Institute for Charitable Giving

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Five Actions That Will Improve Year-End Fundraising

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Ready or not, here it comes!  The crowded, year-end fundraising frenzy is upon us. 

It is hard to think about trees, lights, and annual appeals while temperatures exceed 100 degrees in much of the country, but now is the time to turn our attention to the final days of the year. 

With overall giving down 10.5% adjusted for inflation last year (Giving USA 2023), we not only owe it to our organizations to do everything we can to secure much-needed funding, we owe it to those whose lives are being changed and saved through the tireless work of our coworkers to ensure there are resources available to accomplish our transformational work.

Here are 5 actions you can take in the next 30 days to help bolster your year-end success!

1) Be Intentional

2) Back Plan

3) Connect

4) Reinforce

5) Be Grateful

1) Be Intentional.

Brainstorm.  Whether you’re a one-person fundraising shop or part of a team of 50, now is the time to have a brainstorming session about your year-end campaign and message.  Heifer International’s Gift Catalog, which is branded as a holiday gift catalog year year, is a great example of how to communicate impact while inviting people to become part of a solution that changes lives. 

Your year-end campaign does not need to be as complex as cataloging your every need, but in every organization, there is a way to unite your need with a call to action that feels good. 

Pro Tip:  Remember the “Power of One.”  One story about one person, one animal, or one environment that has been transformed by your organization is more powerful than all the statistics in the world.  People connect with and are motivated by stories.

2) Back Plan.

Timing is everything.  The single largest key to success in any campaign is timing.  Never is this truer than at year-end when the fundraising space is the noisiest.  Take a look at the calendar of events for your organization between September 1 and December 31 to decide on the right timing for the launch of your year-end campaign, as well as the release of reinforcing messaging. 

From there, build a calendar for:

A) Direct mail pieces.  According to MobileCause, donors are 3 times more likely to make a gift online in response to a direct mail appeal (bcg Connect).  If your organization has the budget, send at least 2 appeals to continue your year-end story, perhaps one in October and one in the 2nd week of December.

B) Email drip campaign.  Tell your year-end story over a series of emails (typically 5-7) with the last 3 emails arriving in inboxes December 30 (qty 1) and December 31 (qty 2).  December 31 remains the single largest giving day of the year, so remind your donors of the impact they can still have as the year comes to a close.

C) Social Media.  In addition to your regular social media presence, craft additional posts (we recommend 15 – 30 to run over 45 – 60 days) that tell your year-end story, have a clear call to action, and reinforce your impact.

D) Text messaging.  While SMS receives the 2nd highest return on investment in the direct marketing space according to postalystics, use this judiciously. 

Two text messages in total, one on #GivingTuesday and one on another date of your choosing are sufficient.  The other day could be a special anniversary (of your organization, a milestone, a holiday celebration) or simply December 31 – a last chance to give.

    Content development.  Once you have your message and your timeline created, consider what components you will need for each of your pieces.  You do not need to have every piece completed by your launch date, but it helps to get as much done as possible during the slower summer months.  Below is an example of back planning into a direct mail piece.

    Direct Mail Letter Drop – October 25
    Mail components to Printer (leaving time for proofs) – October 18
    Audience Selection (notify printer of desired paper and quantity) – October 9
    Design work begins (letter, reply device, return envelope, carrier envelope) – September 20
    Write copy (leave yourself plenty of time to write copy and add customization) – September 5

    Use this same formula to help guide you on copy and asset creation (photos and videos) for emails and social media. 

    The early bird gets the worm.  The most successful year-end campaigns launch early, typically during the last week of October.  This is when many direct mail letters go out, especially for organizations that provide holiday gifts or meals to others.  It may seem early, but if your appeal is not hitting mailboxes early, your message may get lost in the bustle of the holiday season. 

    Pro Tip: Timing is different for every organization.  While your year-end appeal should go out to your entire database, if your gala is in October, do not mail an appeal letter to donors who just gave to your gala. Instead, segment your audiences and customize your ask. 

    What to do about #GivingTuesday? In recent years, #GT has become an exceptionally noisy and rowdy space.  For some organizations, #GT has become part of the culture of philanthropy, but for most organizations, it feels like an overdone marketing ploy that yields little in terms of financial support. 

