Giving in the Era of COVID‑19

How our impulse to give has, and hasn’t, changed.

For the past year, the Lipman Hearne team—like many teams—has pivoted to remote work. At first, we used video chat platforms as critical tools to link us together in a way that roughly approximated our in-person style. (I can now manage at least six different services.) Surprisingly, remote work made us better at connecting in some ways. Because the conversation snags when more than one person talks, we got better at not speaking over each other. And we found the mute button to cover our barking dogs.

Donors choose to invest in organizations and causes that reflect their belief systems back to them

But some changes in our communications have been more profound. This year, we have all learned to talk more deeply and intentionally about our values. Justice, equity, inclusion, public health, and freedom from violence rightfully filled the news, but the issues feel even more immediate when we see and listen to each other. At Lipman Hearne, we see how our mission-driven clients—and their supporters—have learned to listen better, respond more strongly, and recommit to the values they are built on. And we’ve learned that we all must listen more intentionally than ever.

During the early stages of the pandemic, organizations sprang into action to address unmet needs, building up emergency funds and jumping in where help was most urgently needed. And donors responded. Of course, there’s always purpose in giving, but giving in a crisis can instill a deeper sense of purpose And for donors, it can stir a new will to help as far as they are able. We saw this at every level over the past year, from the world’s wealthiest donors down to individuals and families who, despite their own struggles, found strength in giving.

In fact, 2020 set a record for charitable giving. The Fundraising Effectiveness Project (managed by AFP) recently reported that giving grew 10.6 percent in 2020 over 2019, much of it raised from small gifts for pandemic relief and related causes.

Then again, 2020 also was a year for highly visible megagifts and pledges to address grand challenges of systemic inequity, climate change, and access to healthcare. There were, for instance, MacKenzie Scott’s stunning gifts of more than $4 billion to institutions and organizations committed to improving the lives of historically marginalized groups. See also the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s public commitment to ensuring universal COVID-19 vaccination, and Jeff Bezos’ $10 billion investment to fight climate change.

As marketers and communicators, what can we learn from this year?

This year has shown us even more clearly that donors choose to invest in organizations and causes that reflect their belief systems. They want their philanthropic giving to be an extension of their values and priorities.

As a new normal emerges and more organizations transition out of current-use fundraising to focus on the future, it’s important not to lose that momentum. Shaping messages and storytelling that express the return on philanthropy—and deliver the emotional reward of impact—is an important lesson of this year, though not a new one.

There’s a wide range of predictions of all the changes that will come from this moment in history. For instance, how students will find their purpose and choose their careers. What technologies will emerge to battle climate change. Whether structural changes will create better opportunities and access for all.

One thing we do know is that donors—at every level—will invest in organizations and causes that matter to them. They will continue to contribute enthusiastically and wholeheartedly to missions and institutions that work forcefully and effectively toward what they care about.

At Lipman Hearne, we believe that philanthropic investment is an act of optimism.

And, in our view, there’s every reason to be excited about that.