They Came Through in a Crisis. Will 2020’s New Donors Keep Giving?

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By Eden Stiffman

When schools began to shutter at the start of the pandemic, the mission of First Book became more relevant for more people than it ever had before.

The charity provides free or low-cost books and learning materials to teachers working in schools with a high proportion of children from low-income families. The organization also distributes books to families through school districts, homeless shelters, libraries, and meal sites.

“Families that are not really in underserved communities were experiencing the same issues — the lack of connectivity, the lack of books and resources in the home for learning to be able to continue,” says Christa Evans, the charity’s vice president for development. With almost all learning happening virtually, “we were relatable to a larger segment of people,” she says.


  • Understand your data. Get into the weeds to better understand who your donors are, as well as when, why, and how much they give. How else do they want to engage with your mission?
  • Be transparent about impact and need. Report back to supporters about what their gifts accomplished and how needs have changed. This is vital to maintain trust.
  • Make engagement personal. Tailor your messages and interactions to individual donors. Maybe that’s a personal note or an invitation to join a virtual briefing.

Hundreds of educators contacted the nonprofit each day to see if it could provide books for their students. These were teachers who had cleaned out their classroom libraries and decimated their personal bookshelves to try to help their students, Evans says. “It wasn’t enough.”

She and her colleagues launched a Covid-19 relief fund in the first week of March 2020 to accelerate book distribution. That fund raised $500,000 in a matter of months, and about 1,800 new donors contributed online during that time.

“Compared to what we typically raise online, that number is astronomical,” Evans says. First Book was selected as one recipient of the New York Timess Neediest Cases Fund, which may have contributed to that spike. The new donors were very generous; the average gift in the first few months of the relief fund was about $200.

First Book’s large average gift size was exceptional, but the charity isn’t alone in the influx of support from new online donors in the past year.

The overall number of donors in the United States grew by 7.3 percent in 2020 compared with 2019, according to the Fundraising Effectiveness Project’s analysis of giving at nearly 2,500 organizations.

Health and human-services organizations on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis saw donors respond to the heightened needs in their communities and around the world. Arts and cultural groups, forced to close venues and cancel in-person programming, saw first-time gifts from individuals who previously may have been ticket holders. And in the wake of last summer’s racial-justice reckoning, some civil-rights nonprofits and groups that support marginalized communities saw a spike in first-time donors.

But Evans, who raised money for other organizations in the wake of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and other crises, recognizes that many of these new supporters may not give again.

“If you’re fortunate, you will have found a donor who loves the mission irrespective of the environment you’re currently in,” she says. “But it’s a huge challenge for us, and it’s going to be a huge challenge for most organizations that were lucky enough to receive increased donors during this period.”

When the Crisis Subsides

Persuading supporters to give again and again costs less than bringing new donors into the fold. But donor-retention rates dropped to a record low in 2020, with fewer than one in five donors who gave to a charity for the first time in 2019 supporting the same group again.

But needs persist. The pandemic and its economic fallout are still with us. Efforts to advance racial justice face continued obstacles. For fundraisers, last year’s surge in support raises questions about sustainability and staffing as organizations do their planning.

First Book’s new supporters recognized the need to get books into the hands of families. But Evans expects that a significant share will not make a second or third gift.

“Once they feel that the crisis has subsided, I think it’s going to be hard to keep them on board,” she says.

In 2020, First Book’s individual and foundation giving team — Evans, another full-time fundraiser, and a part-time fundraiser — raised more than $4 million. That’s up from the roughly $3.1 million her team raised in past years. Fueled by a lot of coffee and dedication, Evans and her colleagues are working to help supporters understand the importance of the charity’s ongoing work, she says.

“For those that don’t have access to the internet or smart devices, for example, the work that we’re doing is just as critical today as it was the day schools started to shut,” Evans says. “It’s our responsibility to make sure they understand that need continues and in some cases is just as bad today as it was in the middle of March 2020.”

