We all know how important the final few months of the year are for nonprofits, many of which see up to 40 percent of their total yearly contributions come in between Thanksgiving and December 31. No surprise, then, that year after year I see nonprofits rushing to get their year-end campaigns out the door and into the hands (and in boxes) of donors. And every year, that mad, crazed rush makes me think of something Benjamin Franklin said: "You may delay, but time will not."
Most of us start each new year with the best of intentions and, if we happen to be in the fundraising game, the goal of starting our various campaigns early. But like a lot of things, especially during the busy holiday season, we often leave the necessary preparation to the last minute and, with time running out, end up falling back on what we've done in the past.
But now that the holidays are behind us and the data have been tallied, it's time to take a look at what worked, what didn't, and how we can improve. As an organization leader, you should start by asking some questions. Are our mailing lists out of date? Have we updated our messaging and graphics in the last few years? Have we tested out any new messaging? Are we getting donors to see the important role they play in the work we do? All are important questions — not just with respect to your year-end campaigns, but for your fundraising throughout the year.
Last year, my colleagues and I sent out more than 250,000 direct mail and email solicitations on behalf of clients. And even though the organizations we worked with had strong year-end results, we noticed a few trends that underscore how important year-end appeals are for nonprofits. With that in mind, here are five things, based on what we learned, that your organization can do to ensure year-end success in 2017:
1. Make list integrity a priority throughout the year. Although most of us build our lists over time, we couldn't help but notice that many of the organizations we worked with didn't spend enough time in 2016 reviewing and updating their lists to ensure the accuracy of their donor databases. One of our clients, however, used paid staff and volunteers to call, email, and personally invite donors on its list to a series of end-of-year events — a best practice that, along with a lot of diligent effort, contributed to that organization seeing a more than 40-percent increase in SYBUNT ("some year but not this year") donors deciding to make a donation.
2. Pay attention to the tone of your messaging. Consistency matters. Your fundraising and marketing appeals should provide direct and consistent messaging related to how and why a gift to your organization will benefit the cause or population you serve. Use the words of your constituents whenever possible, and be sure to include different stories and angles that convey to donors the impact your organization is having in its community.
3. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Think of each campaign as a chance to build a stronger connection between your donors and constituents — and as an opportunity to test (using a control group) different approaches, subject lines, and even design choices. And if you discover that something isn’t working, don’t be stubborn about getting rid of it and trying something else.
4. Focus on personalized communication. One way to foster stronger connections between individual donors and the work you do is to adopt a communications approach that prioritizes the personal touch — especially for your mid and major donors. This kind of personalization can include video messages or personal notes from your ED or president, board members, or key stakeholders; sequential appeals (i.e., a personal note followed by a phone call from a staff member or volunteer followed by a more generic email reminder); emails sent from your ED or president's inbox (instead of through an email service provider); and so on. Personalization works. In fact, in 2016 it led to a 17 percent increase in fundraising results for our clients who employed it.
5. Be sure to "educate" your donors. Don't assume that everyone who gives to your organization understands the role they play in its success. Instead, take advantage of every opportunity to inform your donors about the cause or individuals they are helping and how their donations will be used in 2017 to create even more impact.
Because planning and actually implementing a year-end campaign can take several months to half a year, it's never too early to start. The earlier you get to work integrating the above practices into your year-end appeals, the better your results are likely to be in 2017 — and beyond.
And don't get discouraged if the improvement isn't particularly dramatic in the first year or two. Changes in fundraising messaging often take time to resonate. Done well, however, the work you do over the next few months will lay the foundation for long-term success. Remember, fundraising is a marathon, not a sprint.
Derrick Feldmann is the president of Achieve, a research and marketing agency for causes, and the author of Social Movements for Good: How Companies and Causes Create Viral Change, now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.