Research & Reports

Second Quarter 2021 Shows Continued Confidence In Charitable Fundraising

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Optimism About Performance, Giving Levels Remains High in Most Categories, While Dipping Slightly in Others


(Arlington, VA) Fundraisers continue to feel very confident about charitable giving in the current environment, with a majority expecting to reach their goals in 2021 and raise more money than last year, according to the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) 2021 2nd Quarter Fundraising Confidence Survey.

The survey asked 13 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 September 2021, asking about optimism and fundraising performance from April through June 2021.

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 reported an average confidence level of 7.63 for the second quarter of 2021 (Q2), slightly higher than the level of 7.60 reported from the first quarter of 2021 (Q1). Two studies in 2020 reported lower confidence levels (6.52 in September 2020 and 6.98 in December 2020).

Fundraisers are also increasingly confident about raising more money in 2021 than 2020. The 2021 Q2 confidence level is 6.95—higher than the Q1 confidence level of 6.45 and significantly higher than the levels from 2020 (4.89 in September 2020 and 5.47 in December 2020).

Optimism about donor receptivity to fundraising communications decreased just slightly, from a 2021 Q1 figure of 7.27 to a Q2 figure of 7.21. The highest figure was reported in December 2020—7.38—though that result may be because of the holiday giving season when donors expect to receive many charitable appeals.

“The biggest takeaway is that despite the challenges of the pandemic, we’re still seeing solid confidence from many fundraisers about giving prospects currently and for the rest of the year,” said Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA, president and CEO of AFP. “The results of this second quarter Fundraising Confidence Survey are very similar to the data in the recently released second quarter Fundraising Effectiveness Project report. That is, we saw strong growth in the first quarter that leveled off a bit in the second quarter, but the figures, in general, remain high. We’re seeing the same with regards to fundraising confidence and planning, and I’m especially pleased about the robust level of optimism that fundraisers feel about raising more funds this year compared to 2020.”

Confidence in Hiring Growing Slowly Since Last Year

 Fundraiser confidence in their organizations having the capacity to hire staff and invest in infrastructure remains essentially flat. Q2 optimism about hiring and purchasing capacity over the next three months was 5.14, compared to Q1 optimism of 5.28.

However, extending the time period out to six months, Q2 optimism was 5.76 compared to Q1 optimism of 5.73, while Q2 optimism for a full year out was 6.52 compared to Q1 optimism of 6.41. These figures were significantly lower in the December 2020 survey data.

When asked if their organization was planning to hire fundraising staff over the next three months, one-third of respondents (33%) responded affirmatively. That figure has steadily grown in previous surveys: April 2021 (29%), December 2020 (19%) and September 2020 (16%).

“The ability to hire more fundraisers is a key touchstone pointing to the confidence that charities have about the future and their current capacity to take on more staff,” said Geiger. “That more charities, slowly but surely, continue to indicate they will be hiring fundraising stuff is a trend we’ll be continuing to monitor closely. This trend also tracks with what we’re seeing with the AFP Career Center, where we’ve seen the number of jobs posted triple from November 2020 to today.”

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. For the first time, donor retention was not selected as the chief priority.

Direct mail was chosen as the biggest priority over the next three months by respondents (54%), significantly higher than its three-month Q1 priority level (41%). However, the importance of direct mail dropped significantly over the next six months (41%) and 12 months (39%).  

Major giving was chosen as a priority over the next three months by 52% of respondents, and its importance increased over time, chosen by 60% of respondents as a priority over the next six months and by 67% of respondents over the next 12 months.

In contrast, donor retention was selected as a priority by 50% (3 months), then increased to 56% (6 months) and 58% (12 months) of all respondents.

“These shifts in priorities show how we’re slowly moving out of the pandemic and what I’d call a ‘pandemic mindset,’ where retaining donors was the most critical fundraising activity,” said Kevin J. Foyle, MBA, CFRE, chair of AFP and senior vice president of development and public affairs for UTHealth Houston. “Fundraisers are beginning to feel more comfortable about retention and looking at other areas now, such as major giving and direct mail, two mainstays of fundraising. Again, these shifts mirror what we saw in the recent Fundraising Effectiveness Project, where giving trends were beginning to return to pre-pandemic patterns.”

While still relatively low priority for most fundraisers, in-person special events have increased significantly in importance now (priority for 18% over the next three months) compared to September 2020 (a priority for just 4%). In addition, 25% of respondents indicated in-person special events would be a priority over the next six months, and a priority for 35% over the next year.

Overall, telemarketing remains the lowest priority (a priority for 4% of respondents for the next three, six and 12 months), followed by donor-advised funds, which are growing slightly in priority (14% for the next three months, 16% for the next 6 months and 18% over the next 12 months).

Current Fundraising Challenges

When asked an open-ended question about the current greatest fundraising challenge, respondents overwhelmingly focused on two 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

“Responses related to lack of staff and resources, as well as staff burnout, were prevalent in this version of the survey,” said Foyle. “Mental wellness has become an increasingly impactful issue for the fundraising profession, and it’s a key priority for AFP as we continue to build on our ‘AFP Supports!’ campaign to encourage awareness of mental health and self-care.”

Equally concerning, many respondents felt that opportunities for reaching out to and working with supporters exist, but they simply don’t have the staff, infrastructure, resources and/or support to effectively engage donors, volunteers and the general public.

Other challenges mentioned include shortages in the supply chain that were affecting aspects of fundraising campaigns; delays with the postal service that were impacting direct mail programs; working with a variety of donors whose needs and preferences regarding meetings, masking, and social distancing vary dramatically; and keeping donors engaged with the cause when the sense of urgency from when the pandemic first started seems to be diminishing.

About the Survey

A total of 555 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 Q3 results, will be conducted in November 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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