What Your Nonprofit Needs to Do Now to Prepare for End-of-Year Fundraising Success

9 min read

If you have anything to do with fundraising at your nonprofit, you probably don’t get as much sleep as you should during the last quarter of the calendar year. There’s nothing quite like last-minute appeal letter revisions, mailhouse deadlines and donor retention anxiety to keep you up at night, and for most organizations, the end of the year is when the fundraising frenzy reaches a fever pitch. More than 50 percent of nonprofits receive a majority of their annual donations in the last three months of the year (October, November, December) and 31 percent of all annual charitable giving occurs in December (source).

But just because the end of the year is the key time for charitable giving doesn’t mean Q4 has to be full of stress and struggle for those responsible for fundraising. There is so much you can — and should — be doing now, during the summer and early fall, to prepare for end-of-year fundraising success. Do yourself a favor and get to work on your end-of-year campaign now, while there’s still time to make it as impactful (and stress-free) as possible. 

When should I start planning and preparing for my end-of-year fundraising campaign?

This study from NeonCRM found that the majority of nonprofits start planning their end-of-year fundraising in October, but if you ask me, that’s already too late. Our most successful clients start planning their year-end campaigns over the summer and begin working in earnest on campaign collateral no later than September 1st. This allows them to go live with their first campaign touchpoints sometime in October, when they still have a chance to build up their narrative and nurture donors before making a direct ask. The highest performing organizations among them start planning for year-end fundraising even earlier; they get to work in January or February, almost as soon as they have complete data from the previous year’s campaign.

If you’re feeling like you’re already behind, don’t despair. Here’s what you need to do between now and the end of the year to ensure your end-of-year fundraising campaign is as successful as possible.

January – August: Evaluate Past Performance, Develop a Plan, and Assemble Your Campaign Team

The earlier you can begin evaluating the performance of the previous year’s year-end campaign, the fresher your insights will be. Begin your end-of-year campaign planning as soon as you can by gathering all the metrics you have access to from last year’s campaign into one spot, and then analyzing them for key insights. Did you see a move toward more giving from mobile devices last year? Did a couple of key days in December outperform the rest of the year? Did some of the stories you shared in support of your campaign on social media generate more engagement than others? All these datapoints will be useful to inform your strategy for the year ahead. 

Once you’ve conducted a thorough post-mortem, use your insights about what worked well and what can be improved upon to build an optimized plan for the upcoming year. While year-end fundraising plans can vary greatly in content, length and complexity, we recommend including the following elements, at minimum:

  • Campaign theme: the central “big idea” that will be woven through all your campaign touchpoints. It’s important to revisit this theme every year to keep your communications to donors and prospective donors fresh.
  • Key messages: the main points you need your donors and prospective donors to hear, understand and act upon in your year-end campaign. These key messages will likely align with your organization’s overall key messages, and unlike the campaign theme, they don’t need to be overhauled every year.
  • Campaign tactics: the channels and tools you’ll use to reach donors and prospective donors. Direct mail, email, social media and events are old standbys for a reason: they work. However, other tactics — such as digital advertising on channels like Facebook, Instagram and Google — are quickly gaining popularity among fundraisers.
  • Campaign timeline: the key dates when elements of your campaign need to be delivered for review, production and ultimately, to your donors and prospective donors. Ideally, this timeline should ensure you’re coordinating messaging, imagery and calls-to-action across all your campaign’s various touchpoints and channels.
  • Campaign targeting and segmentation: an approach for getting your campaign touchpoints in front of the right donors and prospective donors, and for differentiating messaging for different groups.
  • Campaign responsibilities: designated roles for everyone on your team who is involved in bringing your year-end campaign to life.
  • Campaign goals and metrics: a set of benchmarks you’re going to aim to achieve in your year-end campaign and metrics for measuring against them.
  • Campaign budget: an estimation of campaign costs, ideally based on the return on investment you expect them to produce.

This time period is also when you should focus on assembling your campaign team. Make sure you have the right people in the right seats to make your campaign a success. Also make sure that your team is clear about what they’re owning based on the responsibilities section of your campaign plan.

