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9 Strategies to Boost Your Nonprofit's Year-end Fundraising—plus Planning, Troubleshooting, and Essential Tips to Make It Through Tough Fundraising Campaigns

December 27, 2021
8 minutes

Pop quiz time! When do nonprofits raise the most money every year? If you said December, we’re sending you a virtual high five. That’s right, according to Nonprofit Source, nearly one-third of annual giving happens during December. Between the holiday spirit, tax year deadline, Giving Tuesday, and nonprofits just being more proactive about asking, it’s no wonder we see such awesome fundraising results during the last month of the year.

Of course, this kind of success doesn’t happen by accident. Just because it’s December doesn’t mean your nonprofit is guaranteed to have a record-breaking fundraising season, though we wish it was! It takes planning and strategy to run a successful year-end giving campaign. Whether your nonprofit raises $5,000 or $500,000 in December, we want to give you 9 strategies to boost year-end giving this year.

Year-End Fundraising Strategies for Nonprofits

As the year winds down, so does your chance to collect year-end donations before December 31, so every fundraising strategy has to be dialed in. Staying organized, sticking to what works for your nonprofit, and then going All In are the keys to making it work.

1. Start planning your campaign early. Seriously.

Ever realized that it’s mid-November and you haven’t written your year-end appeal letter yet? Yeah, we’ve all been there. We know you’re busy, fundraiser, but if you want to leverage the fundraising opportunities December brings you’ve got to get a jump start on your campaign.

Start by creating a calendar of activities for November and December. What appeals will you send out? Which channels will you use? Any special dates or events that you need to keep in mind? Will you participate in Giving Tuesday? Write down all your hard deadlines so that you can start working backward from them to create a project plan to get organized. And remember to remind donors that you’re extra grateful for them before you ask for more money. Stewardship is a key part of the fundraising cycle. We want to make sure donors have had a memorable and enjoyable giving experience. 

Whenever you might be reading this, chances are it’s not too early to start planning. (Unless you’re reading this on January 1st. If so, go back to bed.)

2. Leverage what worked last year

You know as well as we do that fundraising isn’t a cookie-cutter activity. What works for one nonprofit may not get identical results for another nonprofit. But you can do more of what works for your organization and build that into this year’s strategy. Start by reviewing your analytics from last year (you kept those, right?) and look to see which channels and tactics helped you raise the most money.

Let’s say your nonprofit saw 60% of its year-end giving revenue come from one appeal letter you sent out at the beginning of December. The question to ask yourself is this—how can we get even more results from this tactic this year? Maybe sending out a follow-up appeal letter to non-responders is the answer. Or, trying to integrate more customization and segmentation into the first letter you send. Get creative and brainstorm ideas to supercharge what works.

3. Plug your leaks now

In addition to leveraging what works for your organization, it also pays to plug any leaks in your fundraising program. What're we talkin' 'bout here?

  • Donation page abandonment (aka people who start to make a gift and then don’t finish the process)
  • Inactives on your email list (aka people who are no longer opening your emails)
  • Website conversion rate (aka the people who come to your website and actually make a donation)
  • Donor retention (aka the number of people you win back year after year as donors)

These are just a few examples of common leaks in fundraising programs that can have a big impact on your fundraising revenue. Since we’re still a few months out from year-end giving season, take the time now to figure out what leaks you may have and start to fix them.

4. Plan for the last 3 days of December

Did you know that 10% of all charitable giving happens in the last 3 days of December? Like, whoa! Donors are motivated by hard deadlines and there’s nothing like the December 31st tax receipt deadline to bring the donations in. Any solid year-end giving plan needs to include tactics to capitalize on this increase in giving. Your best bet? Sending out an email or two. If you search your inbox from December 29th to 31st, chances are you’ll see more than a few examples of these emails.

5. Follow up!

Fundraising is all about the follow-up. Sure, some of your donors will donate the first time they're asked, but for others, it may take two or three or more asks to get that donation. One sure-fire strategy to boost year-end giving is to build in plans to follow up with donors. This could include sending a follow-up appeal letter, picking up the phone, making some personal visits, or segmenting your email list to follow up with non-donors.

