What We Talk About When We Talk About Year-End Appeals

By Nancy Quinn

December 1, 2015, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

LET’S LOOK AT end-of-year donor appeals the way a journalist would: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The “why” should be pretty obvious: the tax year is coming to an end on December 31, and for many individuals, the tax deductibility of charitable donations is a prime motivating factor. Would their gift be any less tax deductible on January 1, or for that matter, when you were in need of cash for a deposit on your performance venue sometime last June? No, but let’s just say it’s run-of-the-mill financial advice to hold on to your money for as long as you can and still maximize tax benefits. Thus, lots of checks get written to nonprofits the last month, the last week, and even the last day of the year.

Which brings us to the “when” of end-ofyear appeals, which also seems obvious, but there’s more to timing than meets the eye. As you read this, you may be inspired to get an appeal out, the one you meant to get started in October, but now here it is December and you’re going to have to scramble to get a letter written, and you may need to get more remittance envelopes printed, oy! Here’s what you do: write the letter, print the envelopes on a rush if you have to, and mark your calendar for August 1, 2016 to start your next year-end appeal. No kidding! It’s a big election year, and you’re going to want to drop your appeal letter the day after the election (to avoid getting lost in that particular mountain of direct mail), and no later than Thanksgiving. Then you’ll spend all of December following up with email blasts and social media posts, right up until December 31, when you’re entitled to send and post “There’s still time!” messages several times during the day. Sounds crazy, but that’s the “how” of year-end fundraising.

So let’s pretend it’s August 1: why do you need all that time for a silly letter that you typically just update with news from the past year, takes an hour, two max, right? No, and here is the “what” of year-end fundraising. This appeal that you’re crafting will be up against appeals for every kind of human need that there is: food for children, shelter for families, physical and mental health, clean air and water, public education, you name it. Now, you know and I know that the world we live in would be greatly, even tragically, diminished without art; that dance, in particular, brings with it a set of benefits and values that we all need; that, in fact, dance supports classroom education and wellness and empowerment, besides being provocative and/or entertaining and/or brings joy to people who desire provocation, entertainment, or joy.

We know all this, but we can’t—in the face of that long list of human needs—appeal to donors just by saying: please support my dance company because we have a show coming up and we want to pay our dancers whom we love and besides art is great. The “what” of a year-end appeal is all about impact: our education program serves thousands of children who don’t have art in their schools, our free performances bring dance to individuals who otherwise lack access to art and culture, our collaborations with other organizations are allowing us to bring dance into neighborhoods that are deeply underserved. And—here’s the ask—none of this is conceivable much less possible without the generous support of “people like you.” A year-end appeal should not be one of those dreaded holiday letters, outlining every vacation you had and every surgery you endured in the past year. It must tell a story that describes the impact that your company is having on your community: the student that got into college, the senior citizen that danced in her wheelchair, the words that a particular audience member used to describe your performance. It is an important message, and you need to start on your year-end appeal in August so that you have time to get it right.

On to the “who.” Because you’re up against the long list of human needs at year-end, don’t even think about sending your letter to anyone who doesn’t already know you: keep your list to current and previous donors, subscribers, and ticketbuyers. Segmenting the list is always a good idea: begin with a basic letter that tells your impact story and includes the “people like you” ask, and then tweak the text for each category of prospective donor. Depending on the size of your list, personalizing is best, just be sure you’ve got the salutation right–using a formal salutation for someone with whom you are on a first-name basis is going to get your letter off to a bad start. Also, make sure that each letter has a handwritten note from a dancer, a Board member, or a member of the staff; this task can be easily accomplished through a little weeknight mailing party, with refreshments. Draft each of the email blasts and social media posts well in advance, and change your message up a bit each time. And if you have “major” donors (however you define that for your organization) who haven’t given yet this year, don’t send a letter at all: make a phone call, meet for coffee, thank them for their past generosity and tell them your impact story in person.

“Where” do we go from here? Keep thanking everyone, over and over. Count your blessings and your total contributions. Come January 1, if you’ve done things right, if you got your story out to the right people at the right time, you will have raised more funds for your company than you did the year before. And if you do that year after year, you will find that you are sustaining your organization, and have the capacity to continue bringing the wonder, the beauty, the expressiveness, the meaning, the energy, and the transformative power of dance to your community for years to come. And (with apologies to the late Raymond Carver) that’s what we talk about when we talk about year-end appeals.

Not Into The Whole Hard Copy Letter Solicitation Gambit?

Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the fundraising world agrees that reaching out to your prospective donors via letter and email (and social media) at year-end is the ideal – for one thing, the letter (and the remittance advice) can be put in a pile for check-writing when the time comes. But we also understand that some organizations, for financial or practical reasons (e.g., all you have are email addresses), can’t or don’t want to send out paper solicitations. In this case, starting right after Thanksgiving, send out a year-end email solicitation to your entire email list, telling your impact story, and concluding with the “people like you” ask. Place your “Donate Now” button at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom of the piece. Include an image and be mindful about formatting – you need to get the “grabber” part of your story on the opening screen without scrolling. It’s best to make the piece look and feel like a letter, not a newsletter or an advertisement. A week later, change up your message slightly (e.g., different subject line), and send a second email to all of those on your list who did not open the first email (this is possible with list servers such as Constant Contact). Depending on your tolerance for repeat solicitations, you can mail a third message to the entire list, and then send a fourth to those who didn’t open the third message, etc. Keep doing this (and keep posting on social media) until the big “There’s still time!” push on December 31.

NANCY E. QUINN is a Bay Area fundraising consultant whose 27-year practice has focused on nonprofit arts organizations in all disciplines.