COVID and fundraising, six months on

This week marks six months since much of our nation shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, we immediately pivoted to respond to the situation. Since then, we’ve been briefing our clients every few weeks on the situation. Here at the six-month mark, we thought it would be good to share with our blog readers what we’re seeing and what we anticipate in the next season.

Praise God, donors responded in a surprising way. I’ll share more details below. But I’ll just say, I’ve been amazed and inspired at the generosity of Christians in a time of pandemic, recession, civil unrest, and more.

In contrast, this outpouring of generosity is not happening across the broader nonprofit world. The most recent Blackbaud Institute Index showed Q2 2020 giving down 8.3% year over year. The Index monitors 12 different categories of nonprofits — 11 of the 12 categories have experienced year-over-year declines. (Human services organizations was the only category up year over year.)

Many Christian ministries like those we serve have had the opposite experience. Giving has been up dramatically over the last six months. The ministries that are struggling are those whose fundraising was based on events (which can’t happen in this pandemic environment) or those whose ministry outreaches — college outreach, missionaries recalled from the field, camps — have been forced to pause. Even then, income is not down as much as they would have expected.

In fact, across clients for whom we have data, income from general donors was up an average of 25% from March through July, with all clients reporting increases, and almost all of them saw double-digit growth. Looking at that same March to July timeframe, direct mail income was up 21% and online income grew 83%.

Data for August is in and the month ended well, continuing the trend. Almost all clients had double-digit growth year over year in income from general donors (gifts under $10,000). Both online and direct mail were strong. Major donor giving varied widely by client: for some it was up, for others it was down.

Acquisition of new donors through digital channels was phenomenal during this time — 300% increase year over year for our clients, with just a handful “only” at double-digit growth rates. March through August is not a period when most nonprofits do a lot of new donor acquisition. This year, primarily due to digital media, new donor counts in this period were up 2 to 5x for most of our clients. Recent months have not maintained the sky-high response levels we saw in March through May. But we’re still seeing returns from digital media averaging above the pre-COVID levels, even as we spend more.

Lastly, we have wondered if the donors acquired online during this season, with such high levels of response, would be like crisis relief donors (those acquired to help with a natural or other disaster). They’re typically much less valuable than your average donor acquired in normal times. So far — at 30, 60, 90, and 120 days — donors acquired during the pandemic are giving second gifts at the same rate as online-acquired donors prior to the pandemic. That’s a very encouraging leading indicator, since online-acquired donors are so much more valuable over time than direct mail-acquired donors.

We’re monitoring digital media daily for early warning signals. If digital media starts to plummet, we will sound the warning that the recession or donor fatigue is starting to hurt. It has NOT happened yet.

One interesting and encouraging development is that the few who did direct mail acquisition in this period are seeing strong results for those campaigns. We continue to urge clients to keep doing what they would normally do. We see no signs of donor fatigue or recession-induced declines.

Major donor revenue has not fared as well. From March through July, total revenue was flat year over year. At the same time, we’ve seen a 32% increase in the number of gifts. So a lot more gifts, just not some of the really big ones. In this category, ministries are having a wider range of experiences — some having triple-digit growth and others having 50% declines.

Even as the virus surges in many states and the recession seems destined to last for some time, Christians continue to amaze us with their generosity. We’re all ready to return to normal. But we have no idea when that will be. God seems to be doing something unusual and unexpected in more ways than one. And generosity is one of the most encouraging outcomes I’m seeing. We are praying for this to continue, even as we pray for the pandemic to end.

Steve Woodworth