Philanthropy Executive Elizabeth Abel Offers Trends in Charitable Giving from the First Year of the Pandemic

Anna Dausman
May 28, 2021
Programs & Research

I recently sat down with Elizabeth Abel, Corporate Vice President at CCS Fundraising, to hear her perspective on philanthropic giving over the course of the pandemic. In addition to her work at CCS, Elizabeth is also an instructor in the Masters of Nonprofit Leadership at Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Throughout our conversation, Elizabeth shared some of the high-level charitable giving trends that have emerged over the last 15 months, and provided predictions on how nonprofits may continue to evolve in the coming months and years. What follows is a record of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Anna Dausman: Broadly speaking, how did the pandemic impact charitable giving in its first year?

Elizabeth Abel: The pandemic dramatically impacted the nonprofit landscape. At the beginning of 2020, most organizations had to recalibrate and reimagine their programmatic, operational, and philanthropic activity in response to COVID-19. Nonprofit leaders leveraged technology to navigate a rapidly changing environment, pivoted their activity to meet the diverse needs of their communities, and many of them developed creative pathways to fundraise.

Navigating this uncharted territory required forward-thinking leaders and teams who could galvanize support and build momentum around their organization’s mission, activate their community, and innovate in the face of uncertainty. Leaders remained steadfast in the pursuit of their mission and how they communicated the relevancy of their mission to stakeholders. Offering a clear and compelling rationale for donors to recognize the impact that they could have on an organization’s community through philanthropy was vital.

If philanthropy is resilient in times of crisis, then the COVID-19 pandemic was no exception. Donors responded urgently and generously to the pandemic as it impacted the health and well-being of their communities. A recent report from Candid and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy suggests that global philanthropic funding for COVID-19 totaled more than $20 billion!

What did fundraising teams do differently to engage donors in a remote environment?

The primary way that fundraising teams pivoted and innovated was through technology and virtual engagement of their individual donors, both major donors and participation donors. In addition to making personal calls to major donors, fundraising leaders and their teams engaged individuals through thoughtfully curated webinars and virtual events, virtual briefings to groups of stakeholders, and large-scale social media campaigns.

Through this virtual engagement, it was essential to communicate how their organization was meeting the moment, and the impact that philanthropic dollars during a pandemic environment could have on their community. Of course, this communication needed to be done with sensitivity and empathy. Yet as we experienced, donors stepped up tremendously, demonstrating both their loyalty to the organizations that they care so deeply about and their support for new organizations that were pioneering solutions to the most pressing issues of the moment.

Can you share more about virtual fundraising strategies, especially surrounding online events?

CCS fundraising launched a four-part philanthropic climate survey to assess how the COVID-19 pandemic affected nonprofit fundraising. The latest Philanthropic Climate Survey Report presents June 2020 to January 2021 data from over 1,000 respondents, representing nonprofits of all sectors. It also includes a comparative analysis of responses received throughout the series.

The responses around virtual fundraising engagement strategies—and how organizations pivoted from in-person to digital activity—were illuminating: In June 2020, the percentage of survey respondents who reported holding an online fundraising event since the pandemic began was 31%. By January 2021, this figure had doubled to 61%. The pandemic forced us to embrace technology in new ways; this statistic reflects an increase in our collective comfort level around the use of technology to support fundraising activity.

When asked if their organization hosted an online fundraising event during the pandemic, 61% of respondents either “created an entirely new virtual event,” “held a virtual event in place of a pre-existing gala or dinner,” or “held a mix of new and existing events.” Notably, many respondents reported success with their virtual fundraising activity, with 57% either reaching or exceeding their fundraising goals.

Beyond being a more cost-effective fundraising opportunity, virtual events also enabled organizations to reach a larger audience and scale their fundraising efforts. Event attendees did not have to physically be at the event venue to participate in the festivities. Now, you could attend the event and donate from the comfort of your home using a computer or smart phone.

In light of virtual events and other virtual engagement strategies, how has the remote environment influenced online giving?

In 2020, we experienced an extraordinary increase in online giving. In its recent Charitable Giving Report, Blackbaud Institute shared that online giving grew by nearly 21% in 2020 compared to 2019. When we look at a three-year snapshot from 2018-2020, online giving grew 32%! While the trend in online giving has been increasing incrementally in recent years, the pandemic, social distancing, and remote work brought it to the forefront as a channel of choice for donors.

We now know that 13% of total fundraising in 2020 came from online giving. This is the highest percentage in history for online giving and marks an important milestone in philanthropy. What does this mean for nonprofits? Organizations need to be prepared with the systems and tools to process a high volume of gifts online and through mobile devices, which comprised 28% of total online donations. Make sure your “donate” button is the first thing people see when they go on your website, whether they are using a computer or mobile device. Make your gift processing form simple and easy for donors to navigate and ensure clear and consistent messaging across your digital platforms.

