3 ways to maximize your year-end fundraising letters

The most successful year-end fundraising campaigns all share some key features. They use tested, proven strategies that win year after year. And year after year, organizations just update the letters and send them out again.

That’s right.

They send the same message year after year. And get a fantastic response, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars!

You can get the same fantastic response by taking the three tips below to heart.

Tip 1: Ask boldly. Ask often.

Don’t wait until the end of your letter to ask the donor to give. Try asking in at least five or six places throughout. It helps to be specific and concrete when you ask a donor to give. Remind them that the people or cause you serve need help. Tell them what will happen if the money isn’t raised, and the specific impact their donation will have.

Tip 2: Talk about the people who need help, not your organization.

It’s a common mistake to make your organization the hero of your story. It’s also a big one. Your donor should be the hero of the story. Use your letter to explain how the donor can directly make an impact, not how they can help your organization make an impact.

Tip 3: Create urgency, include a deadline and a goal.

Year-end is a natural deadline to highlight in your letter, especially since December 31 is also the deadline for federal charitable tax deductions. Repeat the “midnight, December 31” deadline throughout your letter, on the OE, and the response device. Remember to always pair it with a clear monetary goal.

Get proven year-end fundraising letter samples

Would you like to see some real letters that used the principles above — and brought in more and bigger donations at year-end? And what if we said you could steal from these letters to create your own letter to your own donors?

You can get these samples — and see why they worked, as well as get in-depth instructions on how to use them to create your own successful year-end appeals — for just $129. That’s just $129 to raise thousands more!

We want you to raise more money for your great cause.

Better than a class

Buying these proven samples is better than a fundraising class or conference. With those, you spend anywhere from $150-$500, lose a day of work, and maybe learn something. Hopefully you’re a better fundraiser than you were before.

With these samples you’ll spend $129, upgrade your entire year-end fundraising, and raise thousands more dollars while spending less time doing it. This is a “the best money we’ve ever spent” kind of opportunity.

The “S” Word That Is Good, Not Naughty

The letter "S" for "Segmentation"

The “S” word that I’m talking about is “Segmentation.”

It’s the art and science of not treating all of the people in your database the same. Instead, you want to break them into smaller “segments.”

Here’s why this is important: good segmentation will let you save money on what you’re currently doing while raising more money. Segmentation is a 2-for-1 improvement to your organization.

Here’s what I want to provide:

A super-simple guide to segmentation for smaller nonprofits.

And here’s why I want to do it: most of the small nonprofits I get to work with don’t do enough segmentation. They tend to treat every person in their database the same. They waste money and miss opportunities.

Here’s a simple summary. It’s not perfect for everyone, but it’s a good start:

  • Send your appeal letters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months. (Don’t send them to non-donors, or to volunteers, or to in-kind donors, or to donors who last gave years ago – it’s not worth the money.)
  • Send your newsletters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 18 months. (Same as above — as a rule, you will spend more money on printing and postage than you will receive in gifts.)
  • However, send your Christmas/Holiday/Year-end letters to all donors who have given a gift in the last 36 months. This is the time to include your non-donors and your volunteers.
  • Send your e-appeals to everyone on your email list.
  • Send your e-newsletters or e-updates to everyone on your email list.

That’s it. There are about 15 ways that it quickly becomes complex. But the main thing to remember is that the people most likely to give you gifts are your donors. And organizations that really analyze their results quickly figure out that it’s not worth their money to send mail to people who haven’t donated in a while.

And here’s how you can use segmentation to raise more money . . .

Identify your “segment” of major donors and send them special versions of your direct mail.

Because your major donors can give you such large gifts, it is worth spending extra money on your mailings to them. Here’s what to spend your money on:

  1. Larger envelopes
  2. Nicer paper
  3. Customized proposals in the mailing

The purpose of spending the extra money is pretty simple: it’s to increase the chance that a major donor will OPEN your mailing. And if you do that with your major donors, you will raise more money!

For Major Donors, November > December

“Most major donors make their giving decisions prior to December.”

That’s a powerful lesson that I learned the hard way. My background was mass donor fundraising; sending out millions of letters, and creating donor-acquition TV shows, and doing radio campaigns.

In that world, December is the most important month to focus on.