Review your year-end fundraising plan and add in some specific follow-up strategies for the tactics you plan to use.

6. Look to the future

Come late November, donors’ inboxes begin to overflow with Giving Tuesday asks and gentle end-of-year reminders. But one of our favorite end-of-year emails to write in December includes your nonprofit’s vision for next year. It serves a couple of important functions in fundraising. 

First, it reflects on your impact over the last year and casts an inspiring vision of what’s to come. Additionally, in challenging years, this kind of email can help you pivot your messaging from “crisis” to ... some form of optimism. The best fundraising emails present the problem and then make it clear that a donation is one way for donors to feel empowered and be part of the solution. 

7. Make it multi-channel

Most highly successful year-end giving campaigns aren’t relying on just one channel to make it happen. They’re thinking multi-channel! That means taking your appeal online and offline to reach the broadest possible audience and thus maximize giving. Ta da!

Multi-channel fundraising doesn’t have to be complicated. Look at the channels you are currently using for fundraising and communications to assess your opportunities. For instance, maybe you have an email list, a few social media channels, and a snail mail list. Those are all great places you can use during year-end giving season.

8. Say thanks!

Let’s face it, donors receive a ton of asks during December. But how many thank you's are they getting? Not nearly enough. While you may have a solid plan for asking during December, you need an equally solid plan to say thank you. Send out those thank you letters within a few days and make thank you phone calls to donors throughout December.

Not sure you have the capacity to make thank you phone calls? Ask volunteers or board members to stop by after work to make some calls. These are super easy, low-pressure calls to make that donors love receiving. Write up a sample script, give them a call sheet and a phone, and they’ll be good to go! If you have some VIP donors, you could send them a handwritten note or plan some gratitude visits.

Need some stewardship inspo? The Donor Relations Guruhas a whole vault of amazing examples here.

9. Make it a match

Another way to boost year-end giving is to promote matching gifts. You can do this in two ways. First, you can ask a major donor or a company to make a matching gift that you can then use to incentivize annual donors to give.

These kinds of campaigns are super popular with donors and can definitely boost giving. Second, you can remind donors about corporate matching gifts from their company. This is usually part of corporations’ CSR programs where they match employee giving to nonprofits. Again, another way to boost your giving through a match.

We know year-end giving is a bananas time of year for you and we hope this year will bring you great results. Make your plan, start working it early, and try out some of these giving boosting strategies we’ve shared to take year-end giving to the next level. 

When to start your nonprofit's year-end fundraising

The best tip we have for nonprofit year-end fundraising: Start planning early. What do we mean by early? Well, we mean now. As in today. Okay, fine, read this first and then start tomorrow. The earlier you start, the better you can manage your nonprofit's and donors' expectations.

Here’s the thing: Year-end fundraising is a big ol’ project for most nonprofits. Between Giving Tuesday, end of December asks, and more, fundraisers have their work cut out for them. Of course, creating a game plan for year-end fundraising is absolutely important. You (and your team) need to know what you’re going to do to reach your fundraising goals. But here’s the thing: These kinds of plans focus heavily on activities that you’ll execute at the end of November and throughout December. And your year-end fundraising success isn’t just about what you do in December. 

Fundraising is a lot like making an apple pie. Sure, it can seem like the process starts with your trip to the grocery store to gather all the ingredients. But the reality is, there’s no apple pie without first growing the apples. It’s that whole precursory step, which is rarely seen by the layperson, that makes those delicious treats possible.

Year-end fundraising is like this, too. It can seem like our success depends on what we do in the last five to six weeks of the year. But really, our success is the result of what we do year-round leading up to our biggest fundraising campaign of the year.

If you're a nonprofit who waits until the last minute to focus on year-end fundraising (no shame here!), we've got some tips and strategies to lay the solid groundwork for your best year-end campaign yet. These are things you can do to strengthen relationships, optimize your data, and generally get your fundraising house in order. Let’s get to it!

Repeat after us—communicate

If you ask most fundraisers whether they under-communicate or over-communicate with donors, most will tell you they over-communicate. But we want to challenge you on that. Sending out one email every four months is not the best way to build relationships or build the habit of opening and interacting with your nonprofit’s emails. Same with print publications. Because you’re knee-deep in this work, you’re hyper attuned to what’s getting sent. Donors, however, aren’t paying that much attention. 

