It’s Time to Get Serious: Year-End Strategies to Run with Now

December. For many, it’s considered the most wonderful time of the year. The holidays bring out the joy and generosity of many. Gatherings bring friends and family together for merriment. And for nonprofit organizations, it means raising nearly 20-30% of their online income in one month.

Online giving grew 8.9% in 2014, according to Blackbaud. The growth is obviously expected as more donors move their giving online. But add that growth to the total online income that comes in throughout December and it’s safe to say that December is a big deal. But in order to benefit from this incredible time of year, you must be prepared.

Here’s what you need to do:

1. Plan (and Revise the Plan)

Year-end online fundraising is a marathon and a sprint. Plan your year-end campaign after you are done reading this post, and keep planning; do not stop planning until December 31. Here are the major considerations for your plan:

  • Create a detailed calendar of all of the initiatives (email, website, social, etc.) you plan to execute from now through December 31. Continue to revise it based on results of your campaigns and new opportunities, should they arise.
  • Common strategies include cultivation from now through Thanksgiving, including showing the impact of your work– with photos, video and stories– thanks to your supporters. December is largely reserved for fundraising, often kicking off with Giving Tuesday. Keep holidays throughout December in mind and determine whether you will send on or near those dates.
  • Identify the themes, stories and imagery you plan to use and test from now through December 31. Plan your tests; get as much message and image testing done before mid-December. This can then inform your creative for the last two weeks of the year.
  • Plan out your segments (more on this later), and begin to message them appropriately now.
  • Solidify the techniques you will deploy from now through December 31, including a donor match, membership deadlines, symbolic ask strings (e.g., $38 will supply 40 meals to a child), celebrity signers and more.
  • Make sure all departments in your organization are aligned around your plan and know the importance of fundraising in December.
  • Solicit help from a variety of colleagues to review test emails, make test donations, monitor social media, etc. Have regular check-ins from now through December to keep everyone on track. From my experience, colleagues are always willing to help and are genuinely eager to be part of this incredible time of year.

2. Create Content

Meaningful content is key. Ideally, the content you plan to use online is also content that’s being used in your direct mail, if you have a direct mail program. Aligning this content creates an ‘echo chamber’ for the donors and prospects that hear from you across a variety of communication channels. Some considerations as you plan out your content:

  • Identify the a theme or series of themes that your organization is working on and make your content powerful. What is the story you’re trying to tell? What is the emotional hook, why is this urgent and what is the money going towards? More importantly, how do your donors and prospects fit into the story? Is it easy for the reader to powerfully understand their role?
  • Your messaging plan should combine fundraising asks with cultivations (e.g., a pledge, advocacy actions, stories about the impact of your work, a compelling video that shows the results of your work made possible by your supporters).
  • Identify a variety of people to sign your emails. Consider including someone that has seen first-hand the impact of your work, such as a client, family, outside expert or board member. It’s also important to consider internal staff such as your policy director, a field organizer, a social worker, someone from your finance team or an analyst.  
  • Determine the overall design and images you plan to use in all of your year-end collateral. Ensure everything is optimized for emails to render across email platforms on a variety of browsers. Ideally, your emails and images also render well across desktops and mobile devices too.  
  • Be open to mixing up design styles, email formats, signers and send times. And don’t be afraid to repeat a technique that worked well last year. Then again, if a technique is not working well this year, be quick to drop it and move on.

3. Get Your Website and Donation Pages Ready

Make it easy for your constituents to donate by addressing the following:

