Procrastinators’ Guide to Sending a Year-End Appeal
There are a lot of resources out there to help fundraisers think about, plan for, and execute a year-end appeal. But if you’re not a full-time fundraiser or someone who thinks about this stuff all the time, then you may find yourself getting anxious once you start reading any of the extensive how-tos available online. (Especially since many will tell you that you should have started planning 2–3 months ago.) Today, I’m giving you permission to accept what you can do for a year-end appeal with limited time, money, and resources.
But first, what’s a year-end appeal?
In general, a year-end appeal is a letter that reminds your donors and patrons of the important work that you do while encouraging them to send a contribution by the end of the year. As you may already know, making a charitable donation by the end of the year can be compelling for tax purposes, but it’s possible that some of your donors have access to a matching gift program through their employer that may also have a year-end deadline. In addition to these financially-motivated reasons, most donors give because they truly believe in the mission of an organization or project, and many make donations to celebrate the holidays.
Let’s cover some of the most basic tips for a year-end appeal and see how we can adapt to them:
Don't just send a standalone appeal
Most fundraisers agree that you should not just send one email or letter at the end of the year without a plan to send follow-up messages. It’s true: people need to be reminded, and one communication can get lost in the shuffle of a stuffed mailbox.
Think of the centerpiece of the appeal: what’s your turkey and what are your sides? The centerpiece could be a 1-2 page letter mailed in a pretty envelope with a seasonal stamp. This will set the flavor for your whole campaign, aesthetically and thematically. Your “sides” could be a follow-up email about two weeks later, with a final email request within the last few days of the year. Make sure there’s a visual through-line in these materials and that they reference each other, otherwise the recipient may not recognize that the materials are related.
It can be easy to get carried away with all the good work you could be getting done if only you had more time, money, and resources! The truth is there will probably never be enough of this holy trinity of support, but the work will still get done and your donor’s support will still have an impact.
One common tip is to go through your letter and look for the word “you.” The letter should emphasize their participation, and describe how their donations are put to work. Want to crank up the heat? Tell them exactly what a $25, $50, or $100 donation pays for as it relates to your production, exhibition, or program.
Charities with a variety of donors will typically divide their appeal materials into different categories based on the means and past support of donors (and other criteria, but I’ll stick with these for the sake of simplicity). In other words: they decide how much you might be worth and send you mail accordingly.
If you’re fundraising for a grassroots cause or independent project, segmenting may sound like a ton of work. If you have a small list (under 200 people, for example) or have limited information about the giving capacity of your donors, then you can simplify how you think about this. For instance, if you have 100 people who have given you $20 or less, and 5 who have given you $250+, then you’ve got your segment. You can even consider emailing the 100 smaller donors, and sending out just 5 pieces of paper mail to your larger donors. Never received a donation from a person on your list? Then think about including multiple giving options that start at a fairly low level (like $10 or $20). Look at your list and decide how many categories your donors could theoretically fall into, and then decide how you can consolidate the segmenting into chunks you can work with.
Cancel the calligrapherIn a study featured in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (which I will summarize since it’s behind a paywall), year-end solicitations that looked expensive (think: wedding invitation paper and party-favor-esque inserts) didn’t do as well as well as nice-but-affordable-looking pieces. Donors want to see that you’re prioritizing your charitable work and see expensive stationery as waste.
Skip the guilt trip
While it may be true that your program, production, or exhibition will have to scale back if you don’t raise the appropriate funds, remind them of what you will be able to do with their support, not what you won’t be able to do. The holidays may have them stressed out — give them inspiration!
Give reply slips for check donations
In order to thank them and invite them to your events, you need to capture information about them — their full name, address, email, etc. — and the only way to ensure that you receive this information is to include a reply slip or card.
Keep online donations simple
Try to include a reasonably tidy link that isn’t too long in your letter. (Got a long, messy link? Consider a tidy little bit.ly link.) Think about ways to put a donate button right on your homepage. If you are sending them to a third party donation page (like your fiscal sponsorship page), then make sure the link is easy to find on your site.
Oh, you thought writing the letter about your work would be enough to clue them in? Nope! You need to make it clear that the “support” you need is financial.
Make it urgent
“Look at this nice letter I got! I will stick this in my mail pile and return to it immediately,” I say to myself all the time. But like milk, the mail pile has an expiration date. By the time I get to it, the spring buds are on the trees. Make sure your appeal has a specific time frame in which to take action.
The message: Just write something
Writing a letter that is inspiring can be challenging and anxiety producing. Honestly, all you can do is sit down and get words on paper. Turn off the television, navigate away from your inbox, read appeals from other organizations, and make a list of all the amazing stuff you do (and will do next year). After a while, you will have something to work with and build upon.
Ask for help
Have someone (anyone!) read the letter and give you feedback. Ask them to specifically tell you if it’s compelling, if it would make them give, if the instructions are clear, and if it’s visually appealing. Be open to feedback on this because appeals are hard to get right in a first (or second or third) draft.
That’s the short and sweet overview of what you can do with a few weeks left in the year!
Oh, and don’t forget the cardinal rule of asking for money: it never hurts to ask.