Tuesday, December 02, 2014

A nonprofit sacred cow: The December Mailing

With Giving Tuesday upon us, there is no doubt that we are in the throes of the holiday giving season. Traditionally, this is the time when many Americans make their charitable gifts (end of tax year + holiday season = donation season). It is also the time when many, if not most, nonprofit organizations are in a frenzy of year-end fundraising.

Nonprofits will move mountains to get their December “appeal” in the mail (and email) on time. They will lose sleep. They will lose focus. They will sometimes even lose sight of what’s best for the organization, or their key messages, or their organizational priorities, just so they can get that appeal out the door.

I recently posed a question about the December appeal to some fundraising groups on LinkedIn, and boy, did the fundraisers come out of the woodwork to share their two cents! In service to the larger nonprofit/fundraising community, I’m sharing my discussion topic, and a sampling of the responses, with you:

“Avoiding the December Mailing: Not Getting Lost in the Shuffle”

I recently counseled a client, who is in the midst of developing a new case statement, NOT to stress out about doing their biggest mailing of the year in December. Their organization has another major milestone in the spring, and they can craft their biggest mailing around that. Not only will this give them time to thoughtfully complete their case statement and accompanying materials, but it also will avoid the problem of their mailing getting lost in the shuffle of the overwhelming amount of appeals that get sent out in December.
What are your thoughts? Is December truly the end-all, be-all of the annual campaign mass appeal? Have you had success with doing your biggest mailing at another time of year?

[Let me start by saying that there was a bit of a misunderstanding about my question – my fault, no doubt. This client is not completely forgoing a December mail and email appeal. They are still sending something in December. But they are waiting until spring, around a milestone in their organizational calendar, to do a larger mailing that will serve as a rollout and announcement of a new fundraising campaign.]

A sampling of responses:

I've wondered this myself as it a) seems risky but b) makes sense. Everyone is zigging so you zag. I'd say you should do something, simple case and reminders but you don't have to do your big thing. I think that time and quality piece is in play here too. Crap in December can't be better than quality in the Spring.

I've never been a big fan of end-of-year solicitations or appeals that rely heavily on deductibility in their argumentation. As a result, I've encouraged clients (and students) to time appeals for occasions or events (ideally annual ones) that make sense in terms of their organizations' work. That being said, even if their "big" appeal is at another time of the year, organizations with older constituencies should generally still to do a major appeal by US Mail & Email during 4th quarter. There are still just enough habitual 4th quarter givers out there to make this worthwhile.

There are so many reasons the year-end appeal works, and I would suggest cautioning them away from giving up on this tried and true approach. If they feel the direct-mail approach is too cumbersome, they might consider tasteful email solicitations with direct links to an online giving page.

Year-end giving is actually less effort because donors are, to put it simply, in the mood! The media - and now social media - around the holidays provide plenty of encouragement to give. Further, savvy philanthropists put aside money to make charitable gifts at this time of year.

I would also caution not to forego year-end giving, as statistically, donors give at year-end, and it's that psychological momentum and habit (along with the tax deduction) that gets donors to give. Perhaps the organization can do a controlled experiment, and at minimum, mail the donors who have historically given in fourth quarter. If the organization buys mailing lists, they can split the mailing, doing half in December as usual and the other half with their event.

Has the organization looked at their own data for the last three years and seen which of their appeals are the most successful? Our Thanksgiving and year-end appeal is substantially more successful than our February and April appeals.

Your client should send both mailings. Save the big case statement for the spring, sure, but allude to it in the winter mailing. You can't miss the opportunity to be a part of a family's year-end giving decisions. Those same people may well give again in the spring.

I wouldn't be comfortable giving up the December mailing altogether. As [name] mentioned above, hesitant to give up on something so tried and true. 

One of my smaller organizations that is ten years old started with a general appeal at year end. We know that many if not most people make their charitable contributions at year end so we are going to continue to do it. But we have a lot of events in the summer and last year we added a mailing targeted at that time to larger donors only. Using highly personalized letters, we asked for specific, larger amounts to start a major donor society... So I agree that a year-end mailing is not necessarily the end all and be all. There may be other great opportunities during the year for special appeals, even major appeals and you can target them to specific parts of your donor/prospect base.

I think those who say it's the only time that most people give might be assuming peoples' habits without really checking with them to see if that's truly the case. I would suggest that all nonprofits do a survey of their donors to see when THEY would like to give.

It depends on the cause of the NPO, but generally speaking most of the Social Service NPO's I've known generally receive roughly 40% of their annual donations during the November-December time period. NOT doing an appeal in December, could have serious impacts to annual revenue. But, if your client is let's say, Easter Seals, well then obviously a differently timed campaign could be more effective. So, again, depends on the NPO, but from what I've seen, tapping that good ol' Holiday Spirit typically proves effective. 

What conclusions can I draw from these responses?
  • We fundraisers are, for the most part, reluctant to give up our sacred cows. Especially when those cows have a tried-and-true track record of being lucrative. Conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom for a reason.
  • If you're going to follow conventional wisdom, do it strategically. We have the technology to easily track when people give, how much they give, if they are repeat donors, etc. Use that information to send a December mailing that is targeted, tactical, and creates an imperative to give. 
  • We also have the capacity to be more donor-centric when designing our mass appeals. If our donors don't really care about giving in December versus giving during an organizational milestone/touchstone in the spring... then ask them in the spring. If they really want to give in December, follow their lead. To that point: 
 Really, it's not about December. It's about giving when people are in the habit of giving. It's about riding the wave of a spirit of generosity that is in the air. We can target our appeals for whenever that spirit is most alive. Customization, my friends, is key.