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My Tips on Year End Fundraising

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This post is a complement to a podcast episode of Social Entrepreneur with Nathan A. Webster, of which I am a monthly contributor. To listen to the episode related to this topic, click here.

End of year campaigns: they’re the lifeblood of a lot of nonprofit organizations. The holiday season, the season of giving: people are more inclined to make donations, and nonprofits are more inclined to ask. And it’s incredibly important, especially since many organizations have a fiscal year that is the same as the calendar year, so the pressure is on to raise money and reach your goals. So how can you set your organization up for success?

First: think of your year end fundraising as a comprehensive campaign. Remember that while your direct mail appeal may take a lot of your energy and time, there are several other communications that are part of the campaign, including your website, emails, social media, and in person asks. Think of all of the communications during this time as being part of this one campaign.

Then, spend some time setting your campaign up for success. We’re talking about this topic in September so you can take some of these suggestions and run with them. It’s early enough to spend some time on these things, so let’s go!

  • Goals: Take a look at what you raised last year and see how you can adjust your expectations. Have you done a lot of cultivation work, and expect to see an increase in gifts? Has this year been challenging, so you don’t want to be over-ambitious? Be thoughtful about the goal you set: it is discouraging if you’re not even close to reaching it, and it can feel like you don’t need donations if you quickly blow it out of the water.
  • Ask & tagline: Usually, I recommend doing a general operating support ask for year end campaigns. It is often a main component of the year’s fundraising, so it is nice to demonstrate the need for general support. But, there are cases where a more specific ask is more compelling and needed. Maybe your organization has a specific program that needs help, so go for that. I also like the idea of having a tagline: it could be something as simple as Season of Giving, or it could be something more geared toward your organization. Then you can use that everywhere you’re talking about it.
  • Segmentation: You don’t talk to your grandma the same way you talk to your best friend, so why would you send the same letter to all of your donors? There are so many ways you can split up your list: by donation level, longevity of giving, or more. Then just tweak your letter to include details about their relationship to your organization. It can feel much more personal then.
  • Campaign structure: There are several ways you can structure your year end campaign. You can do something simple, just one mailing and a few email follow ups. Or you can do something complicated, which includes paid advertising, several mailings, several segmented emails and social media. It depends on your organization’s size, so be thoughtful.
  • Project management spreadsheet: This is what has kept me sane for every campaign I’ve managed!! Create a spreadsheet that simply includes the task, who is responsible, due date, date accomplished, status and notes. Then map out the entire campaign, setting your ideal drop date and scheduling backwards from there.
  • Tracking & reporting: Be thoughtful about how you are tracking donations to the campaign. Set up codes to track whether people are responding to the mailing versus email, which mailing they respond to, etc. This will help inform next year’s campaign – ie, if fewer people respond to emails at a specific time of year, think about switching it up for next year. Then, set up a schedule where you are regularly sharing this tracking document with interested parties, including staff and board.

Now that we’re set up for success, and have thought through strategy, components, and tracking, let’s talk best practices.

First, the appeal package.

The letter is arguably the most important part.

  • It should feel personal, but informative. The recommendation here is to write at a fourth grade level – not because your donors won’t be able to understand it, but because that is the most approachable tone. When you write a letter (or maybe an email!) to your friends, you don’t write a college essay, do you?
  • It should be very donor centric. Once you’ve written your letter, go back through and count how many times you have written YOU (meaning who you are writing to, the reader). Go through and transform as many sentences as possible to include the word YOU. For example: if you’ve written the sentence, “Our organization transforms lives,” change the sentence to “Your donation will transform lives” or even “You will transform lives.” Make the letter very active, assuming that the reader will make a donation.
  • It should lead with feelings and wrap up with facts. It should include a story of someone whose life has been transformed from your organization’s work, so the reader can be drawn in by the impact. That story should include the problem, solution, and what the reader can do to help be part of it.
  • It should include the call to action early on. You can (and should) re-ask several times, but there should be an ask in the first couple of paragraphs – even if it’s just a hint of what you are asking. It should be clear what you are asking the reader to do from the top.
  • It should include a P.S. The P.S. is a super important piece of real estate, and most readers at least look at that. It should be a direct reaffirmation of the ask.
  • As far as format, there are competing opinions. I personally like to keep it to one page, but there are experts who say it should be a double sided page. Feel free to bold, underline, or italicize special phrases, but don’t overdo it.

Besides the letter, you can think about attachments. There are several types of things you can do, either just a client story, or quotes, or an infographic with data around impact, or just organizational facts. It depends on what you think will be the most compelling for your readers. Just don’t overload the package with facts – you want to lead with the heart here, not the brain.

Then, you’ll want to think about email.

  • Emails should be very short and sweet. Get to the point! We all get so many emails – so make it compelling and overly obvious what you’re asking. Try to put at least one donation button above the fold.
  • Include images. Have the background be a light color and the text be a dark color. Again, very easy to read and accessible.
  • The schedule of emails widely depends on your organization and how often your donors receive emails from you for the rest of the year. If you never email them the rest of the year, don’t email them ten times in December. At the very least, do at least one in November, and maybe four in December, including two in the last week of the year.
  • We’ll talk more about email & social media during a future episode centered around Giving Tuesday.

Don’t forget to mobilize your team to help get all of this out – including your board of directors. There are several ways you can use them: have them write handwritten notes that you include in some special letters, have them forward your emails to their contacts, or share your posts on social media. You’re not alone!

-N.C.