The Problem with Doing Most of Your Fundraising at Year End (and What You Can Do About It)

The Klein & Roth Consulting team. From left to right: Nancy Otto, Rona Fernandez, Stephanie Roth, Kim Klein, and Stan Yogi.

The Klein & Roth Consulting team. From left to right: Nancy Otto, Rona Fernandez, Stephanie Roth, Kim Klein, and Stan Yogi.

That more giving is done in December than any other month has been true for fundraising in all of the decades that we’ve been working in and with nonprofits. There are many reasons for this including that December includes major holidays focused on giving and that donors who itemize their deductions on their tax returns (just 1/3 of taxpayers in the U.S.) often wait until the end of the year to see how much they should give to maximize their deductions in that year.

But the main reason is that nonprofits have also trained people to give in December. We drown our supporters in solicitations in the final month of the year, not because it’s when our organization needs the money, but because we think it’s when people want to give. This is a fairly recent development in the nonprofit fundraising universe, and has only gotten worse with initiatives like “Giving Tuesday” added to the mix. Historically, organizations asked for money throughout the year, giving donors many opportunities to support their work.

Here are three reasons you might want to rethink the practice of doing your most concentrated and most time-intensive solicitations between Thanksgiving and Dec 31stevery year:

  • Competition is higher in December than any other time of year, just because of sheer numbers of organizations asking for money. A friend of ours recently told us that starting around Dec. 15th of last year she just started deleting ALL emails that arrived from nonprofits, without even reading any of them.
  • People are more distracted between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than other times of the year with holiday-related activities and the social pressure to spend money on gifts for friends and family.
  • Board members who you count on (or would like to count on) to participate in your organization’s year-end fundraising campaigns struggle to fit year-end calls and meetings with donors into their own busy schedules (see point above).
  • What if a crisis happens in December – an earthquake, tsunami, or mass shooting in your community – that either affects large numbers of people or at the very least, draws their attention (and giving) away from your organization? Concentrating your asking in December increases the risk of not raising the money you need.
  • In some cases, we’ve seen organizations contact donors for gifts ONLY at year-end, with no other effort to engage with them (outside of occasional newsletters or e-updates) the rest of the year. (Of course this is a separate problem from putting most of your eggs in the year-end basket.)

So what is to be done?

While we’re not suggesting you forego year-end fundraising altogether, here are a few things you can do to alleviate the problems outlined above:

  1. An obvious step is to increase the number of times you solicit donors throughout the year. Unless they tell you otherwise, you can ask at least quarterly and if there is a particular need beyond that and you can make a good case for why you’re asking, you can go back to donors even more frequently. Vary your approach, that is, making some asks by snail mail, others by email, others by inviting donors to attend an event or participate in a peer-to-peer campaign (such as walk-a-thons or virtual events).
  2. For major donors, or anyone you’d like to meet with or speak with on the phone, find another time of year for this more personal engagement. Try for meetings, phone calls, or even small events (house parties or other more intimate events) during other times of the year. Even if your donors tell you that they’ll be making their annual gift at year-end, you’ll have a better chance of getting a meeting with them at a less hectic time of year. And when you DO contact them for that year-end gift, you won’t have the pressure of trying to set up more meetings and phone calls than you can possibly carry out.
  3. In creating your annual fundraising plan, consider the entire year from the perspective of your donors. When will they hear from you, how often, and for what reasons? What is the timing and frequency of solicitations, and how can your donors feel that you care about your relationship with them beyond their annual gift?
  4. Consider ways to engage your donors that go beyond Ask, Thank, Send an update, Ask again. How can donors be involved in furthering the mission of your organization? This is not always easy, especially for organizations that don’t have many opportunities for volunteering, or being involved in other aspects of your work. But it’s worth taking the time to consider this important constituency and what kinds of engagement might be both meaningful to them and helpful to you.