    Regardless of your organization’s #GT experience, your presence needs to be seen and heard on this International Day of Giving.   You can use #GT to “officially” launch your year-end campaign, even if your first direct mail piece, emails, and social media posts went out earlier. 

    Announce your fundraising goal and state clearly what achieving that goal will do for your organization.

    3) Connect.

    Customize.  The more you can customize your communications, the deeper the bond you form between your donors and your organization.  When donors feel seen and appreciated for what they have already done, they are more inclined to give again and in greater amounts. 

    Let’s go back to launching your year-end campaign when your gala is in October.  As stated in Part 1 of this article, it is unwise to send a year-end appeal to a donor at the end of October who just gave to your gala (no matter the amount) that was held earlier in the month.  However, that does not mean that the donor should not receive an ask in December (after having been thanked at least 7 times).  Do not say “no” for your donor!

    Here’s an example of a compassionate and considerate ask:

    “James, we are so grateful for all you have done to protect giraffes in Africa.  You have already given so generously this year, particularly with your $5,000 sponsorship to our gala.  Thank you. 

    As the year draws to a close, I’m asking if you might have the capacity to make one, final gift of $1,000 to help us build an enclosure for panda, Jessica, who was just rescued from a circus.  I know it’s a lot to ask, but I also do not know anyone more passionate about the ethical treatment and protection of animals than you.”

    Think about this ask versus a generic ask like, “We are dedicated to protecting giraffes in Africa, but the need doesn’t stop there. We need your help to build an enclosure for panda, Jessica, who was just rescued from a circus.”

    Nonprofits (and nonprofit professionals) get very hung up on talking about what we do, rather than focusing on what the donor experiences with us.  Letting your donor know you see (and are grateful for) what they have given and what they care about goes a long way in deepening their connection with you.

    This same language can be used in a face-to-face meeting.  If your donor has yet to make their mid-level or major gift for the year, invite them to coffee or lunch post-gala to get their feedback on the event, and if appropriate, broach the subject there.

    Pro Tip: Last donation amount, last donation date, and calendar year donations are all powerful when it comes to letting your donor know you see their sacrifice and value.  Use a spreadsheet and mail merge to create custom paragraphs for your current year, SYBNT, and LYBNT lists. 

    Connect with your audience.  Connecting with donors on a mass scale is harder than ever.  Whether you work for a small agency crafting messages that will connect with every donor on your file, or you are a gift officer managing a portfolio of donors, finding ways to connect is challenging.

    Videos are a great way to engage more donors on your file.  Be just vague enough that the message comes across as personalized, even though it is generic and can be pushed out to larger audiences.  For example, “Hello!  I was thinking of you today and knew you would appreciate knowing that Alexis enrolled in a second semester because of scholarship opportunities like the one you provide.   She is such an amazing young woman who wouldn’t be here without financial assistance.  Thank you for being our partner in educating tomorrow’s leaders!” 

    Videos do not have to be professionally filmed and edited. In fact, a video recorded on your phone or computer tests better than a professional video every time. 

    Pro Tip:  When recording, be aware of your background.  Position yourself in front of a sign of your organization’s logo, or an image that represents those you serve. Make sure the lighting is good.  Most of all, look directly at the camera, be authentic, and be sincere.  The easiest way to do that is to imagine your favorite donor on the other side of the camera and just have a conversation with them.

    Get creative.  To truly stand out in a season with so much activity, get creative.  Get together with your team to create something unique that donors and board members alike will want to share.  Do not be afraid to be corny or silly!  Corny and silly are some of the best ways to capture people’s attention and educate them on what you do and how they can support you during a busy time of the year. 

    Get personal. For most people, the holidays evoke feelings of family, togetherness, and connection.  Do not be afraid to call donors on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve – especially if you know they will not be with friends or family.  According to a report released by the U.S. Surgeon General in May 2023, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” …even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.  A simple phone call or video message can go a long way toward helping your donors feel connected to and appreciated by you and your organization.

    Send handwritten cards.  Include photos of your own pets, friends, or family members. Especially around the holidays, this is a great time to make yourself more human to your donors, and less a cog in the fundraising wheel. 

    4) Reinforce.

    The ideal year-end campaign will tell one story about one person, animal, or environment served by your organization.  The story will follow the Hero’s Journey and every email, social media post, and direct mail piece will reinforce the message. 

