Coming off a tumultuous 2020 in which philanthropic giving grew as a share of the U.S. economy, the team at advisory firm Lighthouse Counsel this summer convened a briefing on the state of the sector that featured presentation of research by two Giving USA researchers as well as a roundtable with four local leaders from the nonprofit sector. The panel included Kate Chinn, vice president and head of community and civic engagement at AllianceBernstein; Farzin Ferdowsi, CEO of Management Resources Co. and a board member of Boys & Girls Clubs of Middle Tennessee; Pete Griffin, president and CEO of Musicians On Call; and Scott Perry, president of The Memorial Foundation. Here are some edited excerpts from their conversation, which was moderated by Post Editor Geert De Lombaerde.
De Lombaerde: How have you seen the market settle after an incredibly active, busy, life-changing 2020? What have you seen that has changed?
Griffin: We certainly had to get innovative when it came to not only raising money, but actually executing our programs on the ground. As an organization that relied on in-person, in-hospital [work] — obviously, with the pandemic, that’s not happening. And so we had to get creative and go virtual. But in doing that, I think we learned a lot. We learned the importance of our messaging. […] And those affected by the pandemic really helped us to engage with donors that wanted to support. Because a lot of times, what we were finding with donors is they wanted to do something related to the pandemic but didn’t know where to turn.
Then the other thing is [that] relationships are something that we focused on for so long. But it really came to fruition how important those were last year. Because when times got tough, the people and organizations that you had strong relationships with were the ones that continued to stand by your side. A lot of times, we don’t see the fruits of that labor immediately. But during the pandemic, we realized that the time that we had spent in developing and stewarding relationships really helped us out.
Perry: I would just like to express how proud I am of the nonprofit sector. I think I speak on behalf of all of us just how incredibly strong and resilient and creative the nonprofit sector has been through this crisis. There’s been a mindset shift, I think, among donors. We look at our giving as less charitable and more as a critically important investment in our community. There’s a rise in the engagement of the entire community and being a part of the solution.
And I might just add a thing or two about our federal government. For all the criticism of its bureaucracies and its inefficiencies, they stepped up big last year. […] The private sector did not have the capacity to get that kind of money out that quickly.
Chinn: We had a very new corporate giving program that we had really launched in Nashville in 2019 and our plan was always to expand that. But 2020 came along and, not only did we want to continue to support the partnerships we had formed in Nashville in 2019, but we’re a global firm [so] we had to quickly respond in a global way to the pandemic. We did that through supporting frontline workers and distributing PPE.
We also became keenly aware very quickly that there was a disproportionate impact on communities of color and other more vulnerable communities. Our strategy really shifted in that direction and that has continued.
De Lombaerde: I thought it was very interesting that the report mentioned how many people were new to giving last year. How do you approach that from a fundraising perspective? How do you try to find those new people?
Ferdowsi: We’re going through a whole lot of changes. I think technology is very important to get to the millennials and then, you know, a giving relationship has a lot to do with it. And I don’t know how you do relationships with technology so somehow you have to find your way. At the Boys & Girls Clubs, we’re trying to get more online and do things.
De Lombaerde: Scott, was there a similar dynamic for you in terms of having to do more work online and maybe having different types of interactions last year? How did things change in terms of relationships that you had and relationships that you wanted to have?
Perry: We quickly ramped up on Zoom conferencing and had a lot of meetings interactively with our nonprofit partners. Technology is certainly a great avenue for enhancing giving, but fundamentally, a development staff and a communication staff play a vital role in getting the message out on what the need is and how their particular organizations are addressing those needs. That’s how you really engage the community and engage giving. 2020 really helped catapult that.
De Lombaerde: Pete, you mentioned these great long-term relationships that really paid off for you during the pandemic. You’re the chief fundraiser as the CEO of the organization. How did you change what you were doing? What did you focus on versus maybe a more normal year?
Griffin: The change started internally. My first priority was to make sure the culture of our organization and our staff were taken care of first and foremost. Like anything else, you can have a great plan, a great strategy. But if you don’t have the right people and they’re not motivated and feeling safe and secure in what they’re doing, it’s not going to go anywhere. So we spent a lot of time internally just making sure the staff was supported and we had a clear direction on where we’re going, which was allocating all of our resources to build out our virtual program.
From there, the individual relationships we had with people that either worked at corporations or were donors of ours became critically important. The first phase of it, I would say, was checking in. It was just the humanity of it. I just wanted to make sure that people were doing well. […] I wasn’t making any asks. I really wanted to make sure that people knew this was bigger than supporting and their dollars. It was more about [what] as humans we are all doing together.
After that, we spent a lot of time really cultivating those relationships. I think the staff counted nearly 1,000 video messages that were just to a specific person, thanking them for their support, checking in, giving them an update. Off of those videos, I think we raised over $50,000 unsolicited — just people that were touched that we took the time to reach out to them and check in on them.
De Lombaerde: Kate, the report mentioned corporate giving actually fell a little bit as a percentage of the total. You mentioned that you wanted to make sure that you lined up your ducks a little more. That may have contributed to some of the relative drop in spending.
Chinn: Yeah, that’s a good question. That was striking to me — watching and seeing that corporate giving fell — because it didn’t feel like that at AB. It’s really interesting to me that it did. Corporations’ first job was to ensure that their employees were safe and to ensure they all had remote access so that they could continue working. And that was AllianceBernstein’s first priority as well. But then I feel like we immediately shifted to, “How can we help?”
I don’t think there’s a downward trend in giving for corporations. I think that a lot of the budgets that come into any year depend on the pre-tax profits of the year before. Corporations are not as flexible as individuals or foundations within the year. […] They are getting a lot of pressure from employees to increase their corporate social responsibility so I would be surprised if this continues to go down. I think it will go up.
De Lombaerde: That makes sense intuitively. Scott, in terms of foundations growing their share of giving: You’re able to plan out things a little more than someone in Kate’s role. What do you see in terms of trends for foundation giving as a whole?
Perry: Just looking at those statistics earlier, it’s impressive that foundations really stepped up. I’m not sure that that will continue. At some point, that’s going to level off. Many of us in the foundation world got way out ahead of our budgets early on last year. It was intentional. It didn’t catch us flat-footed. We had a number of emergency meetings of our board making recommendations on how to get funds out quickly.
But I think that over time, we will move in a direction toward more traditional levels of giving based on our asset sizes with an eye on long-term sustainability.
De Lombaerde: Kate, as you look to the rest of 2021, what is it that you’re paying attention to as a marker, an event or a trend that you’d like to see to give you more of a sense of where we’re headed?
Chinn: We have our plan. We had it at the end of 2020. So what the silver lining of ’20 was for us was that we were forced to expand quickly and make sure we were having a global lens on all of our giving. It was great that it had started in Nashville; we had really built out that program and it served as our model.
But now in 2021, we have a grants program in Asia-Pacific, we have a grants program in Europe and we have a grants program in New York. And I’m so heartened that we were able to change that so quickly in 2020 and really continue on with full, robust programs.
I also just want to take a second to echo Scott and Pete and say I have been so impressed with the nonprofit sector. They have absolutely gone above and beyond with very little resources, with not ideal situations, doing things virtually. They’ve all risen to the occasion and it has been very heartwarming.
View the Giving USA briefing and panel discussion in full at youtu.be/P1PJ72wnuO8