3 Ways Fundraising Has Changed for the Better in 2021

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchNovember 5, 2021
3 Ways that Fundraising Has Changed in 2021
In 2021, we have made great progress increasing donor engagement and breaking down harmful fundraising silos.

Approaching two years into the pandemic, the close of 2021 will be another milestone in a period of great change for fundraisers. We’ve all had to do things differently, whether we like it or not. Here are three big changes that I think will have a positive impact on our work.

The silos in fundraising are down, or at least more connected

It used to be that a big fundraising shop would have direct mail people, a stewardship person, a “digital” person, a giving day person, etc. In many cases these groups operated independently. Or in a small shop you’d hear, “We do this during X time only”, creating silos that arise from process. This unfortunately meant that donor cultivation, appeals, stewardship, events, really didn’t work together.

That has ended, probably for good…and that ultimately is a good thing.

This change was born out of resources tightening and people having had to take on multiple roles. When we asked advancement leaders, “What are your biggest challenges with talent management right now” at our conference this fall, the top response was “people doing 2-3 jobs.”

That is an issue for sure, but it also has led to the artificial separations between donor engagement activities dissolving as people work in multiple areas of fundraising. There’s also a growing understanding that the ‘silos’ we put up are not only irrelevant to donors but damaging to the donor experience.

How many of us have seen a stewardship fail impact a major gift? An event invitation go out to someone who already responded with a comment to a gift officer that didn’t get communicated? An ask email go out to someone with a recent pledge? Silos create a lack of communication that can create horrible engagement.

With hiring freezes and departures, we’ve all had to work together more. We’re all events, solicitation, engagement and stewardship people now. I think the breaking down of silos will eventually land positively and help with a big looming issue for advancement leaders. We’re going to really struggle with hiring in the coming years. There are now 10 times the number of positions listed in higher education fundraising compared to the height of the pandemic hiring halt. And professionals, many of them mid-career and digital-forward, are looking at new jobs.

We’re all thinking about the “why” of what we do and the environment we work in. I believe that a collaborative work environment where tools and strategy are integrated and shared, not kept in little kingdoms, will help us keep great people in the long run.

Here’s a great example of silo-busting: RNL’s Janice Ridolfi talks about using crowdfunding for stewardship.

We’re getting better at engaging donors along their donor journey

All those fundraising positions I mentioned—over half of them now include the word “engagement” in their title or description. It’s been incredible to see the shift. I feel like only a few years ago I was having dumb arguments about things like the word ‘friendraising.’ That’s sort of over. Engagement and cultivation is fundraising; the “ask” is now one step in the donor journey.

The way that your appeals and communications are integrated will have major impact on this shift to engagement. That’s one big component of silo-busting. It’s much less about an “appeal calendar” these days and more about looking to how we will engage specific, affinity-based groups with our communications. The fundraising community is waking up to the idea that listening to donors and engaging supporters with better—not more—communications is key.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has real promise in this changing world of donor engagement. Along with prompting us with who is most engaged and ready for the next step, AI can help us tailor communications with variable content directly focused on a donor’s identified interest. It’s impossible for a human to look at everything a donor has clicked on, read, or engaged with at scale. But AI-driven platforms like RNL QuadWrangle do it naturally and it can have huge impact on the donor experience.

Instead of sending everything to everyone, we need to make donors feel like we sent something just for them. By breaking down silos and using the powerful tools we now have, we can make that experience manageable for us as well.

Fundraising is all about data, whether you get it from Excel or a robot

I recall the blissful days when our biggest arguments were about whether we should ask for a gift three times or more during a phone solicitation. Now we spend all our time talking about data flow. I’m serious—half of the meetings I go to are about data.

All the major fundraising platforms have opened up data flow, built integrations, and invested in APIs. We’ve done that at RNL with awesome engagement combos like RNL Engage and ThankView, allowing engagement ambassadors (the digital evolution of callers) to send a video message after a conversation. Or the flow of data from QuadWrangle to the RNL ScaleFunder crowdfunding platform, which allows variable giving options to be featured in communications, selected by demonstrated donor interested. Every technology is thankfully becoming more and more connected.

I predict that you’ve spent some significant time in the past year thinking about (or even worrying about) your data—from making sure it’s accurate to ensuring data security and ethical use. Or maybe how you get more data, particularly about donor interests and priorities. These are important conversations, because good data means good donor engagement.

Here’s a great data discussion: Dr. Russell James from Texas Tech University, joins MarketSmart’s Greg Warner to give a rundown on how some of the research on donor decisions impacts our work as fundraisers.

Fundraising will keep changing, and that’s a good thing

I know for certain that change is the new normal, and I’m excited: we’ve been too complacent as fundraisers.

Donors now demand more. Our collaboration, ability to personalize and to integrate engagement, and master the flow of data will all contribute to a better donor experience.

And that is, after all, why we’re doing this job.

Talk with our fundraising experts

Let’s talk about how you can level up donor engagement and connect with donors in a smartphone world. Ask for a free consultation with our experts.

Schedule consultation

About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

Read more about Brian's experience and expertise

Reach Brian by e-mail at

Read More In: Fundraising
Read More Blogs By: Brian Gawor