The Fundraising Future is Now: 3 Tips

This guest post was written by Barbara O’Reilly, CFRE, of Windmill Hill Consulting. Barbara is a fundraising expert and has helped nonprofits of all sizes develop the profitable fundraising strategies they need for sustainable, long-term success.

In the movie Back to the Future, Marty McFly catapults back to 1955 in a time-traveling DeLorean. He sees his parents, when they were his age.

Marty quickly realizes that in time-travel mode, the slightest of actions can change the course of the future. What if he directly or indirectly interferes with his parents meeting and falling in love? (The moral of the story: Time travel will always have an impact!)

It’s not worth imagining what we would’ve done differently if we could anticipate what was coming this year.

Better yet:

If we believe that the future is now, what should we do differently today? How can we navigate this year to weather these times in the long run?

Minus the benefit of my own DeLorean, here are some key moves based on current trends and lessons learned. Here they are:

1. Trust your donors.

One of the first things that happened in this pandemic was that nonprofits went silent. Or at least most of them did. Some were frankly spiraling in panic and confusion. Others felt it was “insensitive” or “not the right time” to reach out to their donors.

On the flip side, a Fidelity report found that 50-75% of donors surveyed were prepared to give the same or more than they did in 2019 because the needs were urgent and the organizations they support need them now more than ever. Giving has never stopped during wars and economic depressions or recessions and it won’t stop despite all that 2020 is throwing us.

Time Travel Tip:

Build a strong cycle of asking-thanking-reporting in all of your donor communications plans. Be candid with donors about how your work has changed because of COVID-19 and the calls for racial justice. Invite them to help you offset the unplanned budget burdens your organization now faces. Trust that your donors will give and give again if you ask them.

2. Reframe your events.

If anything, this year highlighted how much nonprofits rely (over-rely, I’d say) on events as significant percentages of their fundraising budget goals. So, when in-person events became impossible, panic ensued as organizations tried to adapt gatherings on Zoom.

Despite the Zoom fatigue we all are feeling all these months into this pandemic, there have been some unexpected successes moving events virtually. Keeping the mission message central to the gathering is critical. Your 600 person gala won’t translate to a Zoom screen. But videos of stories your donors have made possible will. Testimonials or presentations in a modified form that showcases who your donors are supporting go a much longer way than a rubber chicken dinner in a loud ballroom.

Time Travel Tip:

All signs are pointing to planning for virtual or hybrid events well into 2021. Build in other solicitations (print and email combined) that can tell stories and connect with your donors.

A general recommendation I often make is to send at least three to four appeals that are coordinated with meaningful thank you’s and impact reports. Those added solicitations should help to offset revenue lost by your fundraising events. And you can use virtual settings for smaller cultivation and stewardship events or other impact reporting.

3. Invest in technology to make your fundraising more effective and efficient.

Today there are many tools and platforms that can automate our communications, more effectively track donor engagement activities, and help us identify which segments among our database are the best likelihood to upgrade, become a large-gift donor down the road, or be a “one and done” donor.

They aren’t cost-prohibitive or technologically burdensome for the nonprofit. All they need to provide is data from their database, and analytics/AI platforms do the rest. Using tools like analytics and predictive modeling can improve your ROI because you’re mailing to a better audience, save you money since you’re not mailing print pieces to people who aren’t likely to renew their support, and help you raise more money overall.

Time Travel Tip:

Evaluate how you’re doing your fundraising. What platforms and software are you using? Are you adding unnecessary extra steps to already overstretched fundraising staff?

Commit to invest in platforms that can help you streamline your digital communications with automation based on certain triggers. Plan on running analytics at least once or twice a year to get a baseline on your fundraising trends so that you can adjust your future fundraising planning accordingly.


The eye of the storm is the exact moment to pivot (sorry, I have to use that word because it’s technically what you do in sailing) your sails and chart a new course. Now’s the time to make your donors aware of the many ways they can support you.

We will get through this year. It’s worth waking up to the fullness of the current landscape, to be prepared for our future.

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