But when I started doing major donor fundraising I was taught two incredibly powerful things for major donor fundraising at this time of year:

  1. Know exactly which of your major donors have not given a gift yet during this year
  2. Ask those majors to give a gift no later than early November.

What I learned was that a large portion of major donors make their giving decisions before Thanksgiving. And there are lots of stories about major donor families meeting during Thanksgiving weekend to decide what organizations to support that year.

Not all majors are like this. But in my experience, enough of them are that soliciting your majors before Thanksgiving works better than after Thanksgiving.

For the majors that you are going to meet with and ask in person, aim for before thanksgiving. (Which means you should start setting up those meetings in October.) For the majors who you are sending a major donor proposal or mailing to, send it the first week of November.

Could you make a reminder call in December? Of course? If they haven’t given yet, should they still be included in your year-end direct mail and emails? Of course.

And remember:

For most organizations major donors provide between 80% and 90% of total revenue from individual donors.

This is important. This is worth your focus. It’s worth doing early.

tl;dr? For majors, November > December

And if you need help making a plan for your majors, check out our webinar. We created it expressly to help smaller organizations maximize their major donor revenue and relationships! It will walk you through the easy way to make a proven plan to get major gifts before the end of the year.

No Mystery, Just a Major Donor System That Works

Hopefully you’ve heard that Jim is hosting a webinar expressly designed to help you get major gifts before December 31st.

This is your last chance to sign up for the live webinar, where you’ll be able to get Jim’s advice and your questions answered.

Listen, this thing is the real deal. It’s about giving you an easy-to-follow system to get major gifts AND deepen your relationships with major donors.

Because major donor fundraising shouldn’t feel like an unsolvable mystery. I’m in all the meetings, hearing questions like ‘How do I know who to talk to first?’ and ‘What do I do if I can’t get a meeting with them?’ and ‘That donor already gave last year, what do I ask them to give to this year? And how much?’

Jim has the answers.

Well, he doesn’t have all the answers. He has a system. And that system gives you your best shot at getting gifts. And the system is built to honor your donors and deepen your relationships with them. Because we believe the same thing our friends at the Veritus Group do: it’s not just about the money!

Take a look at this graphic from the webinar. Jim is teaching you his 4-step Identify, Rank, Move, Ask system. It’s easy. And after this page you’ll know who to focus your time, efforts and money on first. And second. And third.

We built you a spreadsheet that you’ll receive with your purchase. It’s built so that you can enter your donor data, rank and track your majors. For a small shop without a sophisticated donor software system, this alone is gold and worth the price of the webinar.

But I need to be clear; you’ll still have to do some work. This isn’t some magical unicorn of a webinar that solves all your major donor problems. There is no silver bullet.

Let’s just call it a shortcut. This webinar allows you to download the accumulated wisdom of the really smart fundraisers who have gone before you. They know that successful major donor fundraising is about having a system —> that generates a plan —> that tells you who to talk to next and what to say to them —> which gives you the best chance for major donor fundraising success.

Especially at this time of year.

Because there are no guarantees. But you CAN stack the odds in your favor.

Sign up for Jim’s webinar today. It’s October 12 at 10:00 am Pacific Time. If you can’t make it, we’ll record it for you so you can watch it as soon as you want to start raising more money.

It’s $179. It’s in the territory of “the best $179 you’ve ever spent.” With the seminar and a little work (which you were already going to do, but now it will be more focused) you’ll raise thousands (or tens of thousands) more. And you’ll have a system that you can use for ALL of next year to raise even more from your donors. Go sign up!

“Remind, Don’t Persuade”

A tree whose leaves have turned orange and red is in a field of golden grass

When I said it, everybody in the room wrote it down.

That’s generally how I know I’ve said something helpful. Here’s what it was:

“At the end of the year your job is to remind, not persuade.”

Here’s why I said that. We’ve done a lot of year-end campaigns for a lot of organizations. We analyze the results of every single one.

When you look at them as a whole a pattern emerges. The successful campaigns? They aren’t beautiful writing that would make Shakespeare weep. They aren’t powerful case statements or success stories.

Here’s what the best campaigns tend to do:

  1. Remind donors of the problem that your organization exists to help solve
  2. Ask them to give a gift before the end of the year to help solve that problem

That’s it. You’re going to want to talk a lot of other things. And that’s fine — as long as the main messages you send — the first things your donors see and read — are the Need and your Ask for a gift.

