It’s easy to fall into a trap of thinking that fundraising is rocket science, some complex undertaking for the credentialed professional class. This is emphatically not the case.

As Jeremy Beer and Jeffrey Cain write in The Forgotten Foundations of Fundraising, “Fundraising consists of two primary tasks: Find new donors, and cultivate the ones you have.” On these two tasks hang all the success of fundraising. The essential thing in fundraising is not being highly credentialed but doing these two things consistently well over time.

One of the most important ways to cultivate and upgrade your donors is through a strong direct-mail program—and especially at year-end. Before digging into that, let’s set the stage by taking a step back and thinking about who your donors are and why they give.

In 2018, American Philanthropic conducted a survey of 662 donors. We studied the attitudes, behaviors, and motivations of 662 donors in order to provide actionable fundraising data to help nonprofit fundraisers in their work. In particular, we were eager to learn what motivates donors to give in the first place, and why donors continue to give.

One of the most valuable things we learned in the study is that donors who feel a high degree of connection to an organization tend to give more on average than those who do not feel such a connection—and contact equals connection. This is the funny part: though many donors say they prefer to be contacted less often, their actual behavior belies this statement.

You want to deepen your connection with your donors and staying in touch with them through regular contact is the best way to deepen that connection. Successful organizations don’t treat their donors like ATMs. They treat their donors like partners in a shared mission, and treating them like partners means communicating with them frequently about that mission.

What are you doing to achieve your mission? How are you realizing your vision? What is the donor’s role in moving the needle on your shared goals? Regularly remind your donors what it is that your organization does and how valuable they are in doing that. Contact equals connection: stay in contact to deepen the connection.

One crucial time for this contact is at the end of the year, as donors are already predisposed to give. 31% of giving happens in December, and more than a third of that happens in the last three days of the year.

The fundamental question, then, is how we can capitalize on this predisposition to give while crafting a year-end campaign that is relational and activates feelings of identity. Again, it is donors who identify with, relate to, an organization that are most generous and most reliable—you want your year-end campaign to facilitate this, not to undermine these feelings. Frankly, this can be difficult: for a month or more, Americans are thinking about giving money away for a tax-deduction or before the calendar year ends. This is good for revenue, but it is difficult for “friend-raising.” It risks your development work slipping into a transactional model.

This is why you need to start planning your year-end campaign now. The year-end schedule naturally lends itself to a robust blend of donor cultivation and solicitation, and this mix is central to making donors feel less like ATMs and more like a vital part of your organization.

That means you need to take time now to craft a strategy that is heavy on cultivation—on letters and touchpoints that communicate with your donors as partners and allies—while also frequently (though less frequently) making direct asks, too.

Getting this right requires precise timing and coherent execution. There is a lot happening in a short period of time, making deadlines more important than usual. If you have a series of letters, emails, postcards, social media touches, and so on, you need to have a realistic and practical calendar of deadlines—and you need to meet them. Otherwise, wires get crossed and your campaign is far less excellent than it could be.

Finally, when you are crafting your campaign, make sure you have a coherent theme and a concrete goal for your donors to achieve. Make sure your communications are segmented and personalized—and give major donors as much personal contact as possible. Don’t hide behind emails and letters when you have time to make a phone call or schedule a meeting.

Throughout the year, fundraising is about fostering relationships with your donors, bringing them into the life of your organization. This is no different at year-end, except that the intensity of fundraising is increased and the work of cultivating and soliciting is condensed into a small window of time.

By starting to plan your year-end campaign now—and by making it ambitious but realistic—you will avoid backing yourself into a corner. By ensuring that your campaign is relational, not transactional, you’ll do more than just win a gift in December. You will bring that donor deeper in to the life of the organization, and tee them up for ongoing and increasing giving.


It is our goal to help nonprofits succeed—to raise more money, reach more donors, and achieve ongoing success. If you have any questions about your year-end campaign, please feel free to reach out to Laura at lpallares@americanphilanthropic.com or Carter at cskeel@americanphilanthropic.com. You can also check out our services at AmericanPhilanthropic.com.

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