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As every development professional knows, our work centers on building authentic relationships. Unfortunately, in 2021 our desire to deepen our relationships was often in conflict with circumstances beyond our control.

To look ahead, we first need to look back. In 2020, we learned how to lock down, meet remotely, find alternate ways of working, and – in development professionals’ case – new ways of fundraising. We created virtual galas, virtual parlor meetings, and Zoom “coffee dates”. Then came 2021, with vaccines which catalyzed both joy and plans. Lots of plans. But 2021 had more in store for us: Delta, Omicron, and with it, a roller coaster of changing comfort levels with gathering in person.

Today, as 2021 comes to a close, we are once again faced with questions of how to plan for the new year. After reflecting with my colleagues on our lessons from 2021, I wanted to share what I think we allneed take forward into 2022:

1. Flexibility and adaptability will be the key to success in 2022.

Any fundraiser who planned a gala or event in 2021 can tell you that their decision to make it virtual, hybrid, or in-person was questioned and reconsidered many times over.

If in April, you planned a virtual event for the end of the year, you were wise; by June, people were asking why your organization wasn’t planning a return to “normal”, in-person events. With the rise of Delta in August, you were a genius for sticking to your guns, but by November, people were again wondering if it was the right decision, and by late December, your donors were thrilled to not leave the house due to Omicron! So – how do we enter 2022 in this environment?

  • Make a decision, create a Plan B, then re-evaluate. One of our DLead members had a go/no-go date on an in-person gathering, and then with the rise of Omicron, decided every 2 weeks to gather with board and staff stakeholders to re-evaluate the situation. This put a structure in place to both move forward and continually respond to the current environment.
  • Communicate clearly and often. Radio silence or confusing messaging can harm the relationships and trust we are building with donors. When faced with challenging decisions, engage your donors by “taking their temperature” through email or quick calls. Bringing stakeholders into these conversations, in a way which solicits their input but doesn’t guarantee following it, can deepen their engagement with your organization. And continually looping back with them is key: communicating something like, “We will be making a decision within the next week” is better than leaving folks in the dark.
  • Focus on short-term planning when you can. Face-to-face meetings with prospects and donors are irreplaceable, and yet have been hard to come by in these past years. In 2022, we’re seeking to plan trips with quick turnaround, pencil things in, but make decisions quickly and plan more short-term than we usually do in development (i.e. the span of weeks instead of months).

2. You can’t plan for a “MacKenzie Scott” moment — you can only work every day to build your brand and fulfill your mission. 

The other day, a board member called me and asked to hear our strategy for accessing some of MacKenzie Scott’s billions. We can’t, I told him, it’s like manna from heaven — it just comes.

There is a huge level of uncertainty about when and where your next big gift will come from. A lot of research has shown trends of growing wealth, a generational transfer of this wealth and a strong future for philanthropy, yet many nonprofits struggle to reach their funding goals each year. The only thing certain here is to continue putting forth the case for your organization’s value. Focusing on strategic vision, measuring and communicating your impact, engaging more and more stakeholders each year – these are the building blocks which will bring more and more donors to your cause.

When you put your organization’s work into the communal conversation, eventually supporters that you didn’t expect will be drawn to your mission and moved to open their wallets.

3. When faced with uncertainty, look for the successful trends.

Ten years ago, when I was first introduced to Giving Tuesday, I was in a role where my fundraising was primarily about institutions and family foundations, and was skeptical of soliciting donors on a day when the field was so crowded. In 2021, for the first time, the Forward joined the throngs of nonprofits with a comprehensive campaign on Giving Tuesday, complete with a ‘match,’ meaning each donation would be doubled.

As the hours passed on Giving Tuesday, I noticed everyone else was also doing a match. And yet, the Forward raised 3x as much as we ever had before on Giving Tuesday. More than 250 donors supported us knowing their small gift was making a bigger impact.This is part of a larger, nationwide trend: Organizations which participated in Giving Tuesday this year raised $2.7B, a 37% increase from 2019.

Sometimes, following the crowd makes sense. Keep up on trends in giving and fundraising by reading field-specific publications like Chronicle of Philanthropy, or spending time in the online spaces where nonprofits are sharing their campaigns and learnings.

We can only be certain that 2022 will throw us a few curveballs and we’ll need to continue to be flexible, adapt, and communicate. What is also certain is that sticking to fundamentals will help us to achieve our goals. That means focusing on deepening relationships through whatever vehicles we can access at the time.

What’s CERTAIN is that when people feel connected to something bigger than themselves, or a person they’re close to, they give. Keeping the big picture in mind will help us weather the inevitable roller coaster of 2022. Fasten your seatbelts!

Lisa Lepson

Lisa Lepson

Lisa Lepson is the VP of Development at the Forward, the leading Jewish news organization, and serves as co-head of the DLead Blog.