You see, you don’t have time to persuade. In November and December, your donors are moving FAST. Your donors love it when your organization is clear about what you want the donor to do and how their gift will help. Because your donor is also getting a lot of other mail — mail that spends three paragraphs talking about the color of the leaves this time of year, or how excellent the year has been, or telling a story that makes it sound like they’ve already helped everyone.

The time for Thanking and Reporting to your donors for their previous gifts? That was before. Make sure you’ve done that by mid-November. Year-end is a time for Asking.

In our tests, year-end fundraising that spent significant time Thanking or Reporting raised less money

This is not just theory. This whole post is an attempt to explain testing results!

It may be hard. It may be counter-intuitive. (And it’s especially hard for smaller organizations that don’t communicate with their donors more than a couple times a year).

But trust me. The job of your fundraising from mid-November on is to remind your donor to send in a gift, not to persuade them. Just Ask. Ask Boldly. Ask without fear. Ask knowing that your donors love your cause and your organization’s role in helping them make the world a better place!

A Mistake I Wish I Didn’t Make

A finger caught in a mousetrap

Note from Steven: This is a guest post from Lisa, an experienced Development Director who is on the Better Fundraising team.

It was a typical nonprofit workday when my boss walked into my office. He had a direct mail piece in his hand. It was from a non-profit he supported. He gave it to me and said . . .

“I like this. I bet it brought in a lot of money. Don’t you think we should do something like this?”


Has this happened to you? Speaking as someone who’s been in your seat; if it hasn’t happened yet, it will soon!

The next day my boss came in again and shared an idea for a fundraising project. The idea had been brought to him by a board member. Like the direct mail piece, it was for a different kind of non-profit and audience. He said it raised a lot of money and asked me that same question, “Don’t you think we should do it?”

Feeling the pressure and wanting to please my boss, I caved in. Within a few weeks my team and I were neck deep into the new project. We didn’t have the time or the resources needed to execute it properly – but by then we were too far along to stop.

When we finished we were all exhausted. And as you may have guessed, it didn’t make any money. Plus in our efforts to see the project through, we weren’t able to get to our regular work. So we missed deadlines and lost revenue.

Here’s what I learned:

Know what works for your organization. Then do it again, again, and again

Or as we say here at Better Fundraising, Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. You’ve spent time and money in the past figuring out what your donors like and don’t like. For me, in every case I can remember, I’ve raised more money by doing another of what the donor’s responded to instead of trying something new.

Jim and Steven tell me they see this all the time – organizations who have successful tactics but replace them (or only use them once a year) because they think their donors will get tired of them. I can tell you from experience that so much time and money is wasted doing this!

How To Try New Tactics

Don’t get me wrong, I like trying new things but NOT at the expense of my staff and NOT if it puts ongoing successful fundraising projects in jeopardy.

So here’s how I ended up running things. If we wanted to try something new, we did our research, planned, and put it in the next year’s budget. In the meantime, we repeated what worked well for us in the past and we did it more than once. For example, we had a Thanksgiving letter that always worked great. So instead of trying something new, we sent two Thanksgiving letters the next year. It worked great.

The Two Big Lessons

  1. It’s very risky to replace a tried-and-true fundraising tactic with something new. Know how much revenue is at risk when you make the decision!
  2. If you did something that really worked with your donors, figure out how to use the same concept twice the following year. I should note that this doesn’t really go for events, but it has worked for me more times than I can count in the mail, email, and major donor proposals!

1/3 of Your Annual Donations Are at Stake This Year-End — Do You Have a Plan?

Ask ?

When a third of your annual donations are at stake, you must make sure your donors receive the right message at the right time — and in the right way.

Come mid-November, you’ll find yourself in this exact situation.

So … do you have a great plan?

Introducing Your GREAT Year-End Fundraising Calendar

We’ve worked with and talked to hundreds of nonprofit leaders like you. Most of them don’t know exactly what to do and when to do it to make the most of their year-end. So, we developed a calendar.

Your Best-Ever Year-End Fundraising Calendar shows you the days, times and places you need to communicate with donors at year-end.  You’ll know exactly when to mail letters, send emails, update your website, and post on Facebook!

The guesswork is gone!

Vision House Raised 22% More Than They’d Ever Raised Before

Last year, we used the calendar with Vision House, a client that serves homeless families in the Seattle area. They needed to raise a significant amount of money last December. Together, we reviewed their planned list of November and December donor communications against our suggested calendar.