During the fall months, it can make sense to communicate a little more often with donors to lay the groundwork for year-end asks. The common theme of all these communications should be donor impact.

Send an impact update. Share an inspiring story. Film a 30-second video update about a program. Share a photo album from an event or summer program on Facebook that you can send to donors. Find little opportunities to share meaningful content with donors that keep them connected to your nonprofit. 

Give a little extra love to first-time donors

Your organization is most likely to see an influx in first-time donors during December. In fact, you may have had a bunch of first-time donors come in through last year’s year-end campaign. It’s time to pull out your database to see how many of those donors have made their second gift since last December. If you find you have a number of first-time donors who have not yet made their second gift, strategize about what you can do to encourage a second gift this December.

Need a few ideas of what you can do? Try one of these: 

  • Encourage donors to speak up. Send a short survey or give them a call to find out what they would like from their relationship with your nonprofit. Use this information to inform your cultivation and stewardship strategy. 
  • Host a stewardship event that’s aimed at your first-time donor segment. You don’t have to say it’s for first-time donors, but that can be the event’s target audience. This could be something as simple as a group tour of your facilities and a special conversation with someone who's a beneficiary of your nonprofit's work.
  • Examine first-time donor behavior. If you’ve used digital channels like email, gathering this data can be a little easier. Look at each donors’ record to see what kinds of emails they have opened and clicked on. What seems to be interesting to them? If they haven’t opened anything, what else could you send them to re-engage them? 

Keep the relationships going

In addition to coming up with a game plan to keep more of last year’s first-time donors, have a plan to keep this year’s first-time donors. One of the best things your nonprofit can do is make sure their first giving experience is a great one. Here’s a quick checklist to review your current giving experience:

  • Ensure that the online donation process is straightforward and easy to navigate.
  • Review the post-gift communications donors receive such as an auto-generated tax receipt and thank you letter. 
  • Review what happens in the one to two weeks after a first gift is made. How are donors welcomed into the community? 

It’s no surprise, fundraiser, that what we’ve suggested here is all about strengthening relationships. Fundraising is relationships. We know that by doing all you can to build momentum in those relationships, you’ll be well poised to make strong year-end asks to your donors.

Troubleshoot Your Nonprofit's Year-End Fundraising Campaign

Every nonprofit fundraising campaign has one or two issues—at least. The key to troubleshooting a year-end fundraising campaign is being on top of it without hesitation. The moment you see trouble brewing, step in with a solution. Do not wait because it will definitely get worse.

Most fundraisers have been there. You strategized, you planned, you wrote the appeals, and you said thanks. And finally, you dropped the direct mail appeal. Your online campaign goes live. Social posts go out.Then, you wait (impatiently) for donations to start coming in. It’s slow to start. You stay optimistic that it will pick up. But eventually, your optimism wanes and you start to wonder if you're going to be able to meet your goal. This is a tough place. For some, it’s anxiety-inducing.

The good news about year-end fundraising is that you usually have a full month, 30 days, to fundraise, which is enough time to troubleshoot your year-end fundraising campaign. Doesn't sound like a lot, and it sure won't feel like a lot, but it's more than enough. 

Here's your game plan to figure out when you need to start troubleshooting and what you can do to turn your campaign around.  

Defining the point when you need to start troubleshooting

One of the first things to consider is the point at which you need to be thinking about troubleshooting your year-end campaign. You’re looking for that point between “Should I be worried?” and “OMG?!?! WHAT IS HAPPENING????” That’s a big range, so let’s associate some campaign benchmarks with numbers so you know when to deploy your troubleshooting backup plan.

If you have historical year-end campaign data (hint, check your CRM!), pulling reports is a good place to start. Here are a few milestones to look at in December:

  • Amount of money and number of donations received by the end of Giving Tuesday
  • Amount of money and number of donations received by December 15
  • Amount of money and number of donations received by December 25
  • Amount of money and number of donations received by December 31

Looking at these numbers from the previous year (and years before that) will give you a sense of the overall response rate as December progressed in years past. The important thing here is to compare your current campaign response rate against past years'. Have you sent out a similar volume of asks? Are you on track with the percentage raised of your total goal? If you’re a real numbers nerd, you might be running these numbers daily in December.

