December 2012 is around the corner, and despite the bogus rumors you may have heard about some Mayan-prophesied apocalypse, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, if you’re a fundraiser you ought to know it’s the most wonderful time of the year for your cause!

But let’s be real: It can be pretty stressful. A LOT hinges on the success of year-end fundraising campaigns. 52% of organizations Guidestar surveyed in 2010 received a significant chunk of their funding during the last quarter of the calendar year – 36% received between 25-49% of their contributions, and another 16% received 50% of gifts or more. And the holidays are already hectic enough without that added pressure.

I used to let it get to me. I’d sit there, tethered to my laptop, fanatically checking and rechecking donation totals and glancing wistfully at my friends and family as they scoped out the best place to watch the fireworks come midnight. Sound familiar? Even when you’ve planned for every contingency – making sure emails launch on time and to the right people, dotted every “i” and crossed every tax-deductible “t” – it can still be a nail-biter.

But I have seen the promised land of a successful, effective and – dare I say it? – stress-free end-of-year fundraising program. So set aside your dire predictions and read on. All you’ve got to do is ward off the four horsemen of the e-pocalypse: Procrastination, Weak Writing, Shiny Object Syndrome, and Shyness.

Horseman #1: Procrastination. Putting off planning? That’s a recipe for a holiday meltdown, and not the tasty lava cake dessert kind. Everything feels overwhelming when you fundraise on the fly without a master plan, so map out your strategy now – what you’re sending/posting to who when – and trust me, you’ll breathe easier later. Break out your desk planners and Google Calendars, folks, let’s hammer this out right now – starting with your schedule from here through the first week of January:

  1. October: Grow your email list with advocacy and engagement campaigns now so you have plenty of new names ripe for conversion during what’s likely your strongest fundraising season.
  2. November: Give thanks for your donors. Think thank you e-cards with photos of your staff, cute kids, or baby animals. Show (don’t tell) your donor the impact they are having.
  3. Early December: Email appeals generally don’t perform quite as well earlier in the month, so use the first couple weeks to run some tests so you can optimize your emails and donation forms. That way you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck later in the month when it really counts. Think gift string testing (standard string vs. write-in field?), subject lines, from-lines, video vs. no video, e-card vs. letter format, etc. Need some other ideas? Try some of these simple tests.
  4. Late December: It’s game time. Ask to your heart’s content! Plan on sending somewhere between 3 and 6 fundraising emails throughout the month, depending on your list size and how much you segment your audience. Concentrate your appeals in the last 2 weeks of the year. And never – I repeat never – neglect December 31, even if it falls on a weekend. Urgency trumps everything here, and you want to make the most of those final hours before that tax-deductible deadline.
  5. January: Steward your donors – and your whole file for that matter, it’ll be good cultivation – and close the loop. “OMG YOU GUYS WE DID IT THANKYOUSOMUCH.” Stick to that level of excitement and gratitude, only more coherent. And fewer caps.

Share your calendar with folks outside your department and make sure they know that fundraising messaging takes priority come December. Give yourself and your team hard deadlines that won’t have you doing the dreaded last-minute CRM shuffle. And don’t wait to hit send manually the day an appeal goes out. Figure out how you’ll be targeting your audience segments and schedule your emails in advance so you’re not at the end of the queue when every other organization on the software platform is launching to their supporters.

Horseman #2: Weak writing. Even the best-laid year-end campaign plans can fall flat if you settle for sucky appeals. I’m talking about stilted, boring, wonky, organization-centric writing. You do inspiring work – your writing should be inspiring too. December is an emotional time for a lot of people. It’s often when we reflect on our place in the world, and resolve to make it a better place in ways big and small. Your supporters are likely in the giving spirit, and you don’t want to squander the chance to really connect with them on a personal level.

The stuff that works year-round – well, that works in December, too. (And if you need a quick refresher on those best practices, check out But there are a few tactics that have a much bigger impact when the end of the year approaches.

  1. Speak from the heart with hopeful and inspiring emotions. This isn’t the time to tell us the sky is falling. It’s a time to use “I” statements and share gripping, heartstrings-tugging stories about how the work they’ve made possible has changed lives.
  2. Remind your supporters that they are heroes. Their generosity saves lives and changes the world. Tell them (better yet, show them) how they’ve accomplished extraordinary things for people, animals, the planet, and how next year will be even bigger for the cause they care about.
  3. Stick with an institutional campaign theme. Focus on your mission, what you accomplished this year, and what you’ll achieve together in the new year. Make a clear case for giving and keep your message simple and direct, without too many distracting bells and whistles.
  4. Tax-deductibility. Nobody’s much interested in hearing about this in August – but including these two words in a December appeal can create a measurable boost (just make sure to repeat it a few times to make sure the message sinks in).

Horseman #3: Shiny Object Syndrome. Did a strategy work for you last year (and do you have the data to prove it)? Hey if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t fall victim to shiny object syndrome and reach for unproven gimmicks when you have a tried and true formula that works for your audience. Every organization is different, so keep your own internal benchmarks to gauge what’s worked for you in the past. Not sure what works yet? You can see a few things that worked for other organizations in in 2011 and 2010.

Horseman #4: Shyness. Now’s not the time to be a shrinking violet. If you want your supporters to give, you’ll have to ask. And ask again. And again. Because repetition works, and what works is repetition. Do I need to repeat that?

There’s a lot of noise out there this time of year, so on top of having a solid strategy and irresistible creative, you’ll need to be loud if you want to be heard over the din of countless other solicitations. Resend appeals to non-donors. Ask donors to make a second gift. Or become a monthly donor. Ask monthly donors to upgrade. Ask major donors to make a special stretch gift. You might also try sending your final message twice on the 31st – one at 6am and one at 3pm – to make sure everyone sees it, no matter when they open their email. Also make sure you’re asking everywhere else online: homepage promotion, pop-up lightbox, social media, advertising and mobile.

Avoid the four horsemen of the e-pocalypse and you’ll avoid a fundraising cataclysm later, trust me. I can just see you now… popping corks while you ring in the new year, watching those gifts roll in, confident that you did everything you could to get the support you’ll need to keep changing the world in 2013. Here’s to being so cool and collected about your fundraising campaign that you actually get to enjoy being home for the holidays!