We discovered they were missing out on key opportunities:

  1. There was space in their calendar for another print appeal
  2. They needed to do more communication online

We added a timely print appeal and three emails to the end of December. And the results were powerful — a 22% lift over their previous best year-end!

How much more would you raise with a 22% increase in revenue?  Would spending $100 to achieve that be a good investment?

Raise More Money at Year-End — Just Like Vision House

You can run the most successful year-end campaign you’ve had yet – in half the time and with far less stress.

But you need to get started right away.

Get your Year-End Fundraising Calendar now!

[FREE RESOURCE] Storytelling for ACTION ebook

We made a free ebook to help you raise more money!

Here’s what Tom Ahern said about it: “Get it. Read it. Implement it. Make way more money.”

If that’s not enough, here’s a sample of what you’ll get. This is our “Story Type Matrix” — it’s 20 years of hard-won storytelling advice about what types of stories to tell and when to tell them, condensed into a single powerful page.

And that’s just page 13. There are 40 other pages.

I mentioned this is free, right?

Why would we give away this level of information? Two reasons:

  1. There’s a lot of un-tested information about storytelling out there. Just “being good at storytelling” or “telling stories well” isn’t the magical fundraising tool it’s made out to be. What stories you tell, and when you tell them, matters a TON.
  2. We’re sharing this because our goal at Better Fundraising is to radically improve the fundraising capacity of small to medium-sized nonprofits. That’s why we’re here. We’re constantly looking for ways, for free or at very low cost, that we can share what we’ve found (through vigorous testing) works best in fundraising.

Download your free ebook today!

Hidden Pitfalls: Not Following Up on a Pledge

Is your organization good at following up on pledges from donors?

In my experience, most organizations aren’t. And it’s especially apparent with major donor pledges.

The lack of follow-up usually comes from fears around ‘bothering’ or ‘badgering’ the donor. People fear they will ‘drive the donor away’ or ’cause a problem in the relationship’ — especially when the donor is a major donor or a board member.

And only one person needs to voice these fears and they spread like wildfire.

But these fears are mostly unfounded and do far more damage than you think.

When follow-up on a donor pledge is absent or insufficient, here’s what that communicates to the donor:

It says that the donor’s gift isn’t important.

Because if their gift was important – if it really mattered – the organization would be in touch with the donor early and often. It would be telling them how important that gift is. The organization would actively be trying to get the gift!

It says that the donor herself isn’t important.

Donors know that other people are giving to your organization. They imagine that you’re out having wonderful lunches with the big donors, happily giving and receiving, making the world a better place and enjoying it while you do. So when a donor isn’t followed up with, they feel like they must not be important enough to get the good treatment.

It says that your organization doesn’t have its act together.

The donor knows you have to pay bills, pay salaries, and use money to help the people who need help. When a donor makes a pledge and doesn’t hear enough about it, it feels to her like your organization must not track money very well. It makes her wonder what happened to the other donors who made pledges. And if you’re really raising as much money and helping as many people as you say you are.

The donor doesn’t feel like their gift makes a difference.

The most important one. If a donor doesn’t hear directly and often about her pledge, she wonders if her pledge was really going to make a difference. Because if it was really going to make a difference – if it was really needed – wouldn’t the organization have gotten in touch with her? Maybe her gifts don’t make that much of a difference after all . . .

Makes you want to do a good job following up with the pledges you receive, doesn’t it? Here’s a quick list for how to do that well:

  1. Always have a deadline. Deadlines are amazing at causing action to happen – both on your part and on your donor’s part!
  2. Communicate with your donor(s) early and often about their pledge. I recommend 3 times: once immediately after the pledge, once about halfway from the pledge to the deadline, and once a month before the deadline.
  3. In your communications, mention that their gift is important, that it matters, and that it will make a difference. You want your donor to know that her gift matters and that it is needed.
  4. Be sure to mention that you understand if circumstances change and they can’t give the amount they pledged or fulfill their pledge by the deadline. You want to give your donors an honorable way out.

Think of the whole thing as a ‘kind business process’ that’s honoring to your donors and honoring to your cause or beneficiaries. Don’t let fear get in the way of loving follow-ups! If you do, you’ll lose revenue and harm relationships with donors.