FYI Blog

Let History Be Your Guide: Fundraising Through Challenging Times

When the pandemic hit in March, it was clear that COVID-19 would have a substantial impact. Add 2020’s urgent civil rights call to action and public response, and we are fundraising in a truly unprecedented time. This macro climate presents a host of challenges and some opportunities for nonprofits. Naturally, many boards and nonprofit leaders have challenged fundraisers to anticipate and quantify that impact. But how?

As the daughter of a historian, I know that the first thing to do in a national crisis is to look for lessons in the past. And, as a seasoned fundraiser, I know that industry-level trends help us understand where we are going. Fortunately, nonprofits have good data from both 9/11 and the 2008 recession, which should inform today’s strategies.

Following 9/11, fundraising programs took a significant hit. At the time, fundraisers were acutely sensitive to not “bothering” their donors during a national crisis. However, if you don’t ask, people don’t give. And that’s exactly what happened.

There was an organic response rate decline due to the crisis, but more significantly that decline was compounded by nonprofits’ decisions to stop mailing.  Basically, it set a doom loop in motion. Because investing in acquisition is critical to sustaining file size, drastic cuts intensified the damage ­– not only in the months to follow, but for years.

When Avalon reviewed a sample of organizations representative of stable programs, we identified a -64% median decline in new join revenue following 9/11. Multi-year donor revenue was more stable, with only a -7% decline. Loyal donors were sticking with the organizations they already supported, regardless of disruptive external events.

Organizations with the steepest declines were those that significantly cut their acquisition programs. Furthermore, those cuts had serious repercussions for years. Both donors and revenue were down significantly in the first year, and lost revenue over five years was even more dramatic.

In Figure 1, Avalon’s cross-client benchmark tracks lost revenue through the fifth year on file. And that is just the direct response stream in its first five years; it does not extrapolate the potentially steep opportunity cost of major and planned giving upgrades.


bar chart


In 2008, organizations fortunately had learned the high cost of not mailing. Giving declined in the short term, as the nation reckoned with instability in housing and stock markets, but only by a small percentage. More importantly, nonprofits that maintained strategic levels of fundraising investment came out of the crisis faster and stronger.

As a result, the 2008 recession was not as damaging to nonprofits as the 9/11 crisis.  Multi-year revenue experienced a similar decline across the two crises, but new join revenue declined by a relatively modest median of -25% during the recession, versus -64% after 9/11.

The good news for fundraisers who continue to focus on sustainable growth is that donors who join during challenging times have strong retention. This data is consistent across the two crises. In both situations we saw fewer new donors, but those who did join were more valuable over time.


historical bar chart


In 2020, we have seen stable acquisition performance thus far, and most organizations are trending ahead of 2019 revenue. Cash flow has been volatile due to mail and keying delays, as well as the spike from Giving Tuesday NOW in early May. However, overall revenue is stable, even when benchmarks exclude social service organizations. (Social service nonprofits have seen dramatic increases driven by an outpouring of compassion around direct services.)

Digital campaigns have been a critical real-time barometer for these trends, and there has been some cross-channel fulfillment when people receive direct mail and respond online as the fastest means of giving. However, all channels are exceeding 2019 performance at the mid-year point.

During the initial crisis this spring, Avalon advised clients to:

  • Update copy. Review every communication for sensitivity and be ready to pivot as events unfold.
  • Manage leadership expectations around budgets. We cannot predict outcomes in this completely unprecedented time. However, based on historical data, at the outset of the crisis Avalon projected declines within a range of -5% to -20%.
  • Stay the course with mail. Continue to mail and maintain acquisition efforts, even as you anticipate some decline in new joins. To offset that, employ strategies that maximize response rate, such as conservative list selection and limited testing.
  • Save testing for later. An unpredictable macro environment makes most testing moot, so a temporary pause on those costs makes sense.
  • Leverage digital. Timely communications are critical right now, and digital offers real-time feedback on what matters to your donors.

Now that we have a few months of data to support these strategies, we also recommend that nonprofits:

  • Stay nimble. The key right now is to stay incredibly flexible. Having an option to change copy at the last minute is paramount, so stick with flexible mail formats and leverage digital.
  • Stay relevant. Be authentic and stay focused on the impact you’re making every day to fulfill your mission.
  • Watch for opportunity. Your organization may actually have an opportunity to bring on even more new donors. If you are seeing especially strong response rates, consider expanding acquisition and re-acquisition efforts.

Every fundraiser I know has been working incredibly hard this year to adjust to the pandemic reality. Thank you for your active stewardship of these important programs that provide critical support and enable nonprofit missions to flourish. They are needed now more than ever.