What a year! What 2020 meant for the fundraising sector

17 December 2020
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In this blog Peter Lewis, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institute of Fundraising, takes a look back at the past year and at some of the achievements that have been made in the face of adversity. He reflects on what 2021 will bring for a sector that has been hit hard by the pandemic and what this shows about its resilience.

This has been by far the most difficult year of my adult life. Like many of you, I am sure, I cannot wait for 2021 to start. 1st of January will be symbolic of a new start.

Not because Boris is going to wave his magic wand and everything will be better, but because scientists have used their professional skills to develop a vaccine, and public health officials will use their professional expertise and experience to make sure it is distributed fairly. There is a lesson for charities there somewhere…

And before I look ahead to 2021, I’d like to take a moment to genuinely celebrate some amazing work and achievements in 2020.

No one could have foreseen that major fundraising events like the London Marathon would be cancelled, fundraisers would be “furloughed” – whatever that meant – or working from home, and that our traditional community and events programmes would be impossible. 

And yet, despite coronavirus, our members and the wider fundraising community continued to raise funds for vital causes through the combination of the general public’s huge generosity and the ingenuity, professional skills and commitment of the fundraising community. 

London Marathon turned into the 2.6 challenge, Macmillan’s Coffee morning generated more than £6 million without a real cup of coffee being passed to anyone from a different household, Islamic Relief’s volunteers turned real life cakes into digital fundraising success, and small charities across the country engaged their supporters in new and innovative ways.  Even the good old ‘dog and bone’ had a renaissance during 2020, developing genuine supporter engagement and sometimes being the only conversation a supporter would have during the day when they were locked-down.

We should never underestimate the generosity and commitment from supporters for the causes they care about. The continued work around improving the supporter experience, initiated in the darker days of 2015, has come into full sunlight, and donors have demonstrated their loyalty to causes they care about like never before. 

‘The sector is going to be far smaller in 2021’

Yet despite the incredible fundraising, it’s no secret that the vast majority of charities have been dealing with lower levels of income, whether fundraised or traded, and had to make tough decisions to reduce staffing and services. Substantial funding gaps have arisen both for individual charities as well as the sector as a whole (£10 billion at our latest estimate) with income being reduced at the same time as demand for services has increased. Government support in the form of the furlough scheme and the emergency funding package of £750 million have helped, but the bottom line is that the sector is going to be far smaller in 2021, able to deliver less public benefit than it was before the pandemic when the demands on its services were far less.

And this, for me, is the biggest mistake of government. Its sectoral analysis is flawed. Charities are granted their special status because they deliver public benefit. In times of national crisis, that public benefit should be at the very least maintained, not reduced. Similar to its investment in public services, government should also have heavily invested in charitable services. An immediate missed opportunity will become a longer-term strategic error, as the charity sector is less able to contribute to building back better.

But what next? Well, despite the evident pain being experienced by charities up and down the country, there is incredible resilience, incredible commitment and incredible creativity across our wonderfully varied fundraising community in finding new ways of both delivering services and generating income.

One of the key lessons that I have taken away from this year is that even when people are experiencing personal difficulties and challenges in the face of a national emergency, they still want to hear from fundraisers and engage with the causes they care about. When face to face fundraising was able to return, in a safe and responsible way, we saw a hugely positive response and great conversations with members of the public. Despite the economic uncertainty and daily challenges of living through a pandemic, the public have given a clear message that when asked, they give.

‘Giving a rewarding experience’

Indeed, at a time when many people may be feeling stressed and anxious, giving to charity can be an even more rewarding and meaningful experience. And while many people are tragically suffering the harsh economic effects of the crisis and no longer able to give, others have weathered the storm well, and have more to give as their other spending activities have been curtailed.

And this at a time when many charities have been forced to develop fundraising tools that they simply didn’t have at the beginning of the crisis. Personalised video ‘thank yous’ and the growth of virtual challenge events will simply add to the ways of engaging supporters alongside those much loved community and mass participation events and those genuine face to face conversations and interactions which will – I am sure – come back into circulation over the course of the year.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for charities to think long term at a time of hard strapped cash flow. But with the legacy market expected to grow significantly over the next five years, charities and fundraisers should all be thinking about how they can encourage people who care about their cause to think about leaving them a gift in their will, as well as a gift in the here and now.  

‘Time for truly strategic thinking’

People often say you do not value something until you have lost it. And charities around the UK have definitely seen the impact on them of their missing fundraised income. So perhaps this is the time for this truly strategic thinking about fundraising. The fundamentals of excellent fundraising remain the same, but how we use those behaviours, skills, and values in our fundraising will continue to change and adapt. Organisations have to plan strategically for how we build on what we’ve learned through this year, and while it is not always easy in the face of tightened finances, renewed investment in fundraising is essential for success in 2021 and beyond.

When the world needed to find a vaccine against the virus, the world invested in science and scientists. With charity CEOs and trustees needing to meet more demand for their services, and wanting to build back better, perhaps now is the time we will get a common understanding of the value of the professional skills, expertise and experience of fundraisers, and a recognition that an investment in fundraising is an integral part of making the world a better place.

I wish you all as happy and restful end of year break and look forward to working with you to best support our amazing fundraising sector and community in 2021.

Peter Lewis
Peter Lewis
Chief Executive, Chartered Institute of Fundraising
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