September: Gather Stories and Develop Your First Touchpoints

Stories of the individuals and communities your organization works with are likely to be a centerpiece of your campaign. Start gathering them as soon as you’ve determined your campaign theme and key messages, ideally no later than September. This will ensure you have the time to gather a wide variety of stories and obtain the permission necessary to use them in your campaign collateral. Starting your story gathering even earlier will allow you to get more creative and go deeper. For example, in our work on the Robert R. McCormick Foundation’s year-end fundraising campaign, we dedicated two full days in the summer to story gathering at four of the Foundation’s grantee organizations with a videographer and photographer on hand. We walked away with powerful narratives, engaging video footage and a plethora of photography that would become the driving creative force behind the campaign.

With your stories in hand, you can move on to develop your first campaign touchpoints. We always suggest a “soft launch” for year-end campaigns in October where you can introduce your campaign theme and stories from the year, remind donors of the impact of last year’s contributions, and start to tease what’s to come in November and December. Depending on your internal review and production process, you might need to start developing your first touchpoints earlier than September in order to get them in front of donors in October.

October: Build Your Metrics Dashboard and Launch Your Campaign

Before you release your first campaign touchpoints into the world, ensure you’ve gotten clear on the metrics you’re going to track and that you have developed an easy-to-use dashboard for keeping an eye on them. As soon as donors start seeing and reacting to your collateral, you’ll get back valuable data that you can act upon to improve the rest of your campaign. Don’t squander an opportunity by failing to properly track how your efforts are performing.

Then, launch your campaign by releasing your first direct mail piece, email and other initial campaign touchpoints. October can also be a great time to start advertising programs that focus on your organization generally or your campaign specifically and target both past donors and prospective ones. By beginning to get in front of them early and often, you’ll increase your chances of being top-of-mind as the end of the year draws nearer. You can even use Facebook advertising to acquire new donor leads during this time period. Learn how we did just that (and acquired 1,100+ new donor leads) for the McCormick Foundation here.

November: Make Your First Direct Ask and Leverage Giving Tuesday

October is all about building a narrative and nurturing donors toward a better understanding of why they should give. November, then, should be all about activating donors. Plan to get your first direct ask in front of donors and prospective donors early in the month, before the Thanksgiving holiday and Giving Tuesday create distractions and clutter.

That’s not to say, however, that you should ignore Giving Tuesday. While some folks in the sector believe Giving Tuesday is a passing fad, the data doesn’t lie. Charitable giving on Giving Tuesday grew over 38% between 2017 and 2018, totaling $380 million. The trick is finding a way to stand out in the Giving Tuesday crowd. This post might provide some ideas, and you can learn how we helped the McCormick Foundation grow its Giving Tuesday earnings by over 300% in one year here.

November is also a key time to make adjustments to your campaign based on the real-time results you’re collecting in your metrics dashboard. Did one sort of email subject line draw far more opens than any other? Adjust the rest of your campaign emails to use a similar format. Are you seeing more shares and clicks on one story video on Facebook than all the rest? Ensure that story is front-and-center on one of your December direct mail pieces.

December: Reinforce Your Ask and Retarget to Maximize Results

By December, if your campaign is successful, you’ll have captured the attention of most of the donors who are likely to give to your organization before the year is out. But getting donors to take action is far more difficult than simply getting them to take notice of your campaign. That’s where your focus should lie in December.

Amp up your asks by making them timely (emphasizing tax benefits and annual budgetary needs) and saving your most compelling stories for last. Then, ensure you’re retargeting the people most likely to give. Using tools like Facebook and Google, you can collect data on people who visit your donate page but do not make a donation and retarget them with ads that remind them to give before the new year.

The tendency to coast through the last weeks of the year might be tempting, but it can be disastrous. The majority of December giving happens in the last 10 days of the month, just as the allure of Lifetime holiday movie marathons and the chaos of family gatherings begins to peak. Make sure you’re prepared well ahead of time by scheduling all your December campaign touchpoints early in the month, and then sit back and watch your hard work pay off. 

Do you want to make this your most successful year end-of-year fundraising year ever?

Following these tips and timelines can help, but we’ve only just scratched the surface. On September 4th, I’m co-hosting a webinar with Noreen Castor, former associate development director at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation where we’ll pull back the curtains on the McCormick Foundation’s most successful end-of-year fundraising campaign ever and help you learn how to achieve similar results at your nonprofit. Don’t miss it.

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