Mine the Data

Some nonprofits are built to handle huge influxes of support. For example, humanitarian-aid groups tend to be agile operations, says Andrea Wilson, a managing partner at the consultancy BDO. “Most of those organizations are structured in such a way that they’re able to withstand the ebbs and flows of a disaster cycle,” she says. One of her clients received $4 billion more than usual in 2020 because of Covid-related work. “They don’t anticipate that continuing,” she says. “It’s short term. They’re able to serve in this type of crisis, and that money will go away and that’s part of their plan.”

Before developing a strategy to retain supporters, organizations need to first ask the fundamental question of whether the generosity of last year is sustainable, Wilson says. She notes that giving was exceptional for most of her clients in 2020, even among organizations that weren’t responding directly to the year’s crises.

Many of the first-time online donors of 2020 will give just once. Donors who made a $5 or $25 contribution, “they’re typically not sustaining donors,” she says. “Online donors don’t come back every year.” But nonprofits that thoughtfully engage these new supporters via an online campaign may reap more second gifts.

Experts recommend charities mine their data to learn as much as they can about new supporters. With a better sense of who donors are, as well as when, why, and how much they give, fundraisers can develop an outreach strategy with messages tailored to specific audiences.

For some charities, that segmented approach may be old hat. For others, the recent influx of support has presented new opportunities to advance their digital-fundraising capabilities.

That’s the case at the CDC Foundation, a nonprofit that supports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The nonprofit saw an uptick in new supporters during the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks and other health crises. But never to the degree of the Covid-19 response, says Laura Croft, vice president of advancement. “This is the mother of all emergencies,” she says, and she and her colleagues are thinking about their response to this worldwide crisis differently.

Prior to the pandemic, the CDC Foundation received less than 1 percent of its budget from individual donors. Its support came primarily from foundation and corporate funders focused on public health, or individuals who work in that field and were familiar with the organization. But they weren’t really on the radar of the broader public, Croft says. “We were a best kept secret prior to Covid.”

Early on in the pandemic, the nonprofit launched a crowdfunding campaign, partnered with large companies for employee-giving programs, and hosted online events on new platforms like TikTok and Twitch. The result was an explosion of new contributions, which helped diversify the nonprofit’s base of supporters.

In the 2019 fiscal year, the charity received gifts from more than 300 new individual donors. In the 2020 fiscal year, that number jumped to nearly 114,000. So far in fiscal year 2021, more than 15,000 new donors have made gifts.

And those are just the supporters for which the nonprofit has identifying information like a name or email address. Nearly 230,000 other people supported the organization through a Facebook fundraising campaign, although only a small share of those donors are in the CDC Foundation’s database.

Retaining new contributors has been a goal from the get-go. The organization has now raised just under $250 million since the pandemic began, and the crisis is not over. “This thing has a long tail,” Croft says.

Sustainability is a concern, she says. “We definitely expect a drop-off.” She and her colleagues are trying to set fundraising goals and forecast based on past retention rates and crisis responses. The group is investing in new technology, hiring additional fundraising staff, and bringing in outside counsel to make the most of the moment.

“We knew we needed outside help because our CRM was exploding with a tsunami of gifts,” Croft says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we’ve had this type of awareness.” The consultants advised the fundraisers to clean their donor data as it comes in to better get to know their donors.

Fundraisers conducted a wealth screening of its donors and created major-donor portfolios. The major-gifts team grew from one to two staff members with two more positions in the works.

The organization also started a large-scale direct-mail program for the first time. New donors also received a welcome series of three emails over four weeks, says Elizabeth Patrick, director of advancement services. After those initial welcome emails, new donors receive the CDC Foundation’s ongoing communications.

Fundraisers also focus on regularly sharing information about what philanthropy has accomplished via online newsletters and virtual donor briefings. In the year ahead, they will focus on informing supporters about the CDC Foundation’s work beyond the Covid-19 response and building a recurring-donor program.

Eighty-four percent of the nonprofit’s 2019 donors gave again in 2020. While that was a smaller pool of supporters, the early-retention numbers are promising, Patrick says. Both new and reactivated donors have increased the frequency of their giving over the past year.

