Maximize Year-End Giving in an Unpredictable Economy

Maximize Year-End Giving in an Unpredictable Economy 

Regardless of how recent headlines may have you feeling about this year-end-giving season, there are reasons to be optimistic. Charitable giving has grown nearly 20% over the last three years, despite the disruptions of a global pandemic – with a 9% increase in 2021. And it may come as no surprise that many nonprofit organizations receive up to a quarter or more of their gifts in December alone.  

We understand that “the economy” is a huge and complex concept that affects different people differently. And not only do people assess the economy via contrasting metrics, but we can objectively disagree about the state of the economy.  

Perhaps you (or your organization) feel that economic conditions are difficult or challenging right now. That’s understandable. But when it comes to your year-end appeals, be careful about projecting internal fears over economic uncertainty onto your donors and conveying messages that some might interpret as political commentary. 

Instead, let these tips help you focus on your donors, their gifts, and what their generosity means to you. 

Keep Your Message Simple

There’s an old maxim in direct marketing – only ask for one thing! The end of the calendar year is a high impact time for giving, so there will always be pressure to saturate your appeals with extra information that donors aren’t interested in and don’t respond to.  

Writer Mark Phillips of Bluefrog Fundraising conducted some research with his direct marketing agency’s charity clients and donors. The clients wished to mention all kinds of things in their appeals: their achievements, the development of a new area of their work, their growing presence on social media, etc. The donors weren’t particularly interested in any of these things. They were more concerned with how they were viewed and treated as supporters of these charities. Ultimately, they wondered: Am I valued? Does my gift make a difference? How did you use my last gift? In fact, these donors were eager to learn more about solving problems with organizations through their partnership. If you’re unsure what to include in your year-end appeal, that’s what to highlight. 

Don’t Talk Yourself Out of Their Gift  

When times are tough, organizations may feel anxious about soliciting donors and prospects. What if they’re struggling financially? Will they think badly of us for asking for too much… or too often?  

What we saw during the first year of the pandemic should warn us about pausing our solicitations to spare donors from undue financial pressure. During 2020, low-level giving to nonprofits, especially online giving, soared. Some sectors, including hunger and poverty charities, saw their online revenue increase by 173% in the space of a year. And charities across the sector saw response rates to offline appeals, such as direct mail, that they had not witnessed for several years. At a time when donors felt powerless in so many other areas of their lives, it seems they found solace and purpose in being able to help others through charitable giving.  

At GG+A, we have worked with numerous organizations who made different decisions in the first two quarters of 2020. Some carried on as usual with planned solicitations, while others paused. Among those who paused, many are still experiencing lower donor numbers compared to 2019, because it is far easier to lose a donor than it is to gain one – or win one back. Because we believe that donors themselves should have agency about their decisions to give, our job as nonprofit fundraisers is to offer optimal opportunities for them to make their gifts, at the times that are most convenient for them.

Out of sight is inevitably out of mind. Don’t talk yourself out of their gift. 

Make the Donor the Hero of the Story  

There are countless articles and books claiming that “storytelling” is the key to a nonprofit’s success, particularly in fundraising. The number of “storytellers” on LinkedIn surpassed half a million a few years ago.  

When applied appropriately, the conventions of storytelling can provide a useful framework to structure messaging, with a clear narrative for donors to follow. If it helps to think of your year-end appeal as an opportunity to tell your organization’s story, here’s one recommendation: make the donor the main character. Explain what their support has meant to you in the past year. Illustrate the impact that they’ve had. Clarify what their continued support at year end will help you achieve in the coming year. The donor is the hero. 

Understand Your Appeal’s Role in the Big Picture  

Online giving has been grabbing headlines for the last several years, and rightfully so. Data from Blackbaud Institute shows that online giving has grown by 42% over the last three years, and for the first time ever, online giving now comprises more than 10% of total fundraising (12% in 2021). 

Red-letter days such as Giving Tuesday are almost entirely an online affair. But remember that 12% figure, because this means that 88% of fundraising income is still being generated by offline sources. This means you may not want to ditch your year-end direct mail campaign just yet! Just make sure it’s multichannel. And make sure your online presence reflects your offline appeals, because it’s likely that donors responding to these solicitations will fulfil their gifts online. 

“Because we believe that donors themselves should have agency about their decisions to give, our job as nonprofit fundraisers is to offer optimal opportunities for them to make their gifts, at the times that are most convenient for them.”

This is a critical time of year for direct marketing programs. In the annual giving programs we analyze at GG+A, often up to two-thirds of revenue for the entire fiscal year is secured by December 31st. Furthermore, a full 25% of all online giving in the United States happens in December.  

For this reason, resist the temptation to carry out radical tests of tone, design, and content at calendar year end. If you have a year-end appeal format that you have been using successfully for many years – by all means, tweak it. But do not alter it too significantly. And keep a large enough “control” segment to ensure that results will not be adversely affected if a test fails. 

Finally, remember that we who work in the nonprofit community may not represent the target audience of our own solicitations. Our donors may not necessarily share our worldview, and in fact, we are often writing for an audience that is a generation or two older than we are. So, when critiquing an appeal before sending it out, instead of questioning, “Do we approve of this?” ask yourself, “Will this resonate with our donors?”

To accurately answer this question, you need donor intelligence. That’s why it’s important to remember to look beyond your year-end appeal to the follow-up. How will you steward all of the people who are going to give between now and Dec 31st? How are you going to engage with them to find out more about their motivations for giving to your organization? How satisfied are they with the experience of supporting you?  

Having a plan for gaining that information will serve you for many year-end giving seasons to come. 

If you would like guidance in developing your organization’s fundraising strategy or donor stewardship plan, please reach out to us. Or you can email Adrian Salmon at asalmon@grenzglier.com, or Chris Redgate at credgate@grenzglier.com 

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About the authors

Adrian Salmon

Vice President

Adrian Salmon, Vice President, GG+A Europe, brings 25 years of direct-marketing fundraising experience in the higher education, arts and culture, and wider nonprofit spheres. His particular expertise includes digital engagement and stewardship, direct mail fundraising, annual giving program management, and management of contributions from integrated mail and online appeals. Before…

Chris Redgate

Vice President

Chris Redgate is a Vice President for Strategic Communications at GG+A. He brings 25 years of expertise in strategy, communications, marketing, and fundraising to the firm’s clients in all sectors and around the world. Throughout his career, Chris has worked to strengthen and grow mission-driven institutions worldwide. He has created…