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You don’t really need to look at statistics to know that the year-end appeal is kind-of critical for fundraising. Intuitively, you sense it in the crisp September air when the voice in the back of your head whispers, “oh shit, how much are we short this year?!”

Community benefit organizations and nonprofits of all shapes and sizes have come to rely on the influx of donations that pour in from a well-crafted year-end appeal campaign. And as anyone who has ever worked on one can tell you: It can be an intense, stressful time filled with a make-or-break flurry of tasks and deadlines.

In true Open Rivers fashion, we’re going to break it down and simplify the steps to set up your year-end appeal campaign so that you can get through the season hopefully a little less frazzled and a lot more streamlined.

First up, grab the free workbook now to walk you through this article and take action in setting up your year-end appeal!

Have the workbook pulled up? Great! Now, let’s dive in.

1 | Goals

Start the season off with one fundamental question: How much money do you need to raise with your year-end appeal campaign? A quick look at your operating budget for the entire year and a current balance of how much you’ve raised so far this year will tell you what you need to bring in by December 31st in order to stay afloat.

In other words:
How much you need – What you’ve raised = Your year-end appeal campaign fundraising goal.

This magical number is the most straightforward metric for success that you can have.

Write it down. Tack it up on the wall. Keep it at the forefront of your mind for the entire campaign. And if it seems like a big, scary, overwhelming number, use it as motivation (and an excuse to ask for even more money.)

If you have reflections and donation data from previous year-end appeal campaigns, you may also want to revisit them at this point to get an overall snapshot of what you might expect this year and to remind yourself what worked and what didn’t.

2 | Narrative

So, how will you cut through the noise and share your work in a way that will entice people to donate? You need an uplifting, succinct and compelling message about your work and it’s impact.

Remember: the goal here is to bring in money (specifically, that magical number you just calculated!) It is not to detail each and every accomplishment and mission headway you’ve made since last year. Your appeal’s narrative should be high-level and, most importantly, include a clear call to action. Start by laying out three main points: what you do, why it matters and the impact it makes. This will give the reader a crystal clear idea of where her donation will go.

Once you have the message in mind, now comes the fun part: designing your year-end appeal! Begin by brainstorming what content you have to work with and crowdsource what assets you’ll need to gather in order to bring your appeal to life. Do you have a particularly poignant testimonial or a game-changing quote from someone you’ve served? What about visuals of your work in action, such as photographs or videos? Create, play, take risks and get feedback as you begin to put everything together.

3 | Prospects

Who will be the lucky recipients of your wonderful year-end appeal? It’s time to gather all of the donor prospects into one epic contact list.

For a year-end appeal, cast a wide net.

You’ll want to include any donors who have given in the past. I consider “current” donors to have given in the last two years and “lapsed” donors as anyone who has ever given a gift but has dropped off from donating in the last two years. Unless I have a good reason not to send a year-end appeal to a lapsed donor (i.e., they have explicitly opted-out or passed away), all current and lapsed donors get thrown in the mix.

You’ll also want to include any new people you’ve met and cultivated throughout the year. One trick to make this easier on yourself: Keep a running list throughout the year of these new donor prospects. It’ll save you time digging through emails and calendars to figure out who you talked with months ago.

You might also include people who wouldn’t necessarily be individual donors such as program officers at foundations who support your work, partners you’ve collaborated with throughout the year, press contacts, people who have gone the extra mile to promote your work, sign-ups to your newsletter and social media followers who could be activated to share your year-end appeal with their networks.

Then reach out to your nearest and dearest for even more prospects to add to the year-end appeal list. You could tap your team, board of directors, volunteers, constituents, current donors, friends, and family. Be sure to ask if it is appropriate for you to send the year-end appeal to their network or if it makes better sense for them to send it out personally.

Once you have your list, go through it with a fine tooth comb to ensure that names are spelled correctly, addresses are up to date, no one has passed away, and spouses are still spouses.

4 | Channels

Now that you have a pretty good idea of who you will be reaching out to consider the best way to reach them. Most year-end appeals include a printed piece of some sort sent in the mail as well as a digital component sent through email and promoted online on your website and social media.

You may also want to schedule a few one-to-one meetings or host an event to get everyone together though personally, I like to leave this sort of cultivation for other times in the year only because everyone’s calendar is so packed with the holidays, it becomes a scheduling sinkhole.

Whatever you decide to do, commit to a firm launch date. Typically, printed pieces go out the week before Thanksgiving, and everything else is sprinkled throughout December with a mad dash in the last week of the year.

Also, keep in mind that all eyes will be on you when you launch your year-end appeal so you’ll want to make sure that your website is up to date and your donate page is functioning beautifully.

5 | Resources

Year-end appeals can be an enormous undertaking. They are never accomplished alone and are rarely cheap to produce.

Note: While some people like to have their resources fleshed out as a first step in the year-end appeal process, I personally like to brainstorm big then scale back or source free alternatives if need be.

In any case, now we get real about time and money.

You’ll want a simple budget that tracks the expenses associated with producing your year-end appeal to serve two purposes: to be sure you have the cash to pull this off and to be able to assess your return on investment (ROI) later on. In short: your year-end appeal needs to bring in more money than you are spending to produce it.

You’ll also want a first-class team to produce the year-end appeal. Start by listing out each role you’ll need filled and take each person’s time into account (even if it is a volunteer effort). A few good people to get you started: colleagues, creatives, communications aficionados, writers and editors, database wizards and envelope stuffers.

6 | Gratitude

You’ve launched! Now that the donations are rolling in, how can you return the love? Indeed each and every gift must be thanked, but not all necessarily in the same manner. Have a look at your year-end appeal’s channels. Depending on how your donor has given, it may be appropriate to thank them with a personal letter, a phone call, a shout-out online or an automated receipt by email.

7 | Wrap it up.

The final step is all about celebration, self-care, and reflection. Or as I like to call it:

The Entire Month of January.

Now is the time to celebrate each and every donation your year-end appeal brought in and indulge in some well-deserved self-care.

It is also a good time to reflect on a few questions. What worked and what didn’t work this time around? You could even ask your donors for feedback on your year-end appeal if you feel comfortable doing so. How many donors gave to your year-end appeal campaign and what was the size of their gifts? How many were new donors and how many had given previously? How will you follow-up in the coming months with all who donated to your year-end appeal campaign?

And naturally have a look at the numbers: Did you raise that magical number you set out to bring in?!


If this has been helpful to you, please consider making a donation! Your contribution is deeply appreciated and supports all of the free programming at Open Rivers.

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