What fundraisers are thinking and feeling in 2021

When it comes to Fundraising ROI’s and our work to benchmark the expectations for different types of fundraising, the figures tell only a small part of the story.


I believe that the testimonies of fundraisers paint an even more powerful picture of where we are as a sector than the accompanying figures do.


This year more than ever, we invited open ended, long form responses to many of the questions in our Fundraising ROI’s benchmarking study.


Here are the (largely unedited) things our respondents said, organised into key themes.


Some of these comments are included in the final report, but there wasn’t room to include everyone’s contributions, hence the additional article.



Hugest of thanks to those who participated.  Our report is fascinating, illuminating and will be helpful to others, because of you.



Sustaining income from trusts and grants (and managing expectations)


“I recognise that we are incredibly lucky to come out of the pandemic in a strong position. I do not believe however that the challenges are over. I expect this year to be hard, particularly when furlough comes to an end. I also expect that grants will be harder to secure as funders recalibrate their giving approaches.”


“I am wary of trust fundraising becoming more competitive, as we keep being warned, and of grant fundraising becoming ever more bureaucratic (and much more boring).”


“2020 was tough but 2021 is set to be tougher. We received wonderful support in the last year and saw a real ‘blitz spirit’. We also had an exceptional year for legacy income. But neither of those are a given in 2021 so we are really looking to drive local engagement and develop a growing individual giving programme to secure new support whilst investing in excellent stewardship of longstanding supporters”.


“Fundraising only really started when I joined the organisation at the start of 2020. This was without a doubt a very challenging year to start as most of my KPIs were around securing new business from trusts – a donor group we hadn’t approached before.  The main challenges for me (during the year of 2020, and to some extent now) were people not being in the office and getting through to the right people at a trust.  You would call offices and no-one would pick up the phone or reply to an email. During 2020, many funders were only wanting to continue to support existing beneficiaries and not start new relationships.  I am also seeing a rise in the number of foundations not accepting unsolicited requests which is worrying for charities with low brand awareness”.


“Feeling cautious about the coming year. Trusts and grants are currently our main source of income, and this is already proving challenging post-Covid. Covid grants inflated 2020 income figures, and supported organisational growth, but increased competition in applying to trusts already seen in 2021 suggesting a potential drop this year, either back to pre-Covid income levels or even more than that. E.g. one unsuccessful trust application received feedback that usual 1 in 5 success rate is now 1 in 20. Looking to increase fundraising capacity and diversify income sources, but this is challenging when income is uncertain”.


“We’ve noticed that previous committed givers (Trusts) are no longer a ‘sure thing’. Competition for funds is overwhelming and application processes often don’t warrant the maximum grant amount. Difficult to see how the organisation can sustain income from Trusts without rethinking approach or diversifying into other income streams (all of which seem equally perilous atm!).”


“Grant and trust fundraising were incredible in 2020-2021. Because of the topicality of our cause and the ‘frontline’ nature of our main service, we were able to tap into newly created funds.  The amount we secured was unprecedented for us.  Our cause is somewhat niche, but COVID-19 propelled it into the mainstream. The additional voluntary income we were able to bring in cushioned us as our trading income dipped during Q1 and Q2 enabled us to end the year with the healthiest reserves position we’ve had in a number of years. However, we are not expecting this year or subsequent years to be as successful.  We have seen some longstanding funders change course or halt giving temporarily or club together as part of funding consortia, removing them from our pipeline moving forwards – but we also have a few new relationships to try to continue, which have come about because of pandemic funding. It does feel uncertain moving forward”.


“Difficult time. Having to really hone our asks and really focus our work to make sure we fit very, very well with those we approach. We’ve brought on a consultancy to increase our fundraising and we are making more applications than ever before. We’ve noticed that we’ve had to fill in a lot of Expression of Interest or pre-screening forms, which seems to be a trend at the moment.”


Feeling exhausted, overworked and burned out


“I believe many are overworked and put in more than 7 hours a day. This may set up the wrong expectation that the output in emergency mode is the new normal.  The reality is that many of the successes came from unplanned activities.  Are we then going to plan next year with the silent assumptions that people WILL work 50+ hours a week, will constantly be on the edge and respond in emergency mode?  Are we really giving time to regroup, recharge and heal or we plough along and deal with it later?  I see very little done by my senior colleagues in the sector and I am feeling quite fed up”.


“It was very challenging in a fast-paced, constantly changing landscape.  We were pleased with the end result but concerned Trusts/Foundations are spent out and not only are we exhausted but so too are our funders!”


“The pace of work has increased and seems to be no let up! Expectations are high. Success with covid relief funds has led to higher income than we expected and this is now expected to continue next year.”