  • The donation promotions in your website header, navigation and slider should all stand out, using different colors and images that go beyond the palette on your site.
  • Your donation pages should be simple and include a compelling reason to give that aligns with the content of your overall campaign, a donation ask string and a simple form to complete. Instead of labeling the open gift amount as “Other,” consider labeling it as “Your best gift” or something similar to boost the gift.
  • Do not include anything but the essential information you need to capture in order for someone to complete the donation. Ensure the “Submit” button is obvious and clear.
  • If your website has a rotating set of promotions on the homepage (commonly known as a slider or carousel), include content that echoes your emails and social promotions. Be sure the first promotion in the slider is a donation promotion and also echoes your email content.
  • Consider using a couple different “light boxes” (also known as modals or website overlays) throughout December. A light box is an image that pops up as a user comes to your site. It’s intended to catch their attention and encourages them to make a gift. As more constituents come from a variety of online efforts, specifically social and online advertisements, the light box is very useful to capture their attention. Consider running a couple different light boxes throughout December to compliment your campaign messaging. Try to make sure the light box is compatible with mobile screens to capture this traffic as well.
  • Many website management tools allow you to only show a light box once a day for a user, which helps alleviate frustration for frequent visitors to your site. Explore this with your website manager.
  • Update your thank you page and auto-responder email to ensure they appropriately thank donors for their gift. If you’re running a match, be sure to acknowledge that the donor’s gift will go twice as far during this important time.
  • This is also an important time to make sure the financial information (such as 990s and annual reports) are up to date. The “Why Give” section should be reviewed for relevance based on your recent work. If your organization has been validated by Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau or similar groups, it’s worth including their logos on your site. Be sure you have the proper paperwork and permissions before you do so, however.

4. Identify Optimal List Segments and Suppressions

Communicate with your audience based on how they interact with your organization and their history with you. If they’re a donor, acknowledge their ongoing support (and thank them). If they’ve engaged on a number of advocacy efforts, give them credit for helping achieve a victory or move an issue along. Create segments that make sense, and acknowledge your constituents in meaningful ways.

Common segments include:

  • Current Donors at a variety of levels depending on your donor programs (e.g., $1-$100, $101-$249, $249-$5,000, $5,001+)
  • Lapsed Donors (anyone who has not made a gift in the last 24 months)
  • Active Prospects (engaged on issues)
  • Non-Active Prospects (have opened emails, but have not yet engaged on issues)
  • New to the List (Prospects who have been on your list for 30 days or less).

Common suppressions include:

  • Inactive email addresses (have not opened emails in 3-6+ months)
  • Brand ambassadors
  • Board members
  • Major donors
  • Recent donors (within last 15-30 days, depending on your programs)

5. Monitor Results

Keep track of your results from all of your campaigns on a regular basis. Look at the data to inform whether or not you should adjust your plan to enhance something that worked really well, or drop something that tanked. Some things to keep in mind:

  • Monitor email deliverability and check your email abuse rate. If you see anything out of the ordinary, contact your email vendor ASAP to resolve the issue. A poor sender reputation could affect your sends, or worse, have you blacklisted.
  • For your email campaigns, look at open rates to determine if a sender and type of subject line resonate particularly well to get people into the message. More importantly, do they complete a donation? Look at your click thru rates and donation page completion rates to determine if anything needs to be adjusted in the donation process. According to the M+R Benchmarks Report, the average open rate for a fundraising email is 14%, click thru rate is 0.48% and response rate is 0.06%. Use these numbers as a guide and your own performance; the performance of your campaigns should be in line with what you see for other campaigns sent to your file.
  • Be sure to track the completion rate from constituents that click on a donation link from your homepage or light box. How do these rates compare to months outside of December? (Hint: they should be in-line, if not higher than what you see in other months.)

6. Say ‘Thank You’

Acknowledging your donors after they make a gift is important. Make sure your thank you auto-responder has the pertinent information (amount of gift, date it was made and your tax ID, if relevant). It should (obviously) be full of gratitude. You can also encourage donors to check something out on your website that shows the impact of your work and to follow you on social media. Consider sending your donors a printed thank you note as well. Even if it’s a postcard, the gesture will be well-received.

That’s it. This list of year-end fundraising details might seem daunting at first. But as we say where I’m from, “Plan the work and work the plan.” If you think you aren’t prepared, find a couple of hours this week to sketch out a calendar and a to-do list. Other aspects of your work may have to take a backseat for a while. Considering what’s at stake in December: it’s worth it. Good luck with your campaign and fundraising efforts!

Lisa Sock is Change.org's Senior Director of Digital Fundraising.