Home Donors, Volunteers Organizations How Year-End Results Are Shaping Fundraisers' Priorities – The Chronicle of Philanthropy

How Year-End Results Are Shaping Fundraisers' Priorities – The Chronicle of Philanthropy

8 min read

Year-End Redux

For the most part, the numbers are in. Nonprofits know whether their year-end fundraising drives were successful, and they’re using that information to shape their strategy for the months to come.

In a January survey of 1,040 nonprofits conducted by the consultancy CCS Fundraising, 39 percent of nonprofit respondents reported an increase in giving in 2020, while 44 percent reported a decline. Looking ahead, 43 percent said they expect fundraising revenue to decrease in 2021, and 27 percent said they expect to raise more money.

The Marine Mammal Center, in Sausalito, Calif., was one of the groups that had a very strong year-end fundraising season.

Julie Steelman, The Marine Mammal Center

The nonprofit raised 59 percent of its fiscal year 2021 goal from October to December to support its mission advancing conservation through the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals, scientific research, and education. That’s a significant jump from the 49 percent it raised during the same months the previous year.

“Those percentages raised in the last quarter of the calendar year really allow us to have a little bit more breathing room for the uncertainty that continues to exist,” says John Warner, chief development and communications officer. The bulk of the group’s $15 million operating budget comes from private philanthropy.

Other charities that had similar successes are working to build on them in the year ahead. But those nonprofits are in a privileged position — many others struggled to meet their year-end goals.

Groups that were unable to meet their revenue needs continue to look for ways to sustain themselves despite the pandemic’s constraints.

The pandemic forced many charities to tackle what were previously seen as nice-to-have items on their to-do lists. Putting more resources into digital technology and outreach has allowed people across broader geographies to engage with nonprofits’ work and make donations to support them.

Warner attributes his group’s fundraising gains to its emphasis on storytelling and consistent outreach to supporters.

“Our donors have loved that we send them good news at a time when they’re flooded with a lot of negativity,” Warner says. “There’s a real openness to hearing more about the impact of the work.”

For example, the nonprofit mailed cards featuring the stories of patients like Lucinda — a harbor-seal pup who was cared for by veterinarians and volunteers at the center after becoming entangled in fishhooks — to midlevel donors along with an impact report at year’s end. Donors said they put them on their refrigerators or passed them along to a friend or relative who needed a boost.

The pandemic has reinforced the power of tried and true fundraising tactics, Warner says. “Donor engagement, donor stewardship, storytelling — some of the things that we’re always told in our careers are the fundamentals — it’s really reinforced that those are so true regardless of whether you’re in a pandemic or not.”

A survey conducted in December by the Association of Fundraising Professionals echoed those sentiments. The survey gave fundraisers a list of potential focus areas and asked to which three they would devote increased effort over the next three, six, and 12 months. More respondents cited donor retention and stewardship more than any other option — an average of 60 percent selected it as the most important area over all three time frames.

Major gifts were also important; more than half of respondents selected major gifts as a priority over the next three months, 61 percent over the next six months, and 64 percent over the next year. Online and email solicitations were other top priorities for fundraisers, although respondents were less likely to say they would remain so as 2021 progressed.

For the Marine Mammal Center, the last year has demonstrated that using tech-savvy methods to disseminate information and strengthen relationships can pay off.

Before the pandemic, much of the center’s public-engagement efforts were geared toward in-person activities. Zoom science talks and webinars have helped the center reach a broader audience of potential supporters, with more donors coming from outside the West Coast.

The organization plans to double down on those efforts, Warner says. “The pandemic has really helped move us forward in a way we knew we needed to but hadn’t gotten to yet.”

Read the rest of the story for more about how nonprofits are strategizing to meet 2021 fundraising goals.

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