“We were fortunate that the trustees and senior leadership did not want to make redundancies, so we were able to hold on to our experienced fundraising staff.  It was an intense year for those of us working on income lines that were not hit by the restrictions as workloads increased.”


“I feel there is a gross underestimation of covid-19’s long term impact on charity sector – senior managers are often oblivious, lack of soft skills or not genuinely understanding the nuances of e-comms and the stress particularly fundraising teams have been under. Many fundraisers are burnt out.”


Internal barriers and lack of capacity causing problems


“We have great potential to grow income from our local community who remained highly engaged in our work. Trusts were very supportive. However, a lack of capacity internally resulted in bids and reports taking much longer. I fear this continued lack of focus on fundraising will affect the clarity of our fundraising strategy and damage our ability to sustain the increased income levels from the past year.”


“Our senior management have not experienced significant disruptions leading an organisation (e.g. 9/11, July 2007 London Attack…), as a result, there was more panic and unnecessary pressure placed on fundraising for fear of losing income.  A lot of time was taken away from actual work with eternal meetings, planning docs re-edited too many times, workplans collecting dust and general admin. This was particularly taxing coming from a board that wishes to ‘help’ and an executive director that cannot manage to keep them at bay. It resulted in unnecessary pressure, frustration and interruptions.”


“Working remotely / flexibly is fine but quality of team interaction is lower than in person. Also, we can do more fundraising in person than we can via zoom.”




“Major challenge is and continues to be staff recruitment, as without staff charity can’t operate. Others are leaving as they now don’t want to work full time or at weekends but the charity operates 24/7 through 40 weeks of the year so needs staff to work these hours.”


“We have challenges in terms of recruiting a experienced team to manage our fundraising.”


“The start of Covid felt like the wild west of fundraising, suddenly we were applying for much larger grants than usual, including some from entirely new donors.  We were “lucky” in that our service users were classed as vulnerable and we therefore fitted the criteria for a lot of funds. I did nothing but apply apply apply.  We had just started a 5 yr lottery grant which also shored us up too. So we had a huge boost in income, but I feel that more challenging times lie ahead. We have already had a no from one regular trust donor, and I fear there will be plenty more to come as it is getting increasingly competitive and less funding available – a perfect storm. The jobs market has gone crazy too – so many charities looking for trust fundraisers! We are trying to diversify our income as we grow but in reality we remain heavily reliant on grants at this stage in our development. Choppy waters ahead!”


Ups and downs


“We have of course found the Covid-19 pandemic to be a hindrance to our fundraising especially as, as a new academic institution, the opening of the Institution to our first students has been delayed by 18 months and our priority has been to achieve Validation as a new Provider of Higher Education, as well as the recruitment of our first students. The delay in receiving tuition fee income has increased our fundraising targets and resulted in moving goalposts and conflicting priorities.  That said, we are a very strong team and philanthropy is embedded into the organisation’s culture, as is demonstrated by the fact that 45% of our staff have set up regular gifts to Institution, and we have strong buy-in from our Trustees. So, while it has been challenging and frustrating at times, in general, morale is high and we have (cautious) hope for the future.”


“We did pretty well last year, even ending up with a bigger surplus than usual, as we tapped into various Covid funds, used the furlough scheme and also raised considerable funding for capital projects and a new contract worth £1 million pa.  However, our events raised 50% less than usual as they all had to be virtual. It was hard work and isolating working from home, and some of the team are quite burnt out with one events staff member leaving. We are well set up this year with some multi year grants raised last year, and the workload is less pressurised as a result – it feels like the hard work has paid off.”


“It has been an immensely difficult year, but also very encouraging in lots of ways. In the last 18 months there has been a much greater appreciation of the direct community work so we’ve had our best ever year for fundraising. A member of our team was made redundant at the end of last year so there is a greater pressure on those of us still working to achieve the same income levels.  Managing expectations with colleagues is hard. We worry about being able to secure sufficient trust income as so many charities have turned to this area of fundraising to replace their other income.  Competition will be even harder. Our individual giving base has strengthened hugely as we have had more opportunity for one-to-one conversations with our donors.”


“We expected the impact on our fundraising and income to be significant (approx a 50% cut) however our turnover remained roughly the same by the end of the year.  We were able to access emergency funding to replace plans and adapt our delivery methods.  Trading actually thrived despite our expectations (we mainly sell a game through Amazon and initially they suspended all sales apart from emergency products, but as they opened up sales went through the roof with home schooling).  Some projects were paused (e.g. for work in schools) and therefore grants paid retrospectively could not be claimed.  However, we caught up with work or changed our model of delivery so were able to claim grants by the end of the year.  So the impact of pandemic was less (financially) than we expected; but has taken its toll in terms of mental health and workload.  We expect fundraising to be significantly tougher in the next few years – as the impact on the charity sector with increased need, more competition etc is felt.”


