By Timothy M. Winkler, Sr., MA, CFRE, Principal, Founder, and CEO at Winkler Group


When I was younger—right out of college—I thought it would be cool to learn how to white water kayak. I lived close to excellent kayaking spots, so I signed up for a three-day introductory class at a white water center in the mountains. Over the course of the weekend, I quickly realized I was not cut out to be a kayaker.

My biggest problem was mastering the C-roll. This core competency is essential to any kayaker because it puts you upright after flipping over. There are two keys to executing this move successfully. Both are counterintuitive.

First, when you are upside down, trapped inside the kayak with your head bouncing off the rocks on the bottom of the river, the instructors tell you, “DO NOT PANIC.” Easier said than done. Second, rather than moving your head up to the water’s surface to right yourself (which is the body’s natural reaction), you need to move your head back toward your hip under the water while rolling your hip towards the surface.

Again, all of this is VERY counterintuitive. Your body and mind are fighting you as you try to remain calm and do the exact opposite of what you feel you should do.

Over the course of the weekend I was able to perform the roll several times in still water but did not have much success in a fast-moving river. At the end of the three days, and after bailing out of my kayak more times than I would like to admit, I decided that white water kayaking was not going to be my new hobby.

So Why Bring This Up?

What does any of this have to do with COVID-19, philanthropy, and current giving in the U.S.?

Over my thirty-year career, there are times when fundraising seems counterintuitive. This is one of those times. We are in the middle of a world-wide pandemic, the market has been choppy, jobs have been lost, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about how all this is going to play out. Wouldn’t it be prudent and safe just to pull back right now? Just let things settle down? Wouldn’t it be insensitive to ask people for money given everything that is going on? There are so many reasons to talk yourself out of fundraising right now.

But just like the C-roll in kayaking, today’s fundraising environment is counterintuitive. Current charitable giving data proves that staying silent is the worst thing you could do.

Since the start of COVID, more than 1 in 2 (56%, or 165 million) Americans have made a charitable gift. Planned giving and foundation giving (especially by private foundations) have similarly seen a tremendous upswell in activity.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported a nearly 400% increase in creation of wills and bequest over 2019. Fidelity Charitable reported an 18% gain in grants by its donors this year compared to the same time period last year. These increases equate to over $2.5 billion in gifts made in 2020 alone. You might be tempted to think this increase in giving is primarily directed to COVID relief related organizations, but again the data tells a different story. Of the $2.5 billion reported by Fidelity, only $236 million (roughly 10 percent) went to COVID relief.

Despite these gains, you may still know charities that are struggling to keep their doors open during the pandemic. We do. The Wall Street Journal recently published an article detailing the plight of some organizations that have grappled with decreased financial support. Upon closer inspection, however, the cause of their fundraising declines is more tied to their fundraising strategies pre-COVID than to the pandemic itself.

Instead of following best practices—a fundraising program built on a robust annual fund of unrestricted gifts coupled with a strong major gifts focus—the charitable organizations relied on fundraising events, auctions, and galas for the bulk of their revenue. The pandemic has laid bare the shortcomings of their event-based fundraising approach.
On the other hand, organizations that have focused on building sound annual fund and major gift platforms are the ones experiencing record numbers of gifts and amounts raised. As a recent article in the Los Angeles Times noted, “Charity is off the charts amid coronavirus.”

Our Observations

Our clients from around the country, many of whom are not directly tied to COVID response, have been outperforming past fundraising efforts. Some organizations have told us (off the record) that they have never had such a healthy bank account.

At the Winkler Group, this is what we are seeing in our practice. We have noted a strong increase in major gift support for campaigns in recent planning studies. And we have seen a strong surge in campaigns launching over the past six months—even in the midst of a pandemic.

Does all of this sound counterintuitive? It does to me. I have never seen anything like this in my 30 years in fundraising. But the data doesn’t lie.

So if you’re thinking about a capital campaign, now is the time. If you’re considering a challenge match for your annual fund or ramping up your planned giving program, the data says yes. Major gift donors are stepping up in ways that we haven’t seen in decades.

Counterintuitive or not, now is the time to raise money. If you aren’t, other organizations are taking your place. And they are flourishing.