Nov. 26, 2021 7:45 am

How the pandemic is changing individual nonprofit donors

Giving Tuesday 2020 broke all previous records. Will 2021 do it again? The results could predict a new era of individual donations

Will a surge in individual donors continue?

(Photo by Flickr user Incase, used under a Creative Commons license)

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Individual giving may have changed more during the pandemic than even foundation giving. Last year’s post-Thanksgiving Giving Tuesday represented a “massive swell” of 29% growth from the year before. Will it last?

I’ll start with me, as a donor: I’m narrowing my focus. I’ve become even clearer during the pandemic about what matters to me, and I will be donating to those causes alone. I have made fewer donations to whatever cause a friend happens to suggest; I have pulled donations from organizations I’ve supported in the past because I believe they’ve mishandled the last 18 months; and I’ve made larger donations to the organizations that are doing the work I think is important.

My personal giving patterns are reflected in donors I work with. Many have increased the amount they give, or committed to monthly donations. Casual supporters have become more dedicated donors.

We can’t know what a post pandemic world will be like – since we’re still in a pandemic, though 2021 fundraising has kept apace with 2020. The coming weeks will tell us a lot though — since nearly a third of annual giving takes place in December. Brooklyn-based digital agency Whole Whale is predicting the first ever $3 billion Giving Tuesday next week, which would be a massive 27% increase over the record set in 2020. Meanwhile a University of Chicago economist argues that since the 1970s, total individual giving in the United States has remained fixed at a relatively consistent percentage of total income (1.8%-2.8%), despite increasingly complex (and expensive) fundraising efforts by nonprofits.

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Could the pandemic have changed something fundamentally? The record setting $471 billion in 2020 did feature many new donors, brought in by crises. Most donors maintained their giving during this chaotic year, and at least a quarter reported an increase. Much of last year’s giving was directed toward local covid-related issues of health and hunger, Yet key social justice issues of racial equity and climate change were prominent too. The need remains.

In addition, donors are looking for more than one way to provide support. They are making monetary donations as well as in-kind donations. They’re looking to safely volunteer their time. They’re more interested in joining committees or emerging leader groups than in the past.

Of course, there are some who still have unrealistic expectations in how they want to support an organization. But t I’m spending a lot less time explaining why a donor can’t personally drop off product donations to a program participant at their home (while taking photos and videos, no less). Donors are clearer about why they want to support you, and more understanding that how they support should be defined by the organization, not by the donor.

GoFundMe was founded more than a decade ago, and today it’s no surprise that many choose to give through crowdfunding. What has surprised me is how much is given to the campaigns that tell a good story. Humans of New York is a great example: In 10 years, they’ve raised more than $20 million for the causes and individuals they feature. Their GoFundMe campaigns raise anywhere from tens to hundreds of thousands, and they are certainly helped by the engaging stories told for each campaign.

Even without the storytelling resources of Humans of New York, however, I’ve seen so much generosity from donors for crowdfunding campaigns lately. Harriet’s Bookshop, in Fishtown, has crowdfunded more than $200,000 to support the purchase of a permanent home for the store. It’s a much-loved, community-centric business that has done a savvy job of communicating the need and keeping donors informed of their progress. Victims of gun violence have also turned to GoFundMe for support, and those campaigns have surprised me with how much is raised.

The advice then is to tell your nonprofit’s story and engage your donors like always, but tighten that message for the world we now live in. More than ever donors want to feel like they’re part of your mission and your work. That’s a change to hope is here to stay.


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