What about major gifts—how did the pandemic influence major gifts fundraising?

We experienced a similar trend with major gift conversations, which have historically happened in-person. Between September 2020 and January 2021, the percentage of respondents to the CCS Fundraising survey who reported facilitating a virtual major gift solicitation jumped from 43% to 56%. Encouragingly, 72% of those respondents reported that their major gift conversations were either as successful or more successful than in-person.

While the current remote environment may still preclude us from “traditional” face-to-face donor meetings, data and personal experiences tell us that leaders are making the case for philanthropy in a virtual setting with success.

What are your observations around the pandemic environment’s impact on work culture in the philanthropic sector? How can leaders support their teams during these trying times?

We are in a 24/7 Zoom and email culture, and the fatigue is real! This is especially relevant for nonprofit professionals, and even more so for those working in the advocacy or social/human services sectors where much of the work is in response to current events and community needs. Nonprofit fundraising and the pressure to meet revenue goals—which sustain critical programs and services—can be tiring and emotionally taxing.

I believe leaders need to build stronger teams and professional communities through meaningful connection. It is incumbent upon us to lead with empathy and to recognize that while the world is rapidly evolving, we need to show compassion to our teams and to ourselves.

One way to do this is to celebrate wins. Celebrating both collective team wins and recognizing individuals for unique contributions is beneficial to morale, especially when the remote environment makes many people feel isolated. On our team, we have something called “Good News from Home.” Beyond celebrating professional accomplishments (i.e., our team secured a $100k pledge from a new donor or our gala surpassed its $1 million goal), we celebrate personal life events and milestones. This can be a new baby, pet, hobby—anything that brings you joy. It has become a highlight of our monthly team meetings and reflects the importance of leading with empathy, authenticity, and trust.

As the nation continues to grapple with issues of social and racial injustice, how are the intentional practices of diversity, inclusion, and equity reflected in philanthropy?

America’s reckoning with social and racial injustice has demanded that we reevaluate nonprofit leadership and fundraising practices from a lens of racial and social equity. Many nonprofit executives have recognized the need for their staff, their leadership teams, and their boards to better represent the diverse communities they serve. There is also a need to reevaluate messaging to ensure organizations are incorporating more inclusive language in both their internal- and external-facing communications.

At the same time, nonprofit leaders need to make a continuous and sustained effort toward ensuring that diverse teams feel engaged, empowered, and valued.

In the CCS Philanthropic Climate Survey, 51% of respondents said they took action to make their workplace more diverse, equitable, and inclusive; 43% said they took steps to make their board more diverse, equitable, and inclusive; and 37% said they modified the messaging they use with donors and/or presentations of their case. To ground this statistic, a total of 1,040 people responded to this question. The key takeaway: people are not just saying “we need to do better,” but they are taking action to do so.

What this looks like in practice varies by organization – and it’s clear that while this change is sorely needed, it is still nascent – but one clear trend has emerged: Nonprofits are taking concrete steps to diversify their board membership, in order to better represent their stakeholder communities at the highest levels of organizational leadership.

As people and organizations start to transition back to in-person work, how might nonprofits continue to approach fundraising?

Nonprofit leaders and fundraising teams should continue to embrace innovation and opportunity while remaining steadfast in pursuit of their mission. It’s unlikely we will pivot overnight from remote work back to in-person work. Rather, we will likely operate in a hybrid environment that we are beginning to see now. While this might include resuming small meetings and gatherings, larger events may still be virtual or have a virtual component. Either way, leveraging virtual engagement strategies and elevating diverse voices and perspectives will continue to play a central role in philanthropy.

As we look to the future, let’s ask ourselves, how is our mission meeting the moment? I believe philanthropy is one of the most powerful tools to drive social change. It is a foundational principle of American values and American ideals. While there are many lessons from 2020, the one that resonates most with me is that Americans are generous, and philanthropy is resilient.

Elizabeth Abel is a thought leader in philanthropy and seasoned expert in fundraising. She has designed, advised, and directed development initiatives and capital campaigns that have collectively raised more than $250 million, positively impacting tens of thousands of lives. Elizabeth is a Corporate Vice President at CCS Fundraising, a leading fundraising consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide. Since joining CCS in 2013, Elizabeth has partnered with institutions to plan and implement large-scale fundraising campaigns with revenue goals ranging from $5 million to $500 million. In this role, she provides counsel on strategic planning, major gifts fundraising, and volunteer engagement.

Elizabeth is frequently invited to speak at industry conferences, lead fundraising panels and training workshops, and publish articles on trends in philanthropy. She is an Instructor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches Fundraising & Philanthropy: The Donor Journey to graduate students in the Nonprofit Leadership Program. Elizabeth holds a Masters in Nonprofit Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Arts from Tufts University.