Planning for the Unknown – How can charities look ahead to 2021?

Person placing a 1 to make 2020 become 2021

Planning for the Unknown – How can charities look ahead to 2021?

Our blog this week highlights what we feel you can plan for in 2021 (and beyond!) based on our Charity Awareness Monitor research.
Jo Fischl

Extensive and detailed processes of forward planning will be a norm for most established charities; typically, strategic review and planning processes may take many months of work and consultation, resulting in a 3 or perhaps 5 year strategic plan for the charities’ future direction. However, with the world turned upside down in 2020, there can’t be many charities who haven’t had to diverge pretty radically from such plans. With charities still likely adapting day by day and with the ways we live still in a continual state of flux, is there anything to be said for planning ahead – even to 2021?

Charities will also be facing drastically different (or at least exacerbated) challenges than they did this time last year. As we have reported, the proportion of the public giving to charity has fallen to its lowest ever level in recent months (with 54% now giving to charity), whilst volunteering levels too have declined. Additionally, many charities will sadly be seeing massive increases in demand for support – for example due to health service backlogs and the social, mental and physical costs of lockdown life and economic downturn. What’s more, we are working differently too, with many charity teams working remotely or continuing to furlough staff part or full time. With much about the year ahead unknown, what we can plan for will certainly be different – however, there are still some areas where forward thinking will be valuable.

Keeping the public’s focus on the urgency of your cause

Recent news of a vaccine has come as a huge source of relief around the world – and many will be feeling more optimistic about the future. However, clearly the arrival of a vaccine won’t bring an end to the myriad of health and social consequences of the virus. The strain on charity resources and staff will continue – and further, charities are likely to pick up a considerable additional burden if we see a continuation of government failings in social care. So, public support for charities will be more needed than ever. But, if and (more hopefully) when a vaccine arrives, will a relieved and – frankly – exhausted public be sufficiently motivated to support charities in this work? Ensuring public engagement could prove to be a challenging task. And it’s not just about those charities working on the direct consequences of the virus – for example, 2019 and the start of 2020 saw an unprecedented public focus on climate change, with increasing levels of awareness and activation amongst the public. But has this focus been maintained in recent months? The devastation caused by the climate crisis could come to far eclipse that of coronavirus in the coming years – the job of re-capturing the sense of urgency that was beginning to build amongst the public will be vital for charities in this sphere.

Back in June, it was reported that only 12% of the public wanted the world to return to ‘normal’ or “exactly as it was before”[1] – this is an encouraging sign of public desire for a different world and an opportunity for those working to bring about such change. However, we don’t know whether this feeling has changed since the summer with increased fatigue over continued restrictions. With hope on the horizon, charities have a messaging challenge in 2021; the public need to be re-engaged with vital issues – both in terms of supporting charities in their work through donation and volunteering and in the need to campaign, protest and bring about positive change in society, putting pressure on government and institutions.

Preparing to be flexible and respond quickly to changes

After a summer of relative calm, rapid changes in restrictions in recent months have made it impossible to make the simplest of plans in advance. 2021 is still a huge unknown in this regard – even with a vaccine, the logistical challenges of roll out may mean changing restrictions are with us for some time to come. For those charity staff planning potential in person public engagement activities in 2021, this presents a challenge. Further, regardless of the rules at specific points in time, different people will vary in their feelings about participating in charity activities; for example, in August (when restrictions were somewhat looser) 34% claimed they would be comfortable attending a social event for charity, whilst 33% would be quite or very uncomfortable. However, we also know that after months of a pretty insular existence at home, many will be desperate for change when it is finally possible – see, for example, the surge in holiday searches that was reported after the announcement of the vaccine.[2] Once social mixing is safe, there is an opportunity for charities to respond to this need, providing the public with new and exciting opportunities to engage with causes, as well as ways to socialise with family and friends and have different experiences – through in person volunteering, campaigning and fundraising activities.

This means that charities need to plan for various scenarios. Clearly, the need is urgent now – and we can’t wait it out for the successful roll out of a vaccine. This means continuing trying to reach supporters to donate remotely as well as providing virtual or distanced activities which suit your audiences’ preferences. Fortunately, our research throughout the pandemic shows the public is largely supportive of fundraising during the pandemic (in October 66% agreed that charities should keep up their fundraising work). And despite talk of Zoom burnout, the majority are also receptive to online events – with, for example, 48% saying they would consider attending a virtual quiz for charity, and 9% claiming to have already done so. At the same time, charities need to be ready to capture the public mood – and be able to respond quickly, with enough agility and understanding of what supporters want – when things begin to change.

Understanding your audiences – as important as ever

In order to be responsive to change and keep your core issues on the public agenda, understanding the public and particularly supporter audiences, really matters. People will have had their lives changed in a vast range of ways over recent months and this may impact significantly on the types of engagement they want from charity. For one thing, charities will need to be sensitive to many personal issues people may have experienced – from bereavement, to financial insecurity, or mental and physical health concerns. However, there may be effects too on the causes that matter to them and the types of asks and messages that will resonate and appeal as moods and attitudes change. Getting language and tone right is going to be important as will ensuring we are offering ways to engage which will work for supporters as they grapple with the challenge of adapting in an ever-changing world. So, whilst planning for the future in 2021 in certain senses means planning for the unknown, listening to and understanding charity supporters’ motivations will make the challenge that bit easier.   

Next week we will be running a set of online focus groups with the general public, trying to do just this. These will be available to view via a live stream to those charity clients who subscribe to our general public tracking service for charities, the Charity Awareness Monitor. In the focus groups, we’ll be speaking to charity donors to find out how their relationships with charities and causes have been impacted by the events of 2020, as well as exploring how they anticipate engaging in future. To find out more about this research, as well as our general public research more broadly, please contact

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