Year-End Fundraising: The Not-So-Magnificent Obsession

nonprofit fundraising

The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

That’s the sense of hysteria I get with all this talk of year-end fundraising.

I don’t mean to be contrarian. Wait. Yes, I do. If you know my work at all, I can be quite contrarian.

Here’s my perspective: I’m not much interested in talking about year-end fundraising.

I’m more interested in talking about all-year-long fundraising. Because if you’re focused on year-end fundraising (and not so focused on year-round), you’re in trouble.

What have you been doing all year? Why are you so focused on year-end? Are you mopping up the mess your organization made because it wasn’t doing the right stuff the right way all year long? That’s the falling-sky hysteria of the Chicken Little family.

Fundraising is year-round. Fundraising is 52 weeks a year. There’s the relationship-building part, and the asking part, and the relationship-building part, and the asking part, and the…

Your fund development program

With this in mind, your organization (led by the development staff, or the executive director if there is no development staff) designs a comprehensive, integrated fund development program. Your fund development program incorporates various solicitation strategies (personal face-to-face solicitation, direct mail, proposal writing, fundraising events, and so on) directed at various sources for gifts (like individuals, foundations, corporations, government, civic and faith groups).

Your organization prepares a written fund development for every fiscal year. I use the fund development planning process to test the proposed budget. I finalize both budget and plan for board action prior to the start of the new fiscal year.

Your written plan

The written fund development plan is more than a calendar. The plan is a strategic document that guides strategies and tactics for the year.

The plan belongs to the institution, not the development office. Every board member has assignments within the plan. And the development director (and members of the Fund Development Committee) negotiates commitments with each board member through a menu of choices.

The fundraising plan carefully integrates relationship building (donor-centered communications plus extraordinary experiences) with asking. The fundraising plan ensures that donors experience non-solicitation touches multiple times per year. And the plan ensures that donors experience gift requests multiple times per year.

From a timing point of view, the organization makes sure that the fiscal year fundraising plan spreads asking (and hence giving!) throughout a 12-month period. You ensure that cash flows throughout the fiscal year. You ensure that all your eggs aren’t in one basket, e.g., the last few months prior to the end of your fiscal year or the donor’s fiscal year, mostly known as December 31st in the U.S.

Requesting gifts

Every organization can (and should!) do personal face-to-face solicitation for “major gifts” for annual operating/core program support. And always remember that the donor decides what is major.

Your organization identifies prospects for this solicitation, both individuals and corporations. And you continue to grow this segment over the years. As a chief development officer, my organization eventually conducted 500 individual and corporate face-to-face solicitations each year—with 75 volunteers (10 of whom were on the board)—to raise annual operating support.

I recommend doing this personal solicitation at the start of the donor’s year (in other words, the first quarter of the calendar year). I want my donors to have the chance to pay an operations pledge over a multi-month period.

For your direct mail segment, you do multiple solicitations each year, even to those who’ve already given. For example, I have clients who send:

  • Direct mail letter #1 in February
  • A ticket solicitation in March for the April event
  • Direct mail letter #2 in May
  • Direct mail letter #3 early in September
  • Direct mail letter #4 in early December

All this is part of a comprehensive fund development program. No Chicken Littles scurrying around at year’s end.

The year-end opportunity

Sure, you can do something extra in the final few months before the tax year ends for your donors, whatever that tax year might be. But my suggestions can (and should!) be incorporated into your comprehensive fund development program at some point. Even these are not really dependent upon this year-end hysteria.

  1. How about a lovely anniversary letter before the end of the donor tax year that says, “Thank you”? A special thank-you that tells me how many years I’ve been giving? Maybe you even tell me my lifetime value: “In 2014, we’re celebrating your 10th year of giving to this cause, Simone. And over those 10 years, you’ve given a total of $1,500!”
    Or maybe you don’t want to tell them their cumulative giving. But at least celebrate the years of giving. (Of course, you could send out the anniversary letter in the actual anniversary month.)
  2. How about a donor thank-a-thon (by board members!) sometime in November or early December? Think of this as a “Thanksgiving,” or maybe it’s a “Happy New Year.”
  3. Maybe you send to all donors, including those you solicited face-to-face, a special year-end letter. It looks different. It’s not part of your direct mail program. A special thank-you letter—the “Heroes’ Award thank you” to all donors. And you actually mention the soon-to-end tax year and request an additional gift.
    Maybe a donor signs this letter. (Of course, the letter is actually written by your direct mail letter writer!) But the idea is that the donor is saying something like, “I’m writing you today because I just gave a special year-end gift to XX, a favorite charity of mine. And as one of our wonderful donors—a hero to everyone in this organization and everyone served by this organization—I wanted to invite you to join me. Soon, we will all have fun putting together our details for the tax people. And maybe you just want to give one more gift…”
  4. How good are your thank-you letters? Have you ever done one of those really cool thank-you videos? Maybe you make one now, during this annual tax year-end frenzy.
    Maybe this becomes an annual activity—collect them all! Of course, sent to every single donor, no matter the gift size. And posted on your website and on YouTube.

The bottom line

Enough with the year-end frenzies. Don’t put all (or even lots!) of your chicken eggs in the year-end basket. In fact, eliminate the Chicken Little sky-falling frenzy altogether.

Strengthen your fund development program. Use each month well—all twelve of them.

Just do really good fund development always. And then you can smile—and even snicker—at those organizations that focus on year-end.


  • Derek Glass

    Many, if not most, charities experience higher response rates or higher average gifts, or both, during the holiday period at the end of the calendar year. In commercial marketing, the same is the case. Which is why it makes a lot of financial sense to many charities to spend more during this period, to put more eggs in that basket if you want to call it that. Spreading effort evenly across the year, when there is actually wide seasonal variation of response rates, average gifts, and income, is simply bad financial strategy and will yield lower net income, not higher.

    Setting aside the various blanket generalisations in the article above, it makes no sense to follow your advice for the vast majority of charities that use direct mail to raise important funds for their mission and their beneficiaries.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thank you for commenting. The point of the column is: Fundraising is a 12-month per year activity. It is not just about direct mail. It is not just about asking. (Thanking and reporting and cultivating are also essential.) No matter the organization’s size, knowledgeable NGOs don’t just fundraise at year end. Fundraising is not a once-per-year activity.

  • Sanna Roling

    I don’t put all of my eggs in the year end basket. In fact, this is the first year that I am considering doing anything year end and have decided on #giving tuesday. I tried an no-fundraiser fundraising campaign first quarter one year and have my annual fundraiser third quarter every year. Both worked well.

    I’m thinking that when depends on several things — your organization’s type of need, the community’s mantra, and, of course, your ability to fundraise.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Thanks for your comment, Sanna. But keep in mind: Fundraising centers around the donor. Infrequent contact with donors doesn’t build loyalty. Also, fundraising events are part of a good fundraising program. Direct mail, personal face-to-face solicitation… all those things need to happen, too. Throughout the year.

  • Sara Abernethy

    I love the Thanksgiving idea to engage board members while thanking donors! Great idea!