Lessons from 25 Year-End Fundraising Seasons

Lessons from 25 Year-End Fundraising Seasons

This year will be my 25th year-end fundraising season. (In related news, I have a lot of grey hair.)

That means I’ve been a part of about 250 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.

But before I do, allow me a brief aside. The thing I’m personally most excited about this year is the four low-cost products we just released. They take complex year-end fundraising campaigns and break them down into simple, easy-to-follow steps. They are written and designed so that you’ll learn what to do, when to do it, and how to say it. I couldn’t be more proud.

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 in 2018 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 in November 2017.

What To Do When Your Organization Feels Like “The Best Kept Secret in Town”


A lot of small nonprofits feel like they’re “the best-kept secret in town.”

They’re established. They do good work. But they’ve never experienced real growth.

This post is about a big idea for those small nonprofits.

I’m going to start out with some strong – maybe even bitter – medicine. And I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Because in my experience, all the tactics and best practices in the world won’t help much until a small nonprofit learns this lesson.

So here it is…

If you feel like the best-kept secret in town, it’s usually your organization’s own fault.

Specifically, it’s your communications that are causing your organization to remain secret.

Something about your communications is not resonating with anyone outside your core group of donors. Or outside of the people you can personally reach.

So you need to change what your organization communicates to donors and to potential donors.

In my experience, there are four main ideas that small organizations have that ensure they remain “the best kept secret in town”:

  1. The reason that the Founder/Board/ED/Staff love the organization is the same reason that donors support the organization. This results in donor communications that are organizationally-focused. Effective donor communications – the kind that helps your organization grow so that it’s not a secret anymore – are focused on what donors care about. And donors are not experts like you are. They tend to care about and be motivated by different things than core stakeholders.
  2. Your communications need to be professional and you need to sound like experts. This results in complex communications that only a subject-matter expert would read. These are the organizations that send letters and emails written in perfect grammar, by PhDs, that a donor needs extensive experience in your field to really understand. To have a broad appeal, you want to get good at talking to donors, about things donors care about, in language that donors use.
  3. You can’t “bother” your donors very often. This results in not enough direct communication with donors about what their gifts can do and have done. I’m talking to you, Mr. Organization-That-Sends-Two-Appeals-A-Year. For people outside your core, you need to communicate with them more often than you think, in order to keep their attention.
  4. Your organization should not stand out too much, or say things that get attention. This results in not being willing to fight for attention. It is a crowded fundraising marketplace! All those donors you’d like to have? They are busy doing other things and you have to work get their attention! Use drama. Use bold colors. Use emotion. Use matching grants. Use multipliers.

These four ideas, taken together, result in a lot of deserving organizations staying a secret. All of these ideas are held by organizations for rational reasons. But these four, in particular, do not stand up to rigorous examination or testing.

In fact, they have been proven NOT to work.

My encouragement to you is that you jettison these ideas and replace them with proven ideas. Like donor-centeredness. And repetition. And vulnerability.

Those ideas free you up to fundraise with confidence. They free you up to communicate more with your donors – and love it. Because you remember that when you fundraise, you’re adding value to your donors’ lives, not taking it away, right?

Then you’ll no longer be a secret. And then you’ll raise more money and do more good!

If you’d like help gently showing the ineffective ideas the door, and help building a real culture of philanthropy (and starting to raise more money right away), get in touch!