The year-end fundraising season is underway, and Giving Tuesday has passed. What did we see this year, and what are some things you can do right now to try to bring in a bit more revenue before December 31st? 

Last year’s Giving Tuesday was strong, and it was a leading indicator of the kind of year-end season 2020 delivered overall: High revenue and average gifts (record-breaking for some organizations), strong efficiency (the measure of dollars raised per thousand impressions), and excellent paid media performance.

Giving Tuesday is never exactly the same from year to year, so as the returns come in, we keep our eye on two things:

  • How are we doing? How are the basic statistics trending for the programs we watch? Is total giving up or down? Are donors more or less likely to give compared to last year? This helps us set more precise expectations for the rest of the year-end season.
  • What can we learn? Are there any cross-program learnings we (and you) might put to use right away? What channels and tactics are outperforming the others? Are particular ask strategies working better than usual this year? Do certain messages resonate better than others, in light of what’s happened in our donors’ lives in 2021 and what they anticipate in 2022? 

Here are some thoughts about what we expected, what we saw, and what it might mean for your program.

What we expect for EOY 2021

When many of us were making the first plans for our 2021 year-end fundraising programs in late summer, we anticipated Americans would be in a generally hopeful mood this season and be inclined to contribute to the causes they care about. And even with the most recent developments, including the November surprise of the Omicron COVID variant, we still think so. Giving Tuesday is this season’s first test of our prediction.

Throughout last year’s giving season, COVID cases were trending up steeply in the United States, which established a sense of urgency that drove generosity for some organizations. Now, case counts are rising again, which may have a similar impact. But this year concerns about COVID in the U.S. are accompanied by a more hopeful state of mind for other reasons, both because the vaccines have been widely rolled out here and in other wealthy nations, and because many American households have benefited this year from a generally strong economy.

All things considered, we expect a strong American giving season in 2021.

What did we see, and what does it mean?

There’s detailed analysis still to be done, but there are a few things we already know we can anticipate during this year’s December giving season:

1. Americans are indeed giving generously again this year.

This Giving Tuesday, most of our programs performed well overall, on par with 2020 or better. In a few of our large programs where we have multi-year metrics to drive projections, donor count was down slightly over last year, but increases in the average gift yielded an overall revenue lift. We’re not concerned about a minor dip in participation, which often fluctuates slightly around the trend line from campaign to campaign, but it does point to the ever-growing importance of those mid-level and major donors.

While we’ll take the win for the strategic and tactical choices we and our clients made, there is also definitely an underlying spirit of giving in the air.

A generally favorable climate means you shouldn’t hold back:

  • If you have plans to slow down or even go totally quiet before the very end of the year (roughly Thursday, December 23, through Wednesday, December 29), don’t do it this year! If you have the team capacity, consider adding in one or two more appeals to extend “final stretch” and get an incremental boost of revenue.
  • Similarly, if you’re waiting to start your appeals till after mid-month, see if you can scramble and get one or two early appeals out in the next week or so. (We know, you’re busy. But there’s revenue on the line. Pro tip: Clone and resend a high performer from last year!) 
  • If you’re suppressing certain segments because of marginal responsiveness, consider being a bit more lenient, and adding back the ones that are closest to the cutoff. And if there are segments you suppress because they gave too recently (e.g., Giving Tuesday donors whom you suppress until January), or if there are segments of sustainers or high-level donors you typically don’t ask for one-time gifts, you might consider adding them back in for a special appeal…or a few. Remember to always acknowledge their generosity and impact.
  • Consider a short reactivation series in mid-December just to see what it will do in a positive environment like this.

2. The conventional tactics are working.

Overly aggressive email fundraising tactics have made news in 2021, and some programs are seeing a backlash, as donors lose interest or trust. So far, the tried and true tactics that continue to uphold the respect of donors are continuing to prove effective. These include matching gifts to drive conversion, goals and deadlines to drive urgency, homepage takeovers to drive campaign awareness, and primers and kickers before and after your substantive emails. 

Relying on proven approaches that have historically worked with your list isn’t something we’d suggest steering away from this year. Just make sure you look critically at the tactic to ensure it’s not compromising the long-term donor relationship in the hopes of making short-term fundraising gains. For more on that topic, read up on my colleague Gabby Greenberg’s recent thoughts on this topic here. 

3. Did you test anything? Either way, look for the learnings!

When looking at your Giving Week results, you should take a close look at which creative performed the best, and which didn’t do as well as you hoped. Now think about what pivots you’d like to make for the rest of December – which tactics or messaging do you want to throw out, which do you want to test, and which do you want to double down on?  

Let’s say you found that average gift is actually down compared to last year. That’s a good area of focus for you as you think about how to adjust your December program…perhaps you test different percentages of one’s highest previous contribution, or you experiment with the ask amounts on the donation forms.  (And whatever you’re planning to test to raise incremental revenue, test it early enough that you have time to roll it out more widely in the final days of December.) 

4. A small group of donors deserves a big slice of your attention.

One trend we’ve seen emerge, including over Giving Week, is a shift towards lower gift count, but higher overall revenue – indicating that we may have fewer donors, but they’re at higher amounts.We’ve always known high-dollar donors were a small but mighty (and often overlooked) segment of your supporter base, and there appears to be even more reason to invest in your mid-level program, particularly if you’re struggling to acquire new donors in an increasingly less friendly paid media environment. It’s not too late to prioritize this group in the rest of your year-end plans:

  • Give your mid-level donors a tailored experience. If possible, every communication with your mid-level donors should acknowledge their relationship with your organization and help them understand the impact they have on your mission. You can accomplish this through conditional content, but you may also want to develop one or two special updates just for them. Generally, they respond well when you go deep into the work and how you carry out your mission. 
  • Invest in mid-level donor upgrades. It’s never a bad time to pull out donors you think are upgradable and give them some extra-special treatment. If you have donor levels, ask your prospects to pitch in $X.00 to reach Y status before the Dec. 31 deadline. Make them feel like your matching gift offer is exclusive, just for them. If you have merchandise on hand, you might offer premiums to donors (say, $500-1000) for an upgrade to a higher tier. We are cautious with premiums for acquisition (because the donors they acquire may not perform) and for routine appeals use (because they make the relationship more transactional), but they can really work for you when used judiciously — as long as your treatment of these people next year, after they’ve upgraded, reinforces their feeling of being valued. 
  • Give your mid-level donors a captivating surround sound. Allocate a portion of your paid media budget to priming your mid-level donors with impact stories and awareness ads that keep your organization top of mind as they consider whether and where to invest their dollars this year. Some of your best donors will give every year, no matter what, but some need to be courted or given a gentle nudge. 
  • Offer other charitable giving vehicles. If you’re an organization that already has DAF or IRA accounts, prioritize investment in this space. You can add a note to email footers for high net worth individuals, add it to your website navigation, and surface it in your search results.

Looking toward 2022

Once you get through the hard work of the year-end season, make sure to keep up the momentum in January. It’s worth investing a little time this month in making sure you’ve made clear plans for January acknowledgment and report back messaging. Give some extra love in January to mid-level and high-level donors, recurring donors, and anyone who came on board from Giving Tuesday through the end of the year, because those people deserve special attention. But even for your supporter community at large, January – when people are setting their new habits for the year – is an opportunity to make sure that one of those habits is keeping you, and your mission, in mind.

We wish you a strong December, and we hope your results, and the donor energy your programming generates, helps you roll into 2022 with a sense of purpose and with a supporter community that’s ready for all the good work you plan to do next year!