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Giving USA 2021 Report Briefing

Giving USA 2021 Report Briefing

September 30, 2021
Margaret Battistelli Gardner

Panel: U.S. nonprofits can adopt lessons learned during pandemic for 2021 and beyond

Lighthouse Counsel is honored to be a member firm of The Giving Institute. In June 2021, we presented the findings of the institute’s Giving USA 2020 report during a virtual gathering titled “Giving USA 2021 Briefing.”

The briefing started with Dr. Una Osili and Dr. Anna Pruitt, both of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, breaking down the top eight findings from the report. 

Following that, Geert De Lombaerde, editor of The Nashville Post, moderated a panel discussion of nonprofit and fundraising professionals.

Panelists agreed the sector stepped up admirably during the pandemic, with many pivoting quickly to meet increased needs for their services and pushing the bounds of resiliency and creativity. The Giving USA report showed that giving was up almost across the board, at a record-breaking $471.44 billion and with a major influx of new donors.

“One of the silver linings of 2020 was it really heightened the awareness — not only of the need but the overall critical impact that our nonprofit sector has provided in our community,” Scott Perry, CEO of the Memorial Foundation shared. “There’s been a mindset shift, I think, among donors. We look more at our giving as less charitable and more as a critically important investment in our community.”

The panel talked a lot about how organizations needed to rethink the ways they engage donors and other supporters.

For Musicians On Call, the “pandemic pivot” pushed the organization to finesse a program that it had planned on growing, said CEO and President Pete Griffin. The organization had begun expanding its virtual bedside performance program to allow it to bring the healing power of music to more patients, their families, caregivers and hospital staff around the country. The pandemic sped up the timeline.

It also shined a light on the importance of relationships. Early on, Griffin said, his priority was ensuring the health and safety of Musicians On Call staff and then checking in with donors, sponsors, corporate partners — not making an ask, but rather just asking how they and their families were faring.

“I really wanted people to know this was bigger than supporting and their dollars,” Griffin said. “It was more about, as humans, ‘How are we all doing together? Can we support one another?’ And then after that, we spent a lot of time really cultivating those relationships virtually.

“I think relationships [are] something that we focused on for so long, but it really came to fruition how important those were last year,” Griffin said, “because when times got tough, the people in organizations that you had strong relationships with were the ones that continue to stand by your side and support you. And so, 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.”

Some of that outreach came in the form of about 1,000 videos that he recorded and sent out. Although they weren’t meant for fundraising, they brought in $50,000 unsolicited, Griffin said.

“People were touched that we took the time to reach out to them and check in on them,” he said.

Corporate giving was down in 2020, a trend that Kate Chinn, vice president and head of community and civic engagement at AllianceBernstein, felt isn’t really a trend at all. The suppressed numbers are, rather, a result of the more-complex and slow-moving nature of corporations.

“A lot of the budgets coming into any year depend on the pre-tax profits of the year before,” she said. “And so corporations are not as flexible as individuals or foundations within the year. So that’s one factor. 

“And the other factor is that they are getting a lot of pressure from employees to increase their corporate social responsibility,” Chinn added. “So I would be surprised if this continues to go down. I think it will go up.”

Looking ahead

Wrapping up, De Lombaerde asked, “How much do we have to change what we’re doing?” in order to keep the pandemic-giving momentum going.

While foundation giving was up in 2020, Perry said he doesn’t think that uptick will last. The Memorial Foundation, he said, purposely somewhat overextended itself in response to the pandemic in order to get funds out quickly where they were most needed.

“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 so that we can remain relevant and responsive to future needs,” he said.

He also said that organizations of all kinds would do well to retain the nimbleness, responsiveness and creativity they found during the pandemic.

Chinn agreed, saying that the pandemic helped AllianceBernstein move ahead with its plan to expand its giving both around the country and globally. Being able to respond quickly and specifically is a valuable asset that the company plans to continue.

Griffin predicts with great certainty that “virtual is not going anywhere” at Musicians On Call because it’s an efficient and cost-effective way to serve far more people than it could with in-person performances alone, especially in underserved communities.

In closing

Farzin Ferdowsi, CEO of the Management Resources Company and a board member of the Boys and Girls Club of Tennessee, closed out the session with a reading of some of the writings of the Bahá’í Faith that De Lombaerde felt couldn’t really be expanded on: 

Man reaches perfection through good deeds, voluntarily performed, not through good deeds the doing of which was forced upon him. And sharing is a personally chosen righteous act: that is, the rich should extend assistance to the poor, they should expend their substance for the poor, but of their own free will, and not because the poor have gained this end by force. For the harvest of force is turmoil and the ruin of the social order. On the other hand, voluntary sharing, the freely chosen expending of one’s substance, leads to society’s comfort and peace. It lightens up the world; it bestows honor upon humankind.”

You can read about the first part of the briefing here, and you can sit in on the entire recorded session on-demand at


Margaret Battistelli Gardner

Margaret Battistelli Gardner is the podcast coordinator for Lighthouse Counsel and also has been crafting fundraising communications for Lighthouse clients since 2008. She has been a writer and editor for more than 30 years. From 2003 to 2015, Margaret was editor-in-chief of FundRaising Success magazine and currently is a communications specialist for the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas.