A Procrastinator’s Guide to Year-End Fundraising

A Procrastinator’s Guide to Year-End Fundraising.

Just getting started with your year-end fundraising?

Here’s a quick list – my best tips – for what to do with your remaining weeks before the end of the year.

Make a Plan to Start Earlier Next year

First, the hard news: if you’re just starting now, you’ve left money on the table.  You could have raised more.

That is a harsh truth.  Many people won’t like to hear it.  But it’s true.  And for the moment, don’t worry about it.  But right now, go set a calendar reminder to start earlier next year.

Seriously, set a reminder.

I’ll wait.

It’s that important.

The organizations that start their year-end fundraising earlier tend to raise more money.

What to Do Now

Do as many of the following things if you can.  And here’s the order I’d prioritize them in:

Identify and contact your major donors who have not yet given a gift this year.

Don’t do what most nonprofits do, which is hope that their majors give a gift before the end of the year.

If you haven’t already, identify exactly which of your major donors have not given gifts.  Then reach out to each of them to ask for a special year-end gift to help your beneficiaries (not to help your organization).  Do it in person if you can; phone is the next best way.  Tell them their gift is needed now, and tell them their gift will make a difference!

Write and send your year-end letter.

Send out a direct letter that powerfully asks donors to give a special gift before the end of the year.  Tell them their gift is needed now, and tell them their gift will make a difference!

If you use a mail house and it’s going to take too long to get a letter produced, here’s what to do:

  1. Figure out how many letters you could print and send using your in-house process.
  2. Start sending those letters to your top donors, starting at the top of your file and working down.

Write and prep your year-end emails.

Be sure to have at least three emails prepped for the last three days of the year.  Remember that you do not have to reinvent the wheel: the emails should be VERY similar to your letter, and the emails should be very similar to each other.  Repetition is the most effective tool you didn’t know you have!

Tell them their gift is needed now, and tell them their gift will make a difference!

Update your website to ask for a year-end gift.

Make an update so that the first thing users see on your home page is a clear call-to-action and a large “donate” button.

And…  wait for it…  tell them their gift is needed now, and tell them their gift will make a difference.  You will raise more money than you expect.

That’s it! Do as many of those as you can, starting from the top of the list.

Do a great job on each one before doing anything else.

And if you can only do three things, do the top three.  If you can only do two, do the top two.  You get it.

Remember: year-end is the easiest time of the year to raise more money than you expect!

Why I’m Bullish About Year-End Fundraising This Year


My mentor once said to me,

“I wish I would have noticed earlier in my career how closely overall fundraising results tend to mirror the economy.”

It’s such a simple idea.  But knowing it helped me be a more effective Fundraiser.

There are four main lessons I took from his remark, and I hope they are helpful to you, too. 

Takeaway #1 – When the Economy Is Good, Be Bullish

This is applicable right now, today.  (As I write this, the S&P is up 19% since the beginning of October.)

“Being bullish” means adding another letter or email in your campaign, or even adding another campaign.  It means expecting slightly higher results.  It means asking Majors for a little more.

Because the economy seems to be rebounding, I am bullish on year-end fundraising this year.

Takeaway #2 – When the Economy Slows, Reset Your Expectations

When the economy slows, campaigns won’t perform quite as well.  Response rates drop a bit, as do average gift sizes.  Majors tend to give smaller gifts.

So when the economy slows, savvy organizations reset their expectations.  If the goal and plan for the year was 5% growth, they think about reducing that to 3%.  They let their Board know the revised expectations, and why.

Takeaway #3 – The World Affects Your Fundraising

If there’s a major natural disaster the week your appeal lands in homes, that appeal most likely isn’t going to do as well.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, we knew two major campaigns that we’d just launched were going to underperform.   A significant portion of Americans’ attention turned to New Orleans… which meant less mail was opened… which meant less money was raised by our campaigns.    

You obviously can’t plan for natural disasters.  But you can plan for times when you know in advance that the world is going to affect your fundraising.  For instance, this coming fall is the 2024 Presidential election in the U.S.  We recommend most organizations not launch an important campaign the week before or after the election.

Takeaway #4 – Always Keep Noticing

My Mentor was in his 70’s when he shared this observation with me.  I love that, even in retirement, he was still noticing things about fundraising.  It’s a good goal for all of us Fundraisers: keep noticing things about fundraising, keep trying to get a little bit better at this craft.  It makes us a little bit more effective helping our beneficiaries, the organizations we serve, and our donors.

Hey, about your envelope…

star company envelope.

This blog post from Five Maples shares the results of a head-to-head test of the envelope on a direct mail appeal for a nonprofit.

Their donors were split into two equal groups. One group received a letter in an envelope that included the organization’s tagline. The other group received the exact same letter, but the envelope did not have the tagline on it.

The tagline on the envelope was the only difference.

The test showed that including the tagline on the envelope reduced the number of people who responded by 65%. Put another way, putting their tagline on the envelope reduced the number of people who sent in a gift by over half.

Let’s notice that this test isn’t about all taglines. It’s about that organization’s tagline, on that piece of direct mail.

But still, that is a massive impact.

You can take three lessons from this simple test that will make you a more effective fundraiser.

Lesson #1

If your organization is putting its tagline on your outer envelope, do you know if it’s helping or hurting?

If you don’t know, it’s time to ask questions instead of making assumptions.

(By the way, there is ZERO judgement here if you’ve been making assumptions. We all do it at the beginning of our fundraising journey.)

Lesson #2

A bigger lesson this data teaches is that what you put on your envelope matters. A lot.

There are very smart people who argue that what you put on the envelope matters more than what you put in the envelope. How’s that for a brain-breaker? Because if your recipient doesn’t open your envelope, what good does the incredible message inside do?

I don’t spend much time on that argument because I think it’s a chicken-or-egg situation – but it is fun to talk about with other Fundraising nerds over a drink.

Moving forward, you want your organization to be thoughtful about what’s on your envelopes and in your email subject lines (which are more-or-less equivalent). And if you want to know more about this right now, the blog post mentioned above is a great place to start.

Lesson #3

Data about fundraising will help you know what’s important and where to spend your time.

For instance, I spend a ton of time on outer envelopes, and on the description of what a donor’s gift will accomplish. I spend almost no time trying to make sure an appeal matches a nonprofit’s “voice.” I make those decisions because data shows how much envelopes and descriptions matter, and how using an organization’s voice in the mail usually causes them to raise less money, not more.

For what it’s worth, in my career I’ve tried to develop what I think of as an “evidence-based worldview” for how to be successful in fundraising. That worldview is made up of as many test results (like this one!) and facts that I can get my hands on.

If you can build a worldview like that, you’ll have a good idea of what path/tactic/approach will have the best chance of success, regardless of the situation.

And if you’re just beginning to build your worldview, this little test about a tagline on an envelope is a great place to start!

Response Rate Goals

Reply envelope.

At last week’s Storytelling Conference, I was asked a really good question:

“My organization is new to direct mail. What kind of response rates should I be getting?”

In case it’s helpful to you, here’s my answer:

For printed appeals my goal is a 4% response rate

For printed newsletters my goal is a 3% response rate

Those are helpful benchmarks, and I hope they help you judge how your mail is performing.

But I have to mention, things start to get interesting right away. Take a look at these variables:

  • The more donors you have, the lower your response rates tend to be. For an organization with 40,000 donors, achieving 3% for an appeal and 2% or 2.2% for a newsletter might be success.
  • The fewer donors you have, the higher your response rates tend to be. If you have 500 donors, you might be getting a 6% response rate on appeals, and a 4% response rate on newsletters.
  • Finally, who you include on the mailing list is another big variable. If you include your monthly donors, your response rates tend to go up. If you include lapsed donors who haven’t made a gift in 36 months, your response rate will go down.

I hope this helps you or your team have benchmarks and goals to aim for. And that there are variables that need to be taken into account. What “success” looks like varies quite a bit from organization to organization – even from mailing to mailing.

The important thing is to measure your results so you know what works best for your organization, and then do more of that!

‘Pre-Existing Condition’


Your donors have what’s called a “pre-existing condition”…

They cared about your beneficiaries or cause before your organization came into their life.

Three examples:

  • Say your organization is a library.  Your donors cared about books, literacy and your community before they had even heard of your library.
  • Say your organization helps a tiny village in Ethiopia.  Your donors cared about kids, and people having enough food & an education before they had even heard of your organization or the village.
  • Say your organization provides access to activities for people with disabilities in the Tri-state area.  Your donors cared about people with disabilities, and about everyone being able to participate, before they heard about your organization.

Knowing this, what should your fundraising to individual donors primarily be about?

Should it primarily be about your organization?  Should it focus on your programs?  Should it be about what the organization has accomplished in the past? 

No!  Your fundraising should focus on the values and interests that caused your individual donors to pay attention to your organization in the first place.  (Note that I’m not talking about your comms to Foundations and other donors for whom your programs and your effectiveness are core necessities for them to donate.)

If you look at your appeals and e-appeals and find that they talk primarily about your organization… for instance, if you’re sharing the names of your programs and how they work… you could be raising more money from individual donors.

When we help organizations see their donors’ pre-existing conditions – and then change the organization’s fundraising to talk about what the donors cared about before they met the organization – the organization raises more money.

When you create your fundraising, don’t think, “We need to inspire our donors to give to our organization.”

Instead, think, “Let’s talk about what our donors already care about, and the difference their gift will make.”

How you can use the 80/20 rule to raise more money

80/20 rule

At Better Fundraising we see a LOT of examples of the 80/20 principle in fundraising. 

Shoot, they even use an example from fundraising as the graphic on the Wikipedia page!  (A great summary of the 80/20 principle is to say that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.)

A couple of common examples:

  • 80% of a company’s sales usually come from 20% of its customers
  • 80% of a country’s land is often owned by 20% of its people

What follows are three examples of this principle in fundraising, along with how you can use them to raise more money for your organization.

The 80/20 Rule in Major Donor Fundraising

About 80% of your individual donor revenue will come from 20% of those donors.  (And in recent years it’s been closer to 90% of revenue coming from 10% of donors).

The organizations that make the most of this reality (especially this year) are the ones who intentionally prioritize those donors with how they spend their fundraising time and budget. 

The 80/20 Rule in Direct Mail

If you look at eye-tracking studies, you’ll notice donors only read about 20% of appeals or newsletters. 

To be great at raising money through the mail, you need to know what portions of your letters or newsletters are most likely to be read.  Then you put the content that’s most likely to drive action in those locations.

The 80/20 Rule for Small Shops

For organizations that only send out a couple of fundraising pieces a year, 20% of their communications typically raise 80% of their individual donations.

In our experience, those organizations can always raise more money immediately.  All they must do is isolate the types of communications that raise the most money, send out more of those, and send out fewer of the type that raise less money.

That’s such a radically simple idea that most small shops believe it can’t be true.  But it IS true.  We’ve done it so many times I can give three examples off the top of my head:

  • Annual reports
  • Most e-news
  • Appeals that are general calls for support

We cancelled those by the bushel and never – not once – saw a drop in revenue. 

The Double Benefit

Here’s the great thing about applying the 80/20 rule: you get a double benefit.  You save the time and money from not doing an inefficient activity.  And you get that time and money to do more of an efficient activity.

The Questions for You

Look at your organization’s fundraising activities.  What activities don’t produce measurable results, and you should cancel them?

What activities drive the most revenue, so you should do more of those with your freed-up time and budget?

In your mailed communications, are you putting the most important content in the 20% of your letter your donors are likely to read?  

Savvy organizations are constantly measuring their fundraising results, so they know what should be jettisoned and what should be done more often.  Because there’s always a way to raise more by doing less.

This post was originally published on September 29, 2020.

Top 5 Appeal Tips

Top 5 Appeal Tips.

I’ve reviewed a LOT of appeal letters.

Recently someone thought to ask, “What’s the advice you give most often?”

What a great question! I immediately wanted to know because it seemed like the top 5 pieces of feedback would make a great “checklist” to share with organizations who want their appeals to raise more money. So we did the research.

From hundreds of reviews, here are the Top 5 pieces of advice I give most often when reviewing an appeal or e-appeal…

#5 – Avoid using pronouns in underlined or bolded copy

The main reason to highlight specific sentences and sentence fragments in appeals is to pre-select what you want most people to read.

Here’s what I mean by “pre-select.” Most people will scan, not read, an appeal letter. As they scan, their eyes are most likely to stop on emphasized copy. So by bolding and underlining, you are in effect choosing for the scanner the parts of your appeal they are more likely to read.

And if you’re going to take the time to choose a sentence for a person to read, make sure they can understand that sentence without having read the rest of the letter. Which brings us to underlining pronouns and why not to do it.

If you underline a sentence that reads, “He needs it today” the person scanning your letter does not know who “he” is and doesn’t know what “it” is. The person’s limited attention has just been taken by something they can’t understand. Not good.

Whatever you highlight in your letter should be able to be easily understood without the context provided by the rest of the letter. It needs to make sense if it’s the only thing the person reads.

#4 – Ask donors to help one beneficiary, not to help all the beneficiaries

Appeals and e-appeals tend to work better when the donor is asked to help one person – one beneficiary – instead of asked to help all the beneficiaries.

To give you an example, a foundation that supports a hospital would likely write, “Your gift today will help cancer patients.” But the appeal or e-appeal would raise more money if the ask was, “Your gift today will help a cancer patient.”

Why? Because when a donor is asked to help just one beneficiary, it’s easier for her to say “yes” then when she’s asked to help an unknown, larger number of beneficiaries.

Additionally, it’s more believable. Say I’m a $1,000 donor to an organization that helps kids. Do I really believe them when they say, “Your gift will help all the children we serve”? I know the organization helps thousands of children, and I’m pretty sure my gift isn’t going to help all of them.

There’s a rule I have in mind as I create or review any piece of fundraising: I need to convince the donor to help one person before they will be interested in helping more than one person.

#3 – Include no more than 1 or 2 numbers in an appeal

Most numbers in appeals need context and thought before the donor recognizes why those numbers are important.

But because most donors don’t have the context, and are unlikely to put in the thought, the numbers become a part of the appeal that the donor doesn’t really understand.

Think about that for a second; the organization is using numbers to establish credibility and expertise… but is pushing donors away. The numbers have the opposite effect than the organization intends.

The numbers can be GREAT for Foundations, Partner organizations, Government grants, etc. But not for mass donor appeal letters and e-appeals.

And of course there are some numbers that are good to have in your appeals – you can read about those here.

#2 – Avoid “we” and “our” language

Your fundraising appeals and e-appeals should sound as if they were written by one person, for one person.

It should not sound as if an organization is writing a donor. It should sound as if a person is writing a donor.

Are there times with the editorial “we” makes sense? Sure. Some parts of annual reports come to mind. Your website. Blog posts, too.

But in your direct response fundraising, sounding 1-to1 is the way to go.

#1 – The only good news in an appeal should be that the donor’s gift today will help

Here’s something we see again and again – it’s like clockwork.

We’ll start working with an organization. Their previous approach to appeals was to “share a story of something they’ve already done, then ask the donor to do more of that thing.”

We change their approach to appeals that “share what’s needed today and how the donor can help.”

Their appeals begin to raise more money immediately.

Note: you should absolutely share past successes. That’s how your donors see that their gift to your organization was a good decision. But share the successes in separate publications; your newsletters, your blog posts, stories on your website, in e-stories, and your annual report.

Focus your appeals on something the donor cares about but that needs help, and the fantastic news that she can make a difference with her gift today.

This is hard because it’s counter-intuitive. But it works like crazy.

This post was originally published on October 19, 2021.

The Regular Kind, or ‘How to Break Through the Noise’

There’s a “regular” kind of fundraising.

You’ve seen it before:

  1. Letters and emails that begin with a thank you, then tell a story of something good that the organization has already done, then a request for support that’s not particularly strong.
  2. The details of what the donor’s gift will help accomplish are often hidden behind abstractions like “you’ll deliver hope” or “please help their dreams come true.”

This “regular” kind of fundraising works OK when there are a lot of people are interested in your cause. Think top-ten subjects like hospitals, cancer, feeding children, higher education, you get it.

But if fewer people are interested in or affected by your cause, “regular” fundraising just doesn’t work that well.

In that situation, if you want to break through, your fundraising must be better. Sharper. Bolder. Clearer.

You’re going to have to make fundraising that leads, fundraising that’s different from the “regular way.”

Here are two pieces of advice to help you create fundraising that breaks through the noise and makes people care more about what you do.

#1 – Figure Out What It Is About Your Cause That Makes People Emotional

Notice I said your cause, not the specifics of your work. What is it about the underlying need for the work you do that makes people emotional? Talk about that when you’re asking for support.

To illustrate, I know of a Men’s Choir that figured this out. They used to do their fundraising the “regular way.” They highlighted how good their singers were, how technical their arrangements were, how impressive they sounded.

They raised a regular amount of money.

But their fundraising took off when they started talking to their donors’ emotions about the music. Turned out that many donors got emotional about preserving and sharing old songs. Other donors got emotional because the music reminded them of their parents.

Can you feel the difference between “Your gift will make the choir’s impressive sound possible” and “Your gift will preserve your musical heritage, and you’ll hear music that will take you right back to listening to it with your parents”?

#2 – Talk About the Consequences of Your Work

What’s the change your work causes that makes people emotional?

When you’re Reporting back to donors on what their gift accomplished, talk about that change. Not about your organization itself, or about what your organization does to make the change.

Your donors care more about the change than they care about how you make it.

When you Report back to donors and share stories that illustrate the change they’ve helped make, your donors will be thrilled they gave and more likely to give again.


The “regular way” doesn’t work very well for small nonprofits.

If few people care about your cause or issue, does it make sense to spend your fundraising talking about the details of your programs? (Think about it – do you want to hear the details about a subject you’re not interested in?)

Instead, find out what makes your current donors emotional about your issue or cause. Get good at talking about that, and you’ll raise more money.

And you’ll have the added benefit of being more attractive to potential donors. Why? Because many of your potential donors have those same emotions that you’ll be talking about. This enables your conversations with potential donors to start on common ground. And that’s a much more inviting place for a donor than having to hear about the details of your programs.

It’s the difference between a potential donor receiving your fundraising and thinking, “I don’t really care about that” and them thinking, “huh, that’s more powerful than I realized.”

Three Lessons from Writing Fundraising with Chat GPT

Writing robot.

I recently had an experience with AI that opened my eyes to a couple things that I think you’ll benefit from knowing. Here’s the story…

At Better Fundraising we have a letter that asks donors to consider leaving an organization in their will. We create versions of this letter for our customers, and it’s quite successful.

But we want to make it easy for all our customers to create their own version of the letter.

So, I pasted the letter into ChatGPT and asked ChatGPT to “anonymize” it. My goal was to keep the letter the same, but take out the organization it was written for, resulting in something like a template.

ChatGPT successfully anonymized the letter… but without being asked added a mass of nonprofit-ese. It took short, simple sentences and made them longer & more complex. It took casual language and made it formal. It took personal writing and made it corporate. Ugh.

Lesson #1: Chat GPT does not naturally differentiate between the types of writing needed for different types of fundraising. AI lumps “grant applications” and “direct response e-appeals” and “brochure copy” all under “fundraising.” In a nutshell, the letter it wrote for me “had too much grant application in a direct response fundraising appeal.” The writing for those two types of fundraising should be significantly different – but AI doesn’t know that.

Lesson #2: The dataset that AIs are based on is full of fundraising writing that’s overly formal, lacks specificity, and is difficult to read. This is a “garbage in, garbage out” situation – if most of the writing that ChatGPT used to create its understanding of fundraising is poor, then the writing that ChatGPT creates is going to be poor.

So, to be more specific and teach ChatGPT what I was looking for, I went ahead and wrote the anonymized letter/template myself. Then I pasted my version into Chat GPT and told it that my letter was they style I was looking for.

For fun, I asked it to analyze the letter and describe what was different about my version.

Here’s how ChatGPT replied…

Let’s analyze the differences between the two versions.

  1. Directness: Your version gets straight to the point, with a direct appeal right from the start. My initial version began by establishing context, potentially adding unnecessary fluff.
  2. Specificity: While my version aimed to generalize various aspects, your version maintained specificity in areas crucial to the appeal’s emotional resonance, like discussing the importance of the work done by the organization.
  3. Language: Your language is more personal and direct. For example, “You didn’t have to donate, but you did.” is a straightforward acknowledgment of the donor’s choice to give.
  4. Structure and Flow: Your version flows more like a conversation, emphasizing gratitude and then transitioning to the ask. It feels more personal and less formal.
  5. Reference to Beneficiaries: Your letter consistently references the beneficiaries of the work, focusing on the impact the donations have. My version was slightly more focused on the organizational aspect.
  6. Narrative: Your letter includes a personal story about revising wills, making the ask more relatable. While my version had this as well, the context and personal touch felt stronger in your version.
  7. Call to Action: Your version includes a clearer call to action, specifically about using the enclosed card for notifying about the bequest. It gives readers a tangible next step.

In summary, while both versions aimed to maintain the letter’s integrity and goal, your version manages to be personal, direct, and emotionally compelling.

Color me impressed with how well ChatGPT defined the differences between our approaches. And I couldn’t help feeling that the AI had given me a compliment, which was weirdly satisfying.

Those seven principles above are GREAT advice for writing effective direct response fundraising. When you are creating appeals, newsletters, e-appeals, etc., follow those tips and you’ll immediately be a more effective Fundraiser. I bet you could paste any piece of individual donor fundraising into ChatGPT or any other AI, then ask the AI to modify it by applying the 7 principles above, and the fundraising would be more effective.

Lesson #3: AI looks at all fundraising writing as equal – it doesn’t know how each piece performed, so it doesn’t know which approaches and types of stories raise more. At Better Fundraising know from experience & data that “personal, direct, and emotionally compelling” fundraising writing will tend to raise more money. But ChatGPT doesn’t know that because it doesn’t see results!

ChatGPT does not know that one appeal letter got a 2% response rate and another one got a 5% response rate. So when ChatGPT creates fundraising, it’s pulling from “everything it’s seen, regardless of how it worked.” When Better Fundraising creates fundraising, we’re pulling from “everything we’ve seen that we know worked great.” There’s a big difference.

ChatGPT is an incredible tool. But, at least for now, there’s no danger that it’s going to replace an experienced Fundraiser.

PS — If you’re interested in learning more about creating fundraising with AI, there’s a popular video of me using Chat GPT to write an appeal on the fly for an organization that I’d never spoken to before. People like it because you’ll quickly see all the strengths and negatives of using AI to write fundraising for individual donors. You’ll be able to decide whether it’s a good tool for your workflow or not. You can watch the video here.