“This has been the most challenging year I have ever spent in fundraising. As a relatively new charity, we had planned for the past year to be a year of growth. Community income was hit hard by the pandemic (previously our largest source of income). Trusts and grants was also challenging as we faced increased competition and with many trusts focussing on existing relationships, we were ineligible for many funding pots. We had also planned an application to National Lottery Community Fund for multi-year funding, but with Reaching Communities closed our plans were set back by around 10 months. We have budgeted cautiously for the year ahead, focussing our resource on trusts and individual giving.”


“I feel very lucky to have worked for an organisation over the past 18 months that firstly really cares about staff wellbeing and, secondly, hasn’t been negatively impacted income-wise by the pandemic. This is primarily because we have built a huge base of regular donors that is particularly robust due to large numbers of people giving. Overall, all income is voluntary donations, and mostly from individuals, rather than any huge chunks of grants or earned income. I do want to acknowledge the constant undercurrent of worry and I still very much felt pressure even though we had no crisis moments.  I feel very positive about the future of fundraising for my organisation – we maintain our plan to increase income annually.”


“Like all charities fundraising has been a challenge.  We’ve taken some key learning and created first class virtual events which we have shared with our charity colleagues across the sector.  We’ve built stronger relations with our existing supporters but the challenge has been the impact on people and businesses being less able to support, even if they want to.  Our support is needed now more than ever, and we are already seeing an increased demand for our services.”


Growth, consolidation and positivity!


“The year was transformational for the team and organisation.  We extended our team from 3 people to 7 over the period.”


“Historically [our charity has been] reactive to support.  We are now in a position to build on proactive plans. We have also invested in a CRM that will help us to unlock a lot of potential as well as improve stewardship and campaigns.”


“We exceeded targets because we intensified relationships at cultivation and solicitation levels and increased opportunities for participation and stewardship with virtual events.”


“Being a relatively small charity run entirely by volunteer trustees, the past year has provided us with the time to carry out a major investigation into our mission, aims and strategy.  We have produced Theory of Change maps for each of our projects and have become members of several national organisations which support small charities.  We have analysed our income sources and expenditure and have appointed two new young trustees. The challenges now lie in expanding fundraising opportunities especially with large donors and corporates. “


“The past 15 months have been our best ever. It helped that our biggest competitor charity were closed for 3 months and couldn’t take donations so people donated to us instead. Legacies we had been waiting for came through as the houses sold.  25 months ago, we were on the verge of bankruptcy, now we are in the best position we have ever been.”


“The past 18 months have forced us to be innovative and creative in ways we were not able to be before which has opened up new fundraising possibilities.  I feel positive about the future, although I think it will continue to be tough and there is unlikely to be an immediate bounce back in income levels to pre pandemic heights.”


“When 2020 started we were optimistic for a good year based on projected income of c. £1.6 million, an increase on our 2019 income.  Then COVID hit and we were projecting a 65% drop in income for the rest of the year.  However, our Senior Leadership Team and Challenge and Community Events teams were incredible.  They pivoted to virtual events with aplomb and through immense hard work and dedication turned the situation around.  Combined with other sources on income we ended the year with a 60% year-on-year increase in income.  Amazing!  This year we have received a one-off £1 million major donor gift which will see our income (hopefully) stay at a similar level to 2020.  In memory (Special Funds as we call them), community fundraising and events (including virtual and actual challenge events) are picking up in 2021 with income looking solid against our forecast.  Trust fundraising continues to be challenging.”


“2020 was positive for individual supporter recruitment and in memory which both exceeded the original budget.  Our anniversary appeals and DRTV ads during the pandemic produced a strong response.  Any activity involving physical events were either cancelled or were virtual and produced less income.  This gave us an opportunity to come up with new ideas which will serve us well in the future.”


“We’ve developed as an organisation at a pace that would not have happened under ‘normal’ circumstances.  I feel confident about the long term future of fundraising.  I expect we will experience a dip in income in the shorter term.  The challenge will be to manage the short term and keep staff and trustees focused on the long term goals. I’ve learnt a huge amount, the situation has empowered me.  I’m grateful that I work for an organisation that has demonstrated good management throughout and I’m proud to be involved with them.”


“During 2020, we really started to see all the work to improve and invest in fundraising that had happened in the years leading up to it, pay off – despite or maybe even improved by the pandemic. We had invested in individual giving, supporter comms and stewardship, including a new CRM system which meant we were well placed to communicate well and frequently with our supporters.”


“The past 18 months have been extremely busy, with lots a donations and gifts in kind received. The future of fundraising is exciting, and trustees are looking at how to develop our strategy to take advantage of the opportunities.”


Our 2021 Fundraising ROI’s benchmarking study is available to download today.  Visit this page to grab your copy. 








Posted in Fundraising.