Here’s an important point to remember ...maybe it'll make you feel prepared, empowered, and not freaked-out: Even if you realize on December 26 that you’re not on track to meet your goal, 10% of all annual giving happens during the last 3 days of December. It might feel like a crunch, but there is still time to raise that money! Let’s talk about what you can do to turn things around. 

Identify your non-responders

Fundraising success is all in the follow-up. If you want to maximize fundraising from your existing donors (or even non-donors), you need to know who on your list has received your asks but has not yet responded. Consider this pool of people your best prospects for giving, especially if they’ve donated in the past.

Inside your CRM, set up a report for this year's non-responders and refresh daily in December. Ideally, you'll see this segment is shrinking as the month goes on.

Follow up with non-responders

How you follow up with non-responders is going to depend on 1) how many people are in your non-responder segment and 2) what contact information you have on file for them. This information will determine what kind of capacity you need for follow up (something very scalable, extra volunteers, etc) and the channel for follow up.

Generally, your best path to immediate response rates and more money is to pick up the phone.

Yeah, it's not every fundraiser's first choice of activity, but the phone is highly effective, low-cost and very personal. If your donor has already received a direct mail letter or email, this is a low-stakes call that will likely prompt some donors to give while you're on the phone—and others to mail in their donation or donate on your website.

If you feel nervous about dialing out, do a small test during the second week of December. Plan to call 25 to 40 donors who haven't yet made their gift. (A smaller test sample may seem easier to swallow, but you won't get the insight you need without testing with a reasonable segment. Sorry.)

See how many non-responders you get on the phone and how many gifts you can secure. Then, in the days following, look at behavior for donors who didn't make a gift over the phone. If you see an uptick in responses from this segment, either repeat the test the following week or just go for it and start making calls.

In addition to phone follow up, there are other scalable, low-cost follow up tactics for your email list. During key campaign dates like Giving Tuesday or on December 30 or 31, send a kicker email to subscribers who received the morning email but did not open. Don't change the subject line or copy of the email, just send it a second time, later in the day. You may see an additional 5-15% added on the response rate to the morning email.

As your year-end fundraising campaign unfolds in December, keep an eye on donors who have not yet responded and continue to follow up with them. Try a combination of tactics to see what will grab their attention and get a response. As is often the case with fundraising, if you don’t ask, you won’t get the gift, so keep asking!

Essential Self-Care for the Year-End Fundraising Season

There is nothing more important to a nonprofit fundraising campaign than being able to stay the course, especially when it comes to year-end fundraising campaigns. To avoid burnout, you've got to think long term... and maybe plan a January vacation to celebrate your nonprofit campaign's success!

You’ve crafted swoon-worthy appeal emails, reviewed your data, called your major donors, followed-up …and now you’re here. Facing total burnout. We all face it at one time or another. Fundraisers are especially prone to burnout during and after the busy year-end fundraising season. It makes sense—you’re doing a million+one things at work on top of a buncha personal commitments and you've got the holidays all up in your face. Sometimes it feels like an accomplishment just to make it through to the other side! But we don’t want you to just survive your year-end fundraising season—we want you to thrive.

So, let’s close this year-end fundraising guide with an acknowledgment that this is hard work and you need to take care of yourself if you’re going to thrive through the hectic end-of-year fundraising season. We know how tempting it can be to work, work, work, work, work, work, like Rihanna... after all, you’ve got goals to meet! But you gotta ask yourself, at what cost? You don’t want to keep working only to be taken down from dreaded nonprofit burnout.

Now, we want to share some tips and ideas to help you practice self-care during the busiest fundraising time of year. 

How full is your cup now?

As you consider what self-care looks like for you this December and beyond, a good place to start is to ask yourself how you’re feeling right now. Do you feel energized and resilient? Or, are you feeling depleted and a little exhausted? By understanding your current energy levels, you’ll be able to create a self-care plan that doesn't assume you're starting with marathon-levels of energy.

If you’re too tired to even figure out how you’re doing, check out the Burnout Assessment from Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman. Their book "The Happy Healthy Nonprofit" is a great resource for all things self-care.

