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9 Tips to Build a Smart Year-End Campaign in Challenging Times

by Lisa Schohl | 8.16.22 | The Chronicle of Philanthropy

It can be difficult to develop a year-end drive that stands out from the crowd — and hits fundraising goals — even in the best of times. But as the country faces economic uncertainty, midterm elections, and an ongoing pandemic, many fundraisers worry this year’s giving season may be trickier than ever. To help you create a winning campaign despite these challenges, the Chronicle gathered tips from a variety of veteran fundraisers. Here’s what they recommend.

Create unifying messages. “People want to be part of a ‘we,’ especially coming from a pandemic where everybody was disconnected,” says Diego Aviles, vice president of development for the Northeast Region at the United Negro College Fund. The country is still divided, he says, so it’s critical to foster connection to your cause and make donors feel like they belong to a larger group. For example, show them how individual gifts contribute to your overall mission.

When selecting themes for your outreach, choose things everyone can support no matter their political views, he suggests. If that isn’t possible, consider doubling down on segmentation — developing tailored messages for specific groups of donors based on characteristics they share.

Focus on your nonprofit’s effectiveness and efficiency as a neutral and positive way to appeal to donors in an election season, says Christa Evans, vice president of development at First Book, a nonprofit that provides books and other resources to teachers in low-income communities. “There’s so much divisiveness that is felt in messaging during an election cycle,” she says. “Charities that are not political in nature can offer the alternative and should be messaging that.”

Focus on keeping existing donors. Learn from past crises, including the 2008 economic recession, Aviles says, when donors still gave but in some cases to fewer organizations. That means it’s smart to focus on retaining your base of supporters — and make sure you continuously engage and ask them to give.

Include a wide variety of staff members. Avoid a “top-down” approach to campaign planning, Aviles says. Instead, encourage employees from across the organization ― not just fundraisers ― to share their ideas. Younger staffers especially want to be included, Aviles says. “They want to know that their voice matters, and they’re going to stay with organizations that care about what they think.”

Involving diverse perspectives will also help prevent “groupthink” among fundraisers and can surface valuable ideas, Aviles says.

Tighten your belt. ErinFincher, senior director of foundation giving and strategic initiatives at North Texas Food Bank, says she normally thinks it’s worth taking some risks in fundraising, but this year she is focused on being thoughtful and cautious when making decisions. “We know that the economy is not good and probably is not going to get better — it’s probably going to get worse — and so we have to be careful that every dollar we spend to earn money goes as far as it can,” she says.

Show why support is needed now. Connect your work to things donors are seeing in the news to show relevance and drive urgency around giving, says Elizabeth Nielsen, senior vice president for digital and direct marketing at Feeding America. That’s more effective than trying to manufacture urgency with an arbitrary campaign deadline, she says.

For example, Feeding America’s relevancy is tied closely to the economy in this moment, she says, so the organization is reminding donors how rising food costs and supply-chain issues are producing an increased need for its services.

If your nonprofit is still dealing with long-term effects of Covid, Evans says, that is where you should focus your messages even though the pandemic is starting to seem less like an emergency. Show donors how the virus continues to affect your work and how support will help you address those challenges, she suggests.

Start early. This giving season will probably be even noisier than usual between the ongoing crises and the midterm elections, Evans says, so it’s critical to get your messages out earlier than you normally do. First Book plans to launch its campaign in the last week of October, the earliest date ever. If you wait until the week of GivingTuesday to join the conversation, Evans says, “you’re already behind the eight ball because the rest of us have been out reminding folks that we’re participating for weeks before that.”

Be sure to keep the momentum going in the days following GivingTuesday, too, she adds, and remind donors that it’s not too late to give. “There are plenty of people that intend to give on GivingTuesday and don’t get around to it or life happens, so continuing to be in front of them the next day or days after is very important,” she says.

Don’t focus solely on raising money. The year’s end is also an important time for stewardship, Evans says, so be sure that not all communications with donors are focused on getting a gift, even on GivingTuesday. For example, send a poll to try to learn more about your supporters, ask for their feedback on a program, or show them how giving helps advance your cause.

Share good news for a change. People are being flooded with negative messages in 2022, Evans says, so now is a good time to emphasize the positive change donors help bring about. “Don’t forget that these folks have been generous,” she says. “They want to know how their gifts are making an impact, and this is the time of year we should be telling them.”

Evans says some of the best donor engagement has come from year-end emails that highlighted a classroom receiving books through the campaign and did not request a donation.

Thank donors in personalized ways. Even if you use a mass-communication tool like Constant Contact to send automated thank-you emails, Aviles says, add a personal touch for top donors. For example, gift officers could forward the mass email to a list of significant donors with a personal note to make sure they saw it. You can’t do that for 20,000 supporters, he says, but it’s worth taking the extra step for those with whom you have significant relationships.

Says Aviles: “People are struggling in so many different ways right now — show them that you care.”

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