New Year, Same Annual Fund: How to Develop Fresh Messages That Inspire Donors
A few years ago, I saw one of my annual fund colleagues in early August. I worked at an independent school at the time, and we’d both taken a vacation during July.
I hadn’t seen him since we reported the prior year’s record-setting results, and when I congratulated him on his team’s good work, he answered, “Thanks very much, but the counter has reset to zero.”
So it goes with annual funds. As soon as the last check is deposited and the totals shared, focus shifts to the new year. This usually means setting larger fundraising goals to account for inflation, pay for a new program, or replace dollars from other funding sources.
Right now, those nonprofits with fiscal years ending in December are focused on finishing strong—buoyed, hopefully, by excellent programming in the fall. Across the higher education and independent school world, where fiscal years generally end June 30, fundraising teams are about halfway through the cycle, evaluating how their first solicitations were received and planning for spring events.
Fortunately, whether your organization is midway through the school year, in the home stretch, or racing to meet its goal, these strategies can provide a fresh feel to your fundraising messages.
Focus on What’s New
Most institutions have something new happening when the year begins—whether that’s the calendar year, program year, or academic year.
Many arts and culture organizations with a fiscal year ending on December 31 are in the middle of a program year when the calendar flips. If there’s a special exhibit coming to the museum or a prominent guest artist on the schedule, these can provide a focal point for an upcoming ask, as special events are a timely reminder of your organization’s impact on its community.
Whether your organization is midway through the school year, in the home stretch, or racing to meet its goal, these strategies can provide a fresh feel to your fundraising messages.
Schools may focus on tying appeals to a new school year, by highlighting a program launching or a facility opening. In September 2021, when I was working at Woodberry Forest School in Virgina, we held our first all-school Expedition Week. Students from each grade ventured out across the state for activities tailored to each student’s point in their high school journey. Annual fund messaging from Woodberry already reminded donors that gifts immediately support the student experience, and this new program (which wasn’t cheap to produce!) perfectly illustrated what was made possible through annual fund contributions.
Even after the fall has passed, other seasonal opportunities—at the beginning of a new semester or new athletics season, for instance—can remind donors of the tremendous difference their giving can make.
New construction might be another creative messaging hook. Even when capital gifts fund buildings or renovations, you can still connect these projects to annual giving. Once the construction team departs, new or newly renovated spaces need to be brought to life. From the staff who will deliver programming to the equipment and furnishings that fill each room, annual donors can play a role in facilities projects with gifts of any size.
Rededicating the historic gym after an overhaul? Consider planning an annual fund solicitation around new equipment or around the athletic program’s mission and goals.
Honor Your Milestones
In addition to highlighting something new, you can craft messages that celebrate retirements or commemorate a special milestone.
When Michael Smith prepared to retire as dean from the University of North Carolina’s School of Government after 45 years of service, he was the perfect conduit for the University’s case for support. Smith had served on the UNC faculty since 1978, becoming director of the Institute of Government in 1992, overseeing the transition from institute to school, and serving as dean from 2001 to 2023.
Through Giving Day emails and the public administration program’s mailed alumni newsletter, UNC featured Smith’s retirement and leadership transition as a reminder of what the institution stands for and its ongoing need for donor support. Likewise, an appeal could be built around a service milestone, such as a conductor’s tenth anniversary with an orchestra.
Notably, institutions have long used organizational anniversaries, such as a centennial, to stir nostalgia and encourage annual fund gifts.
Remember the December Crowd
Often donors will give charitable gifts in December for tax purposes. But many institutions do not have meaningful cultivation and solicitations strategies in place for these donors beyond year-end giving season.
While you can contact donors who have made a year-end gift in recent years and ask them to do so again, be sensitive to how donors can perceive these solicitations and ensure you are employing donor-centric messaging strategies.
Reminding donors of tax advantages and presenting them with a variety giving options can be helpful, along with highlighting how their generosity can support year-end needs. Donors who are older than 70 ½ years at the time of their gift can contribute qualified charitable distributions (QCDs) from traditional IRA accounts. For these supporters, a calendar-based outreach might encourage larger gifts—especially if a donor wishes to meet the minimum distribution threshold tax free or feels more comfortable giving from investment assets.
For schools and colleges, developing a targeted December appeal can attract donations that might have been made later in the fiscal year. With these gifts received by early January, fundraisers can focus their work on a smaller number of prospects and have a clearer sense of how they might finish the fiscal year.
Alternatively, at nonprofits where the fiscal year mirrors the calendar year, a December appeal can help fundraisers reach their goals and reduce the risk of donations overlapping with the new fiscal year.
There’s no escaping the challenge my colleague articulated to me on that summer day years ago. Whenever a nonprofit’s fiscal year ends, the work begins anew. But with a new year comes new opportunities, whether to honor a colleague, celebrate a new program, or educate donors about the benefits of year-end giving. Using a combination of these ideas can keep annual funds fresh and growing.
Jacob Geiger, Consultant, brings more than 15 years of strategic communications experience to his work with clients, with expertise in annual and capital campaign communications; crisis communications; and media relations. To connect with Jacob about your communications strategy or fundraising objectives, email firstname.lastname@example.org.