The champagne has popped. The ball dropped. Out with the old and in with the new. 2023 (finally) comes to a close, and for many marketers and fundraisers, so does the season of continuous refreshes to that results dashboard. 

Now that the emails are sent and ad campaigns finished, the biggest question is still an open one. Did 2023 end with a bang or a whimper?  To answer that, we’ve collected preliminary results from across Blue State clients. Even while the donations are being reconciled and counted, we can already see a few juicy details and insights appearing. So let’s dive in and look at some learnings from campaigns that just ended. 

And, in the spirit of the new year, let’s set some resolutions for the year ahead.

A better than expected December 

It was easy to feel anxious about end-of-year campaigns this year. In June, Giving USA had reported that 2022 had seen the steepest decline in giving in the report’s history. Earlier, the Fundraising Effectiveness Project had reported a 10% decline in donors in Q4 of 2022 with significant challenges to both new and repeat cohorts. There was a fear that individual giving could be headed for a cliff.

Some of the forecasted gloom was unfounded.  Across Blue State clients, digital revenue during December was a mixed bag, but ultimately ended flat versus 2022 (+1.4% median).  Focusing on the final stretch timeframe (12/26 – 12/31), organizations saw even better results with +3.0% annual growth. 

For some organizations, not only were results better than expected, they were historic.  A number of clients in the international relief sector saw some of the best December results on record with annual growth ranging from 20 – 117% growth. Since October, Blue State helped one international NGO increase digital revenue by $21 million versus the prior year.

A case of bad timing for December 30th

The two biggest fundraising days of the year are December 30th and 31st. Unfortunately, they fell on a weekend this year and historically, fundraising is stronger on weekdays than weekends. Thus, many expected that the final fundraising push could be rough — and it was. Across clients in the sample, the 30th was significantly down year-over year (-19% on average, -16% median).

Many clients adopted a shift in their end of year strategies by moving the number of appeals forward in the calendar, leading to funds raised on December 29th growing by 25% on average. While the final stretch of fundraising will take place across a Monday and Tuesday in 2024, organizations should remember the trough of December 30, 2023 and schedule their future campaigns accordingly. 

Running out of gas on the 31st

The last day of the year is also the most important day of the fundraising year with some organizations raising up to 20% of funds in a single day. So, what can we say about December 31st? 

Well… it was better than the 30th and only down a little compared to 2022 (-5% median year-over-year change). However, when you consider December 31, 2022 was also on a weekend and down from the previous year, it was overall – weak. 

Interestingly, many organizations actually exceeded 2022 results in December, it is fair to wonder if giving habits have changed with donors not waiting as frequently till the last second.

Email isn’t going anywhere

It was fair to expect less from email this year; a Q2 survey from Nonprofit Alliance survey found more than 40% of fundraisers were reducing their FY23 budgets and increasing the volume of fundraising emails. A majority of organizations saw December email revenue grow versus 2022 (+10% avg, +7% median), but growth wasn’t just powered by more email volume. 

For one Blue State client, December email revenue improved through cross-channel campaign planning and an actual decrease in email volume. For another client, traditional fundraising and match solicitations were deprioritized in favor of long-form newsletters and impact reports that highlighted the organization’s response to events in the news.  For a third organization, tight synchronization between SMS and email led to 19% revenue growth from previous donors. 

Search exploded

One trend we saw across clients — whether December revenue grew or fell — search engines were key to success. Even for organizations that saw a drop in overall digital revenue, revenue from paid search advertising grew. From our sample of clients, the median year-over-year growth in search revenue was +29%. 

Why donations referred by search grew by so much is an area to explore further. Was it donors looking for a path outside of text message and inbox inundation? Was it the continued growth of mobile commerce (and giving) with its search-first user journeys? Was it the fracturing of the social media landscape leaving fewer donors exposed to new causes?  

Whatever the reason, new and existing donors turned to search when they were ready to give.  Looking ahead to 2024, this is an excellent moment to develop multi-touch attribution models and integrated campaign plans across email, SMS, advertising, and social media.

Resolutions for 2024

So what does all this mean?  What should fundraisers and marketers know as they look ahead to the new year with a 2023 now in the rearview mirror? We could ask ChatGPT of course, but who needs a misinformed hallucination? At Blue State, we rely on human insights and real research to inform our planning.  Based on our initial reports, here are three takeaways for the coming year:

1) Plan holistically across channels.

As evidenced by the increase in paid search during the 2023 end-of-year campaigns, donors cannot be limited (or understood) via a single channel. There aren’t social donors, mail donors, email donors or web donors. There are donors that consume stories and media across channels. Smart, cross-channel campaigns are the key to maximizing the value and loyalty of these individuals. Organizations that grew the most in December were those that integrated all campaign planning and creative development through a single process.

2) Rethink last click attribution.

To take advantage of integrated campaigns, it isn’t enough to just share creative and messaging online and offline. As donors are influenced and inspired by different media and channels, organizations need to have a better understanding of the investments and returns of these different approaches.  Multi-touch attribution has long been standard in corporate marketing and advertising and is long overdue for nonprofits.

3) Optimize your website for revenue growth.

Your website is a multi-million dollar product and should be optimized continuously. When was the last time you celebrated page load times or performance improvements to your web server? One Blue State client invested in website optimization for both its donation forms and page load times and saw millions of dollars in incremental revenue this December. Ahead of the final stretch, we helped them reduce page load times by 55% and saw a 18% increase in website revenue. 

And that’s not all. With cost to reach audiences on advertising increasing and cookies set to disappear in the future, your website remains perhaps the most important place to test and learn about your audiences – what makes them click and of course convert. Working with organizations over the last year we have seen such experiments drive revenue two- or threefold with audiences.