John Thompson, Chief Creative Officer  ●  6/9/2021

A Bright Light in a Dark Year: Donor Hearts in 2020

For most of us, the last 18 months went by in a blur of chaotic headlines. COVID-19 claimed over 3 million lives. If that was not traumatic enough, we witnessed economic free fall, catastrophic wildfires and weather events, searing confrontations on social injustice and racism, cyberattacks, disinformation, riots, mass shootings, and insurrection. If we were to infer anything from those headlines, we are a nation in the throes of cultural collapse, hatred, and violence.

Or perhaps not.

As the co-chair of the upcoming 2021 Bridge Conference, I was in the lucky position to help review more than 200 proposed educational sessions. As Chief Creative Officer at TrueSense, I have eyes on hundreds more fundraising campaigns for over 100 clients. Again and again, I see documented examples of philanthropic success in 2020.

These perspectives have afforded me a peek into the giving behaviors of millions of Americans who supported a wide spectrum of U.S. and international charities throughout the mayhem of the last 18 months. Amidst that madness, they shone a reassuring light of hope.

Very quietly, and very consistently, donors looked deep into their hearts — and repeatedly reached deep into their pockets — to help charities serve those in need, at home and around the world. I am sure many of us in the professional fundraising field noted this phenomenon.


True, giving fell 17% in April, May, and June 2020, but that was due in part to the cancellation of many scheduled campaigns by justifiably nervous organizations, uncertain how a nationwide quarantine and economic shutdown would impact fundraising.

But as the nonprofits pivoted and “came back” last summer, with newly configured appeals, so too did their donors, in a big way. By year’s end that drop was erased, and 2020 giving posted a 2% gain over total giving in 2019, which was itself a strong year (Blackbaud Institute, 2021). Early indications see that trend continuing into 2021.

Most notably, when faced with uncertainty about the “safety” of direct mail, many traditional DM-responsive donors, plus a new cohort of younger donors, turned to online giving.

The charitable response in digital channels was staggering.

Across the board, nonprofits of every size, in nearly every sector, saw double-digit growth in online giving. In fact, 13% of all fundraising came from online giving in 2020, the highest percentage ever. (By comparison, U.S. Department of Commerce reports that e-commerce accounted for 14.3% of commercial sales in Q3 2020.)

Moreover, unlike once-and-done “disaster donors” of the past, 2020’s version of new online donors seem to be hanging around. Blackbaud reports a 25% retention benchmark for these first-year, online-only supporters.

To be sure, many nonprofit sectors suffered, and they still face daunting problems, as a result of the pandemic’s impact and the economic hardships it created. Events, volunteerism, and face-to-face fundraising in all its forms have not yet rebounded.

But we should take heart, as fundraising professionals and as members of American society, that — headlines and inflamed rhetoric notwithstanding — human attributes like compassion and generosity were not consumed by the flames of 2020. In fact, they stepped up and met wave after wave of media trumpeting negativity and despair. The numbers prove it.

As a headline, that has a nice ring to it. Let’s take a moment and celebrate that fact-based truth, and then let’s get back work.


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