    What is the Hero’s Journey?  In his book, “Building a Story Brand,” Donald Miller explores the 7 elements of great storytelling that motivate people to take action. 

    Who is your character/hero (who do you serve)?

    What is their problem (what is preventing them from achieving their goals)?

    Who can help them (who will be their guide on the journey)?  **Hint: the donor**

    Who gives them a plan (provides them with the tools)? **Hint: your organization**

    What happens if no one is there to help (the cost of failure)?

    What does success look like (the desired outcomes)?  **Hint: this is where “Because of you” statements come into play.

    Because of you, Amanda is not homeless this holiday season.

    Because of you, Shawn lived to see his baby sister open a gift.

    Because of you, puppy Earl found a forever home.

    The Hero’s Journey can be told in a few, short sentences, or over several communications.  Year-end is an ideal time to continue reinforcing your organization’s impact through the power of story.

    Share.  Sharing posts on social media is never more important than at the holidays.  For days on end, people are sitting around with their families, all on their phones as football streams in the background.  Be sure to ask your Board of Directors to repost your organization’s posts and say something about them.  This will help drive new audiences and reinforce not just your year-end message, but your organization’s validity. 

    5) Be Grateful.

    Perhaps the sharpest arrow in our quiver during year-end is our ability to express gratitude and steward our donors amid all the asking.

    If your year-end appeal drops in late October and your organization begins plugging #GivingTuesday in early November, make sure to take 8-10 days around Thanksgiving to pause and just be grateful.  Below is a list of some of our favorite ways to steward donors, board members, and coworkers:

    Thanksgiving Cards.  These can be handmade if you run a residential or activity program or printed with a simple message of thanks. Shutterfly offers some great ideas for Thanksgiving messages, depending on your audience, or you can use an Ai program like ChatGPT to get your creative juices flowing!

    Sugarwish is a fun way to make sure you never miss the mark on a gift!  Let your donor, coworker, or board member know you are grateful for them with a small token of your appreciation.  You can even add your own brand/logo to Sugarwish packages.

    Yankee Candle offers personalized candles.  Include a photo of those you serve along with a brief message of gratitude and fill their home with a sensory experience. 

    Last but certainly not least, just a simple, handwritten card of gratitude.  Be sincere.  Start early and write 2-3 cards a day beginning in mid-September. By Thanksgiving, you will have written thoughtful, sincere messages to the top 20% of donors on your file.

    Updates.  Provide your donors and social media audience with your progress towards your year-end goal.  Whether in a newsletter or in one of your appeal emails or social media posts, a simple “We are halfway to our goal” makes people want to get involved.  It is human nature to want to participate in a movement that has traction and momentum!

    Good stewardship.  Remember that every campaign should have a corresponding gift acknowledgment that closes the loop on the ask.  If you are asking for funding to build an enclosure, say something like, “Thank you for responding to our call for help with Jessica’s enclosure.  Because of you, she is feeling safe and supported for the first time in her life.” 

    Remember these should be customized for online and direct response gifts.  Nothing says “you’re just a number” like a gift acknowledgment that states simply, “Thank you for your gift of $XX to ABC Charity, EIN-XX-XXXXXX, on YY date.  Your donation is tax-deductible to the amount allowable by law.” 

    You’ve come this far – don’t drop the ball at the finish line! 

    Wrap up.  Finally, remember to wrap up your year-end campaign.  A top donor complaint is that donors often never hear how (or if) the campaign ended.  Post your results and the impact the funding will have on those you serve online and send out a special communication when your campaign concludes.  Typically, letting your year-end campaign run through the 7th or 8th of January allows enough time for last-minute donations to reach you. 

    For gift officers, campaign wrap-ups are your best friend.  We are always looking for reasons to call our donors, and sharing a success your organization experienced is a communication donors love to engage with.  They enjoy feeling part of a collective of people striving to make their community, and the world, a better place.  Besides, isn’t it nice when we get a call simply saying “thank you” without any other ask at the end? 

    We know there is a lot to unpack in this article.  Executing all elements may not be feasible for you or your organization this year, so choose just 1 or 2 and commit to them.  Not only will you enhance your year-end giving, but you will also set your organization and yourself up for deeper donor relationships and better fundraising in the year ahead!  


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