Lessons from 30 Year-End Fundraising Seasons

Lessons from 25 Year-End Fundraising Seasons

This year will be my 30th year-end fundraising season. (In related news, I have a lot of grey hair.)

That means I’ve been a part of about 300 separate year-end campaigns for different nonprofits around North America.

Let me share with you what I’ve learned. Because we do lots of testing, pay close attention to what works, and have a pretty good handle on what works the best.

Today, I want to share how to think about year-end fundraising. It’s a short set of ideas that put you on the path to happy donors and full bank accounts.

Idea #1 – Your donors love to give, but they are busy

Before you do anything, just think about this for a moment. Your donors love to give! Share this idea with your staff and board. If you want to have a great year, you must remember that your donors love to give, but they are busy!

Most nonprofits think two unhelpful things:

  1. Our fundraising makes people give gifts they don’t really want to give.
  2. Every donor receives every message we send.

Neither of those things are true. And if you think those two things, you will only communicate with your donors a couple times in December. That’s a HUGE mistake.

Instead, remember that your donors love to give, but they are busy. They need to be over-communicated with during this busy season. (And if there’s a donor or board member who has already given their year-end gift, by all means remove them from the mailing list!) But for everyone else, you need to communicate to them often enough to break through all the noise, get their attention, and remind them to give you a gift.

Idea #2 – Think of your year-end fundraising as a service

That’s right. Not as fundraising, but as a service to your busy donors who love to give.

You are reminding them to do something they would love to do.

So what makes a good reminder?

  • A clear focus on the action you want them to take. In all your communications (letters, emails, your website, social) get to the point very quickly. Ask them to give a special year-end gift before the end of the year.
  • A clear focus on the deadline. Remind donors, again and again, that their special year-end gift is needed before the end of the year. Deadlines are magic in fundraising, and this is the best deadline you’ll ever have. Mention it early and often!
  • Remind them what their gift does. This is NOT a reminder of what your organization does with their gift. For instance, if you’re an Arts organization, don’t remind them that their gift ‘supports our programs to promote the arts…” Instead, remind your donors that their gift ‘supports the arts so that our community has a thriving arts scene and culture.’

Idea #3 – The only other ideas to add are reasons to give now

Resist the urge to talk about your upcoming capital campaign, or tell a story about somebody you’ve already helped.

The only other ideas to add are reasons your donor should give a gift right now. Things like:

  • Their gift will be doubled by a matching grant
  • Your organization has a shortfall and you need to ‘close the gap’ as quickly as possible
  • You have a big need for funds early next year and the donor’s gift will help

The Main Point

You can do these things and still write a warm, personal letter or email. Really, it’s a matter of focus. Make sure you communicate the main things in a way that donors who just briefly glance at your letter will still get the point.

So of course you can talk about how it’s been a good year. And you can thank your donor for their previous generosity. You can even talk about how pretty the snow is.

But those should not be the main, most noticeable parts of your letter. If you write and design you year-end fundraising following the principles above, you’ll raise a lot more money!

This post was originally published on November 13, 2017.


Steven Screen is Co-Founder of The Better Fundraising Company and lead author of its blog. With over 25 years' fundraising experience, he gets energized by helping organizations understand how they can raise more money. He’s a second-generation fundraiser, a past winner of the Direct Mail Package of the Year, and data-driven.

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