virtual meeting technology to meet with donors not just locally but around the world; and overall renewed donor and public interest in giving and philanthropy generally. 

“The great diversity of responses, especially with regards to opportunities, is representative of where we are now, coming out of the pandemic,” said Geiger. “For the last year, the key issues were all about the pandemic—how to connect with donors virtually, holding virtual events, and staff capacity and burnout. Those are, of course, still issues, but we’re seeing many other trends being to arise now as well. That so many fundraisers now see cultivating donors for major and planned as major opportunities—and expanding their entire fundraising operation—is a great sign for charities and philanthropy. The pandemic has clearly helped organizations identify key donors and supporters who have indicated they want to continue to help. At the same time, it’s no surprise that finding new donors is a common challenge for many charities as they seek to rebuild their donor base over the past couple of years. It’s clearly a really exciting time for the profession right now with lots of opportunities.”

About the Survey

A total of 531 AFP members in the United States and Canada submitted usable responses to the online survey that was available from Sept. 1 to Oct. 6, 2021. The survey was made available to all AFP members.

The next survey, focusing on 2022 first quarter results, will be conducted in April 2022.

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