How to earn your end-of-year gift in 2020

It’s November: time for most annual giving directors to be queuing up their end-of-year appeals.

In a typical year, annual giving is the unsung hero of high-performing development programs. When done well, direct and consistent engagement fuels the discovery process and feeds your major donor pipeline.

But in 2020, many in our field are understandably anxious. Given the year it’s turned out to be, communicators will need to earn those annual gifts like never before.

Understanding and empathizing with your audience is fundamental to that effort, and so I’m offering a few recommendations from the vantage point of your target prospect.

1. Make this about me.

My colleague Adrian Salmon often reminds our clients that “a donor’s major gift to any nonprofit is rarely, if ever, his or her first gift.”

Before I take the next step up the ladder–to leadership or major gifts–I want an organization to prove it cares about my interests and values my annual contribution.

Show me you love me by directly addressing me. Use the word “you” at least twice as much as “we” or “us.” Train yourself to think in the second person, to turn nearly every phrase so that it directly addresses to you donor:

  • Our students need you. Will you be there for them?
  • Your gift makes all the difference–and every dollar counts.
  • Our ability to [mission focus] depends on the support of leading donors like you.

Using the second-person point of view is one of the simplest, most effective ways to ensure you’re in the right frame of mind for creating a compelling year-end appeal. But to really earn that annual gift, you’ll need to win my attention with something more.

2. Reel me in (with a really good story).

There’s a rule I follow when drafting appeals: Don’t start crafting your year-end message until you’ve found a really good story to back it up.

When we’re busy, it’s tough to make time to find a good story. It can feel like the effort searching for a story is time not spent writing a really good appeal. But this is a false notion. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a writer is to not do enough digging at the start of the process.

While you might “capture” attention with a rhetorical flourish, your prospect might not be too happy about it once the novelty wears off and the ‘idea’ evaporates.

Instead, use at least an hour or two of the time that you’ve blocked off for “writing” the appeal to zero in on your center of gravity. What’s the best story your organization can tell right now?

  • It could be personal, including the intimate details of someone in need.
    • Out of options, [student name] felt “the walls closing in around her.” That’s when donors like you stepped up to show your support.
    • His course textbook contained 1,500 pages, leaving little time for anything other than becoming a better nurse. Donors like you made sure [name] could afford both the book and the hours needed to learn its contents.
  • It could be mission-focused, revolving around a critical theme that resonates broadly.
    • It took researchers just 12 days to break the code of COVID-19. By mapping out the virus’ spike structure in record time, they opened the door for developing a vaccine. Our mission is more essential than ever. Your support is what makes it possible.
    • If ever there was a moment demanding leaders from [institution]–who were shaped by our culture and principles – this is it.
  • It could be inspirational, comprising an urgent request from your CEO or another leader.
    • Will you stand with us? Our society faces intersecting crises that require our immediate attention. In the face of these threats, the work of [our mission] to serve society has never been so vital. As someone who is already a part of the community, you and your support are deeply valued. Today, I am asking you to consider taking your involvement to a new level with [a gift of $XXX].

3. Be conscious of costs and your ecological footprintand know your donor is watching.

In GG+A’s fall Playbook, the theme was Rethinking the Discovery Process amid “the tectonic shift in the practice of fundraising caused by COVID-19.”

It’s time for organizations to rethink how much paper makes it into the waste basket, and how many donor resources are being used to produce those pages. If I’m your prospective donor, please know that I care about this—and I am among the growing number of donors who feel strongly about it.

At GG+A, we have been creating annual giving concepts with this goal in mind. For example, when our client’s mission was rooted in sustainability, the message clearly communicated our use of recycled materials in the appeal letter. As a visual element, we also developed a “brochure” that conveyed the appeal message while also unfolding into a poster that appeals to people who share our client’s values. (If even one recipient hangs it on their wall, that’s progress. You’re staying top of mind with that donor, and it’s one less piece of paper in the waste bin.)

Indeed, not all prospective donors will notice and appreciate such a gesture. But more and more are beginning to look for things like this–and the rewards for using sustainable principles and cost-effective printing in an era of informational excess will only become greater with time.

Wherever you are in the year-end appeal process, you may want to review your narrative once more with the above points in mind before the pack hits the mail. I can promise it will be worth your added effort.

Last thought: If you would like ideas for your year-end appeals—or any other donor communications work—join us for GG+A’s inaugural Communications Strategy Masterclass. The two-day, online classroom interactive series will take place November 17 – 18, 2020, and will be led by Senior Vice President and Managing Director Melinda Church, Senior Vice President Chris Begley, and Vice President Jason Shough. Learn more about the Masterclass here.



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