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2021 Forecast for Direct Response Fundraising

Curious about the fundraising forecast for 2021? For this week’s blog post, we reached out to the ADRFCO network (Association of Direct Response Fundraising Counsel) and asked “2020 was a once-in-a-lifetime year, where do we go from here?” and “What did you learn in 2020 that you want to carry into 2021?” Today, we share their insights. 


Andy Laudano, Senior Vice President, Client Services, RKD Group

There were a lot of unknowns when it came to our fundraising programs in 2020. Would COVID act like a natural disaster? Would there be economic ramifications from the massive job loss? Would it affect a donor’s propensity to give? I think we can safely say we have some of those answers now. No, it was nothing like any other disaster we’ve ever faced. Yes, there were – and still are – major economic hurdles. And yes, it did impact giving, but not in the ways we might have guessed. We’ve seen how disasters or economic downturns typically shift giving to more local causes, or regionally to affected areas. But with COVID, donors not only gave to local causes; there was a re-awakening of their desire to support philanthropic giving across the board as it pertains to Direct Marketing fundraising. Also, as nonprofits reimagined, reinvented, and reallocated their tried-and-true fundraising tactics with new tools like virtual events or expanded digital media, donors responded by giving more than ever before.

If there’s one overarching lesson from 2020, it should be that nonprofit fundraising is forever changed. Organizations have a whole new arsenal of techniques in their tool belts that will not only support and enhance their fundraising but will also help them reach donors where they are. As we begin 2021, we must not forget that despite hardship, all the pivoting organizations made to address new realities caused by COVID has led to incredible progress. It also gives us fundraisers another opportunity to be humbled by people’s humanity, capacity to love, and ability to care for others in need.


Kerri Kerr, COO, Avalon Consulting

2021 will be a challenging year.  While many organizations will continue to see strong fundraising response due to their relevant missions and messaging, many others will struggle to define that relevancy in an on-going pandemic as donors face continued isolation, frustration, and lingering fears of a recession.

 If the global pandemic, social justice movement, contentious US election, and environmental disasters of 2020 taught us anything, it’s always have a plan, but also be willing to change that plan at the last-minute.  Above all, messaging is a critically important part of that plan and needs to be responsive and authentic. 

When a crisis hits, everything is viewed through a new lens.  That group shot of people holding hands?  Not okay anymore.  The rising thermometer on your email?  Better use a different graphic.  The “Have we lost you?” teaser on your direct mail renewal?  Need to change it.

Our fundraising is often the voice of the organization reaching donors in the crisis – do we sound disconnected from the current reality or worse yet, insensitive?  What can we tell them about how we’re pivoting to respond to the moment?   And if we’re not pivoting or are facing crushing funding shortfalls, why do we still need their support?

Lower-level donors really came through for the organizations they support in 2020 – our job in 2021 is to continue to engage them in clear and compelling ways – and to be worthy of the trust they put in us.


Nora Millwood, Vice President, Client Services, NNE Marketing

If you’re tired of the word “unprecedented,” you’re not alone. It seems like everything we’ve read (or written) over the last year was meant to remind donors we were navigating uncharted waters, living through uncertain times, and enduring a year unlike any other.

And yet, in an industry where the control is king, and testing is key, are direct marketers able to generate any transferable learning that can help us in the coming years? Can we learn anything from a set of circumstances that will (hopefully) never happen again? As it turns out … yes, yes we can.

Here are some key takeaways from your friends at NNE Marketing:

* Donors are eager to support good causes when their friends and neighbors — and, in fact, the whole country — are experiencing tough times. This will continue into 2021 but could be influenced by changes to the economy or political climate.

* It’s best to push forward and maintain your investment where possible or you risk falling further behind.

* Take advantage of wins when you have them to propel momentum. Be aggressive when you find something donors are responding to or you may miss out.

* When an organization can connect their mission to the current crisis — however tenuous that connection may be — donors will respond.

* Keep an eye on newly acquired donors. Ensure they continue to behave like typical donors and don’t turn out to be more like “crisis responsive” donors.


Lisa M. Smith,  Senior Vice President Strategy & Business Development, Newport ONE

2020 blew the lid off many of my preconceptions and experiences regarding crisis fundraising. The single most important learning I want to carry into 2021 is to expect the unexpected.

For me this means while not disregarding budgets and schedules and historical crisis fundraising trends, to remain open, thoughtful, and responsive as we continue to experience rapid and ongoing change caused by the pandemic.

One notable ‘expect the unexpected’ moment: prior to COVID-19 my crisis fundraising playbook was largely focused on immediacy – raise as much money as possible as quickly as possible with limited expectation of new donor retention.

Due to the duration, complexity, and magnitude of the pandemic, we are already seeing higher retention rates of large volumes of crisis acquired donors even as compared to smaller non-crisis acquired cohorts. This unexpected though logical result has changed our approach to crisis-acquired donor segmentation and messaging in this timeframe – more contacts, context, and sustained giving opportunities with the goal of an expanded, thriving base of donors long after the pandemic and ensuing outcomes are resolved.


Alan Magree, President, Alan Magree Consulting

In an extremely small sample, we found that our clients who stayed the course in 2020, did much better than those who were distracted by the pandemic. That’s not to say that those who stayed the course turned a blind-eye to the pandemic. Rather they took a modest approach and briefly acknowledged the impact of COVID-19 on staff and donors in one mailing.

For environmental clients, we experienced a notable up-tick in acquisition — which included the most successful test of a new package in the past 25 years.

I am very positive about 2021.  I expect that legacy promotion will continue to be successful and donors will continue to give as long as we give them ample relevant opportunities. Don’t forget to promote legacy (will and bequests) opportunities and to pay attention to Donor Advised Fund (DAF) donors.


Erica Waasdorp, President, A Direct Solution

In 2020, we learned that monthly donors are crucial for sustainable revenue.

As for 2021, it’ll be very interesting to see what happens. I think that more organizations should look at merging to keep focused on the real mission.

Our clients have had success with more focus on monthly gifts… which is great of course… and adding buttons to emails. Some organizations have sent out more cultivation than I’ve seen before.


Thank you to these ADRFCO members for their predictions! At TNPA, we are looking forward to moving into 2021 together, continuing to support the missions that we are working for every day. If you’d like to learn more about ADRFCO, click here

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