If there is one key takeaway for philanthropy professionals from 2020, it’s that they have to be prepared to pivot at the drop of a hat. With COVID-19, social unrest, market volatility, the elections and natural disasters, it was a year like none other and one we will not soon forget!

But even with the challenging landscape, there are professionals and institutions that have been successful in sustaining and growing their fundraising performance. Many individuals and institutions are still making money and have money to donate, so continuing to ask for donations is imperative.

Successful fundraisers quickly learned to adjust their priorities, and relied on proactive communications, effective financial management, and personalized prospect and donor relations. They adapted their cultivation and solicitation strategies to optimize fundraising performance. What they experienced shines a light on ways to enhance future performance in 2021.


Antoinette Vojtech, executive director of principal gifts and campaign at Sacramento State University, determined that she and her fundraisers would not stop pursuing their goals in 2020. But they briefly “paused” conversations with prospects and donors and shifted from in-person to Zoom meetings, depending on donor preference.

When Sacramento State operations went virtual in March, one of the first things Vojtech did was to reach out to her top 25 prospects. “I said ‘thank you for everything you have done for the university, I recognize our current challenges and I hope to see you soon.’

“I didn’t stop pushing the pedal and moving conversations forward,” she says. “People are still giving and gift conversations with my prospects continue to happen.”

Vojtech reminds fundraisers to keep in mind that prospect and donor assets are changing. Donors are giving in more complex ways, says Vojtech. They are not just writing checks or donating via credit cards. Donations are being made through donor advised funds, family foundations, closely held companies, conversions of assets, and more. To accommodate their circumstances, she is applying a robust approach to structuring gift agreements. For 2021, Vojtech recommends leveraging giving from foundations that are seeking ways to give to social justice causes and programs that benefit a wide population. Determining and promoting how that fits into your mission can be beneficial, she says.

Another change she has seen 2020 that she expects to continue into 2021 is an increase in unrestricted gifts. As reporting stipulations and controls are loosened, promoting and accepting these types of gifts allows university leadership to be nimble in meeting the needs of students.


Chevy Humphrey, formerly the Hazel A. Hare president and CEO of the Arizona Science Center and currently president and CEO of Museum of Science and Industry – and an accomplished fundraiser – immediately created an ecosystem of constant communication with constituents. Her tactics were: (1) Inform with transparency and accountability amongst the staff, donors, partners and the public, to instill confidence in current and future operations; (2) Tell how the Center is mitigating risk created by the pandemic; (3) Reinforce the Center’s leadership in the local community and the global science center community; (4) Repeat.

In March 2020, all donors, staff and the public received consistent email communications followed by phone calls to donors and stakeholders to reinforce the email’s message. Monthly communication followed and Science Center fundraisers continued to make their asks. “In March and April, we actually raised about $3 million, just from those emails and phone calls, for a COVID-19 fund that provided support for the Science Center,” Humphrey said. “The Science Center continued to have those conversations, and it spread throughout the organization,” including board members and staff communicating with donors.

Humphrey says donors and prospects wanted to know what the organization was doing and how they could help. They wanted to feel confident that they were being informed about future plans. “Constant communication really pays off. It paid off especially during the Science Center’s annual fund campaign as well as its comprehensive campaign.” And, she added, leadership matters. “Leaders must be consistent and visible, talking to donors in real time.”


At Eastern Washington University, Lisa Poplawski Lewis, associate vice president of philanthropy and campaign director, maintained her team’s financial goals and performance metrics during the pandemic. One change was that fundraisers worked to educate and incentivize prospects to consider non-cash opportunities.

“We had a lot of focus on cash giving in recent years, knowing that the market was doing well, that individuals and foundations still had money to give,” Poplawski says. But there was a definite shift in 2020.

“People tend to think more long-term about themselves and tend to update wills during times like this. We talked to them about their wills, asked them if Eastern was in it and, if not, would they consider including Eastern in their will.”

Lewis said her team was diligent to look at new strategies, so that if there was a closed door in terms of cash gifts, they would be prepared to discuss the donor’s other assets. They also focused on acquiring first-time prospects and developed a written cultivation plan to help balance their portfolio of top-tier, mid-level and new donors.


Perhaps the most important point to remember from the 2020 year of COVID is the resiliency of philanthropy, as evidenced in the Giving USA historical trend extending back decades. While the economy may experience dips, philanthropy tends to have a strong upward movement overall. That’s the best news of the year.

To benefit, nonprofit organizations must remain agile and ready for what comes next on the political, societal, economic, and environmental spectrums. Those organizations that position themselves as providing solutions to life quality issues will be attractive to both individuals and organizations looking to support these causes in 2021.


  1. Proactive, continuous, “360” communications are a must
  2. Continue personalized prospect and donor relations
  3. Pivot and adapt strategies as needed and let donors and prospects help guide that shifted strategy
  4. Adapt cultivation and solicitation practices and strategies accordingly
  5. Continue to ask, and allow for a natural extension of the gift decision time
  6. Other giving instruments may be critically important
  7. Technology is here to stay. Be creative in using it.
  8. Solidify and communicate your ability to provide solutions to life quality issues.


Richard Tollefson is founder and president at The Phoenix Philanthropy Group, an Arizona-based international consulting firm serving nonprofit organizations as well as institutional and individual philanthropists.

March 2021