Every(Re)Action | M+R 2021 Benchmarks Show Nonprofit Growth Related to Pandemic, Protests, and Presidential Election

April 29, 2021  |  Grace Duginski

Nonprofits have a lot to be excited about: our friends at M+R last week released their new set of 2021 Benchmarks. These annual benchmarks track trends in forward-thinking nonprofits’ marketing and fundraising work. This year, many of the findings connect back to the three keystones of 2020: the pandemic, racial justice protests, and the presidential election.

The Benchmarks surveyed a total of 220 organizations, their highest number in one report to date. For the first time, the Benchmarks also included a significant number of nonprofits based in the United Kingdom. This cohort included small (annual online revenue <$500,000), mid-sized (annual online revenue $500,000-$3 million), and large organizations (annual online revenue $3 million and up.)

According to M+R, headlines from this year’s report included:

  • Total online revenue grew by 32% in 2020. This growth is extraordinary, well above what we typically report for year-over-year changes.
  • Hunger and Poverty groups reported a stunning 173% increase in online revenue over the previous year.
  • Nonprofits across a wide spectrum of issue areas identified racial justice as an important priority. We hope this reflects a commitment to making long overdue meaningful changes within our industry (and everywhere else).
  • Nonprofits that did electoral work did not outperform non-electoral nonprofits, even in the midst of a high-profile presidential election.
  • Nonprofits that engaged in COVID-19 response saw noticeably higher growth in one-time giving revenue than those that did not.

M+R gave extra emphasis to the first headline on that list: 32 percent growth in online revenue was a whopping increase from 2019 to 2020. Most likely, a significant portion of that giving was crisis funding due to the COVID-19 pandemic: “Nonprofits that provided COVID relief, either directly or through advocacy, saw a 40% increase in online revenue, compared to a 22% increase for those that did not do COVID work.” If you’ve worked in crisis response before, you know that your donor strategy moving forward will need to focus on retention.

Racial Justice and Benchmark Results

The overlap of significant news events in 2020 meant that while some findings had a clear cause and effect, other findings were more complex. For example, “nonprofits from every sector and issue area claimed racial justice as a priority,” but as M+R notes, “what we did not see were any differences in results: nonprofits who identified racial justice as a priority did not perform differently on average than those that did not.”

To us at EveryAction, this prioritization of racial justice across nonprofit issue areas is great news. This finding reinforces our commitment to helping organizations make the deepest impact they can in their issue areas by connecting with supporters in the right channels, with the right messages, and at the right time.

Digital Ads

“For nonprofit digital ads,” M+R found, “the unmistakable headline has been continued growth.” However, they broke it down further and found that:

  • Cultural nonprofits cut down on digital ad spend, likely due to COVID restrictions and budget cuts, while Health and Hunger & Poverty organizations spent much more on ads, as COVID shone a spotlight on their work.
  • Digital ad spending increased sharply in the final quarter of 2020, indicating that #GivingTuesday and December 31 continue to be major drivers of activity.
  • Most overall ad spending went to fundraising (60% of budgets) and much less was spent on lead generation (14% of budgets.)

Email and SMS

When it comes to email, “the 2020 data shows that reports of email’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Again.” Email’s open rates, click-through rates, response rates, and page completion rates all rose in 2020, while unsubscribe rates went down. SMS also grew, likely as nonprofits were pushed to connect with supporters digitally due to the pandemic. From the 2021 Benchmarks:

  • Audience sizes for [SMS] grew rapidly in 2020, with a 26% increase over the previous year. This is considerably faster growth than email list sizes, which grew by just 3%.
  • On average, nonprofits had 50 mobile list members for every 1,000 email subscribers.
  • The click-through rate for mobile fundraising messages was 6.3% (email: 1.7%), and the click-through rate for mobile advocacy messages was 10% (email: 3.3%.)
  • For every 1,000 fundraising messages sent, nonprofits raised $78. This marks a 35% increase over 2019.
  • As was the case with overall online revenue, the Hunger & Poverty sector was an extreme outlier in email fundraising. These nonprofits raised $871 for every 1,000 fundraising emails sent, a 243% increase.
  • For email, overall open rates increased by 9%, to 21%. Unsubscribe rates declined by 5%.

To us, these findings reinforce what we know about multichannel engagement: instead of treating channels like an elimination competition, nonprofits should mix and match channels in their messaging to get the best results and strike a chord with the most supporters.

Membership and Ticket Sales

This might not be surprising, but nonprofits who rely on ticket sales and membership saw online ticket revenue fall by 58 percent. However, membership revenue “that offer[ed] defined, tangible benefits — a branded tote bag and water bottle, regular admittance to events, etc.” actually increased by 17% in 2020. We’re looking forward to next year’s Benchmarks to see how these stats change as more and more people get vaccinated and in-person events begin to take place regularly.

Social Media

“The potential reach of this channel is enormous,” say the 2021 Benchmarks, “but it begins with those audiences that directly follow a nonprofit on each platform.” What’s more, “simply having a large potential audience is not the same thing as actually reaching those supporters with content.” The Benchmarks’ headlines about engagement show how results differ among different platforms and causes:

  • Facebook posts had an average engagement score of 0.32%.
  • Twitter posts had an average engagement rate of 1.8%.
  • Each organic Facebook post only reached 4% of a nonprofit page's fans. Meanwhile, 29% of the audience reached by a given post was not already following the nonprofit.
  • For every 1,000 email addresses, nonprofits had an average of 817 Facebook fans, 291 Twitter followers, and 149 Instagram followers.
  • Revenue from Facebook Fundraisers increased by 14% overall, with Hunger and Poverty nonprofits seeing a 946% increase in Fundraisers revenue.

Website Performance

In another example of how the pandemic affected so many facets of nonprofit work, “desktop users, while a declining share of overall traffic, were more likely to complete a gift, and their gifts were likely to be in larger amounts.” That’s not to say mobile traffic isn’t still valuable—engagement that doesn’t involve donations is still important, and “[it] turns out,” M+R wryly notes, “it’s just as easy to doomscroll on the couch as it is on the morning train.”

  • Half of all nonprofit website visits came from users on mobile devices. The traffic share for mobile devices increased by 9% in 2020.
  • Users on desktop devices made up the majority of donation transactions (61%) and revenue (72%).
  • The average gift made on a desktop device was $80; for mobile users, the average gift was $42.
  • Organic traffic (website traffic generated by unpaid search results) comprised 42% of all nonprofit website visits in 2020.

On social media and across mobile and desktop websites, the headlines in this year’s benchmarks reinforce the importance of being prepared to meet supporters on the device of their choice. This includes giving donors a smooth online donation experience, and adding mobile and pre-filled payment options donors may prefer, to help improve mobile conversion rates. This year’s Benchmarks also remind us how impactful organic traffic can be as news stories and current events drive supporters’ interest in giving to different issue areas.

Our Takeaways

It’s really clear that the many newsworthy events of 2020 had a profound impact on nonprofits’ work—between the 2021 Benchmarks and stories from our own clients, we know it was an extraordinary year. If you’re curious about how your organization fits into these patterns, you can Benchmark yourself using M+R’s tool to discover where you fall and inform your strategy moving forward.