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The Year Ahead: Leveraging Change for Successful Fundraising in a Post-2020 Era

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There is nothing more uncomfortable, more sleep-depriving, more anxiety producing, for fundraisers than unpredictability in rhythm or dollars. External shocks, in particular for startup nonprofits and smaller 501(c)(3)s, sometimes impact more than delivery of great work for donors and our organization’s mission and services: It threatens roadblocks for growth and can prevent hiring, training, and retention of talent, sometimes for months or years. Yet dramatic unpredictability is what 2020 brought, and many feared and were forced to embrace the worst. With the turmoil, however, fundraisers learned to innovate, adapt and even excel.

That philanthropy remains a core value for a significant number of households was demonstrable over the past year through new attention to planned gifts and upticks in consistent, large gifts for older fundraising shops, a healthy rhythm if not increased face to face engagement on virtual platforms, and remarkable responses to calls for support, in particular for COVID-19 frontline causes, despite the financial strain on the economy.

This is not to say that 2020 was smooth and the lived experience consistent: when we scan from the smallest of organizations to the large, sophisticated fundraising enterprises, there are inconsistencies in trends and data with respect to how fundraising fared, not limited to the maturity of the development program, scarcity of resources allocated to fundraising, and social and racial disparities in communities served.

But, if we consider philanthropy as a prism through which individuals view both their purpose and their legacy in this particular, fragile chapter of our shared history, there are many lessons from the last 12 months upon which major gift officers can rely to ensure a successful and joyful year of giving. Here are just five:

1. 2021 is your sandbox.
Does your organization have an annual event or campaign where the return on investment for your constituency is not clear? Are there international constituents you’ve never been able to meet? COVID-19 and subsequent physical distancing has enabled fundraisers to make substantive, forward-looking changes to their giving program by reducing expenses and implementing bold ideas to reach new prospects and confidently serve their current donors. This is the time to make changes and test ideas.

2. Discuss gifts and philanthropy more frequently with your donors.
Gone are the days in which a time of year would dictate a major gift. The events of 2020 made many donors more attuned to making expedient philanthropic decisions in order to help organizations quickly pivot and solidify their legacy due to uncertainty. Make your donors’ philanthropic vision a consistent, central component of your conversations such that you are prepared to help them with their philanthropic planning.

3. Be creative in resourcing ways that donors can easily gift complex assets.
This is not to suggest that organizations start accepting Bitcoin tomorrow, but the reality is that donors are increasingly thinking about how they can leverage different asset classes and blended gifts, and simultaneously how to make these gifts efficiently. Ensure that you are prepared to address this changing landscape and implement a simple process for accepting any size gift smoothly such that donors understand and have confidence when they are ready to make a major gift.

4. Partner with your close supporters to understand the culture of philanthropy within their family.
We are on the cusp of the largest wealth transfer in history. Over the next several decades, the boomer generation will transfer a projected $30+ trillion to younger generations, affecting permanent change within philanthropy. In this period of uncertainty and consequent intentional thinking about discretionary spending and philanthropy, it is prudent to engage with your close supporters on understanding the philanthropic vision for their family in the years ahead.

5. Identify where you are failing to serve diverse audiences.
While 2020 stretched us to our very tired limits, laying bare pervasive social, racial, and economic divides, it simultaneously exposed the significance of our multidimensional, global ecosystem and the value of working together to creatively identify solutions to the top global challenges of our time. It is more critical than ever before for fundraisers to identify how their organizations can better serve and engage diverse minds in order to enable equity and use philanthropy to accelerate solutions to these challenges in a post-2020 era.

The vast impact of last year’s chaotic narrative is still untold, but if nothing else, we’ve each personally identified with the proverb ‘change is the only constant.’ In the months ahead, I encourage using this to your advantage, approaching change with innovation and optimism, having deeper conversations around philanthropy with donors, and not to forget the discomfort endured—it helped us all see the world differently, and it renewed confidence in philanthropy as a resilient pillar of universal compassion in 2021 and beyond.


KHKatlyn Heusner, MA, CFRE, is an experienced development strategist and fundraiser who currently oversees the development program of the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management. Prior to UC San Diego, Katlyn held leadership positions at Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California, overseeing development and earned revenue strategy; and as Deputy Director at Galerie Mor Charpentier in Paris, France, launching the gallery's international sales portfolio in the United Kingdom and NALA markets and international fair partnerships. She has worked with numerous arts and education organizations, including the City of Paris, University of Oregon, MFA, Boston, MASS MoCA, and Disjecta Contemporary Art Center.

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