Start with the basics

When you build out your self-care plan for year-end fundraising, map out your minimum requirements to thrive. These are your basic needs on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Consider them your non-negotiables.

What could be on your non-negotiables list? Here are a few standard ones we like to live by:

  • Sleep, like 7 to 8 hours each night
  • Drink more-than-enough water
  • Eat 3 meals a day (ok, sometimes more)
  • Schedule a regular time to recharge with friends or family
  • Sneak in a workout (yes, dancing in the living room counts)
  • Make time for creative hobbies (Cross-stitching club? Tap dancing? Botanical drawing?)
  • Read for fun (how 'bout a cheeky thriller or salacious biography?) 

Practice setting boundaries

Wanna know one of the best things you can do for yourself? Set boundaries as a way to express your preferences for how you want to live and interact with others.

Is it even ok to set boundaries at work? We've got to be team players, yes? Well, boundaries prevent you from over-committing, from ending up in situations that unnecessarily frustrate you, and they help you stay satisfied with your job.

As you evaluate your work, think about how that environment may be causing you to move out of your comfort zone and into your panic zone. For instance, maybe your week is already super full and a colleague asks you to attend a meeting on Thursday. Rather than just saying yes, you can pause and ask if it’s 1) necessary for you to be there, and 2) if the meeting could be moved to the following week, or 3) canceled altogether (!) and handled via email.

Setting boundaries year-round, and especially during December, will help keep you sane and thriving during busy times.

Take screen and desk breaks

We’ve all had those days when we sat down at our desk to start work and then we look at the clock to find that hours have passed, we’re starving, and need to move our body before it becomes one with the chair. Yeah, that’s not a great habit. It’s good for your mental and physical wellbeing to take screen and desk breaks. 

If you’re not great about taking breaks, add them to your calendar with a reminder or set an alarm to remind you to take a break. We like using the Marinara Pomodoro extension because it reminds us to take a short break every 25 minutes. Whatever tool you use, make sure you walk away from your desk, grab some water, maybe even go for a walk around the block. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to go again.

Take time off

Look, we get it. Year-end fundraising is like juggling a million balls. Some of which are on fire. It’s a lot. And so it’s tempting to let work creep into your weekends or vacation time. That’s a no go, fundraiser! You need time off to rest and recharge. 

If you find it difficult to take time off from work, we’ve got a couple of tips for you. 

  1. Plan activities that you look forward to and want to do. This could be time for your favorite hobby, happy hour with your besties, or maybe just time to watch Netflix.
  2. Temporarily take your work email off your phone. This idea may sound bananas, but hear us out. If seeing emails from colleagues stresses you out or infringes on your ability to rest, remove the temptation by taking your email off your phone for the weekend.
  3. Find an accountability buddy. Sometimes it’s easier to do hard things when you have a friend keeping you accountable. Tell someone you trust that you’re trying not to work during a specific period of time and ask them to check in with you to see how it’s going.

Accept that it doesn’t always go perfectly

One sure-fire way to lead yourself down the path to burnout is perfectionism. It’s tempting to put this kind of pressure on yourself, but being committed to perfection for perfection’s sake won’t get you very far. In fact, it’s likely to make you overworked and more stressed out. There are a lot of bumps in the fundraising road. The more you can accept that this is part of the work and be flexible, the less likely you’ll be to cling to perfectionism. 

Fundraiser, we know how hard your work is. Making it to December 31st feels like a major accomplishment—because it is! We hope you find some time this year to celebrate your accomplishments and treat yo’ self to some self-care. After all the hard work of year-end fundraising, you majorly deserve it.

Year-end Fundraising: Key Takeaways

  • Nearly one-third of annual giving happens during December, so year-end fundraising is super important for your nonprofit.
  • Start planning for the year-end fundraising season as early as possible—because it’s a lot of work! Make your lists and check ‘em twice.
  • Before you get started, review your year-end fundraising data from last year. It holds many important lessons.
  • Communication is key to your success, so stay in touch, say thank you, and don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.
  • Because year-end fundraising is so much work, it’s easy to burn out. Take breaks, set boundaries, and use that vacation time.
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