Fundraising Footing

Some of the groups that attracted support from new donors were grassroots organizations that don’t have the fundraising infrastructure to capitalize on the moment. Some nonprofit and philanthropic leaders hope to better equip these groups with training and capacity-building resources to help them raise more money to sustain their work.

In the wake of mounting violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $5.8 million for the AAPI Community Foundation. Some 47,000 donors supported the campaign, says Bing Chen, president of Gold House, a three-year-old nonprofit collective of AAPI leaders and one of several organizations helping to determine which grassroots organizations receive a portion of the crowdfunded dollars.

Even before the pandemic began, Gold House and the nonprofit Asian American Futures planned to launch a grant competition and incubator program for small nonprofits serving a diverse array of Asian American communities and causes. The Gold Futures Grant Challenge launched Monday and will soon begin accepting proposals from nonprofits. The funding will come from a group of family foundations and private donors who aim to pool a total of $1 million to disburse in November. In addition to the financial support, winning organizations will have access to training and mentorship to build their leadership capacity and fundraising infrastructure, Chen says.

Vivian Long, a board member at Asian American Futures and vice president of philanthropy for the Long Family Foundation, says that while she’s pleased to see the outpouring of support for crowdfunding campaigns, she also worries about the recent influx of dollars. “What’s going to happen next year if that same dollar amount is not there?”

Her family’s foundation has started to provide more funding for capacity building and leadership development at small nonprofits. She encourages other young donors, who may have supported causes for the first time this year, to consider how to continue supporting those nonprofits.

“We need to develop the next generation of philanthropists who is not just thinking about a one-time gift, but is thinking about a two- or five-year commitment and really committing to journey alongside these nonprofits,” Long says. “A multiyear commitment at a lower dollar level may be more powerful than a high-dollar one-time gift.”

Long and Chen hope the grants challenge becomes a centerpiece of AAPI donors’ giving to nonprofits led by and serving AAPI communities. “We want it to be something that AAPI nonprofits can depend on to be a place where their innovation is funded,” Long says. “Our community leaders need to have the skills and the tools to be able to build healthy organizations so that they can receive the influx of funds coming from GoFundMe but also plan for the future.”

‘The Story Is Not Over’

While many more donors chose to make one-time gifts to organizations responding to the pandemic instead of becoming monthly donors in 2020, nonprofits across cause areas have leaned into recurring-donation programs.

According to a survey by M+R, an online fundraising and marketing firm that works with nonprofits, revenue from monthly donors grew 26 percent in 2020 for organizations both on and off the frontlines of the health crisis.

First Book doubled the number of supporters who give through its monthly giving program in 2020. “Whether or not that’s sustainable, and it’ll double again this year, remains to be seen,” Evans says. “But we’re certainly going to make the effort.”

The nonprofit’s book-club program, in which supporters receive a sampling of books at home as a way to experience for themselves the kinds of resources the charity provides to children and their families, has also grown over the past year.

While it will be a few more months before the charity has a firm grasp on its Covid-19 donor-retention rate, “ultimately our goal is for our active donor base to give multiple times a year,” Evans says.

As of late April, 10 percent of the 1,800 donors who made their first gift to the Covid relief fund had made at least one additional gift since then.

First Book’s appeals have changed since students were sent home from school last spring. The urgency of distributing books was the central theme a year ago. Now kids are a year older, and the books they received may no longer be age appropriate. Maybe they’re learning a different subject, or their teacher is now working to reconstruct the classroom library to prepare for more students’ return to in-person instruction.

Throughout the year, major donors received communications about what the charity has been doing with their investment. “We had the ability to deploy 19 million books last year,” Evans says. “If that’s what’s possible, we want to keep that scale moving.”

The pandemic’s long-term effect on learning and literacy is unknown, and the organization has to remain agile. “Now we want to talk about what the next chapter looks like,” Evans says. “This chapter might be ending, but the story is not over.”

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