The Ultimate Guide to Year-End Giving

Fundraising October 16, 2020

Tatiana Morand

By Tatiana Morand

The holidays are fast approaching, which means ‘tis the season... for nonprofits to launch their year-end giving campaigns.

Why is this season so important?


Because the holidays aren’t just a time for people to exchange presents. 


Half of all nonprofits receive the majority of their annual donations during the last three months of the year – with 31% of those donations happening in December. 

“It’s a time of year when people want to give to charity,” says Fiona Bedlington, Senior Development Officer, Annual and Legacy Giving at Centennial College in Toronto. “To leverage this opportunity effectively, organizations need to plan well in advance and deliver an authentic strategy driven by stories and data.” 

Sounds good, but how do you get started? 

Well, you’ve come to the right place! 

In this ultimate guide to year-end giving, we outline the exact steps you need to follow to plan and launch an effective year-end campaign. 

You’ll also find examples of successful year-end campaigns to help inspire you. 

Let’s get started! 

In this guide:


How to Plan a Successful Year-End Giving Campaign

Successful year-end giving campaigns require a lot of planning, organizing and teamwork – before, during and after launch. 

That’s why our guide breaks down everything you need to know to navigate through each phase of your campaign. 


The most successful year-end campaigns all have one major thing in common: lots of planning. 

Of course, that requires the one thing many nonprofits don’t have: lots of time. 

But investing a bit of energy in planning your year-end campaign is time well spent. 

And doing so well in advance of the fourth quarter (see our advice on timelines below) will give you plenty of time to iron out the wrinkles in your plan and get ahead of any unforeseen issues that may arise.  

1. Start Planning Early 

So, when should you get started? 

“Ideally, you’ll start thinking about year-end giving in January,” says Bedlington. “You don’t want to bump up against other campaigns and priorities so it’s best to plan both your messaging and your tactics as early as possible.”

Here’s a sample timeline: 


  • Sit down with your team, board of directors and any other relevant stakeholders to compare notes about the year’s campaigns and communications priorities. 

  • Think about your major fundraising needs and whether there’s one you feel would resonate with your community around the holiday period. Hint: Fundraising needs that perform best during the holidays tend to appeal to emotions and have a strong storytelling element. 

  • Start thinking about the key elements of your year-end campaign and identify what budget is available to you. 



  • Confirm your approach: identify a specific fundraising need to frame your communications around and a story you could leverage to bring that need to life.

  • Start planning out the specific tactics of your year-end campaign and put dates next to them. 

  • Make sure your entire team is in the loop on your plans to ensure your strategy won’t interfere with other campaigns or events being planned. 

  • Get all of the necessary approvals. 


  • Develop your communications. Write your content for email, social media or other channels, shoot your videos or start booking your events. 

  • Leave as much time as possible for approvals, because soon it’ll be… 


  • It’s launch time! Year-end giving campaigns can start as early as October. The exact timing depends on the channels you’ve chosen: if your campaign has a direct mail element, October is the ideal time to start talking about holiday giving. If you’re going fully digital, you can wait until mid-November – at the latest. 

November and December: 

  • You’re in full year-end fundraising mode now! Your campaign should be well underway across your chosen channels. 

  • Don’t forget about that last-minute push for gifts: December 31 is the tax deadline for making charitable gifts, so schedule a final reminder to go out that very day to catch all those procrastinators. 

Planning well in advance is sometimes easier said than done. If you’re just starting to think about year-end giving now, don’t panic! Check out the rest of our pre-launch steps to get started. 

And before you dive into the planning process, remember that you’ll need to stay organized.  

Having everything written down somewhere – a shared Excel sheet or Word doc will do the trick – ensures everyone stays accountable. Remember to include all of your team’s deadlines and who’s responsible for what. 

2. Choose Your Approach

You know when to start planning your year-end campaign… but what exactly are you going to do? 

Do you want to host a fundraising event?

Launch a crowdfunding campaign

Create a series of emails to send to donors? 

Or maybe you want to do all of the above?


When considering your approach, it can help to think about how your donors usually like to hear from you. 

Do your donors prefer to give by direct mail? Are they a younger crowd that may prefer digital outreach? Or is an event usually the best way to get them excited about giving? 

Whatever approach you choose, consider how you want to focus your year-end fundraising efforts and then formalize a strategy around it.

Bedlington recommends using as many channels available to you as possible for maximum impact. 

“Using a combination of direct mail, a series of emails, phone calls, social media and even an event will help create a consistent message and call to action no matter how your community is interacting with your organization,” she says. 

And what about Giving Tuesday?

“I always recommend incorporating Giving Tuesday into any year-end fundraising strategy,” says Bedlington. “It creates a sense of urgency around giving that you don’t want to miss. But you can’t rely entirely on Giving Tuesday – it’s only one part of the whole plan.” 

Whichever strategy you choose, just make sure you have a clear way to measure its success. 

To get those creative juices flowing, here are three examples of unique but simple and effective campaigns. 

The Alzheimer Society’s Memory Tree

The Alzheimer Society’s Memory Tree campaign asks community members to donate in order to add a light to the “Memory Tree” — a beautiful virtual Christmas tree that symbolizes their collective support for those affected by Alzheimer’s. 

This campaign is simple, budget-friendly and effective. Donors love knowing they contributed to “lighting” the tree while making an impact for a cause they care about. 

The campaign leveraged multiple channels, sharing messages via email, social media, video and in-person activations (when such things were allowed!). 

The Alzheimer Society 

Sistema Toronto’s Holiday Gifts 

For its 2019 holiday campaign, Sistema Toronto — a nonprofit that provides free after-school music programming for kids from underserved neighbourhoods — used a popular approach that helps donors understand the various needs their money will support. 

Letting donors choose from a range of symbolic “gift” options — a violin or viola could be purchased with a gift of $500, for example — this campaign draws a direct connection between the amount of an individual’s donation and the impact they can help to create. 

It’s also easy to do and cost-effective. 

Sistema Toronto 

Christie Refugee Welcome Centre’s Advent Calendar Companion

One of the most unique holiday campaigns we’ve seen is Christie Refugee Welcome Centre’s advent calendar companion. 

This simple digital image asks donors to consider adding certain amounts of money — mere cents — to their year-end gifts based on the things they may have that those accessing services at the Centre do not. 

For example, donors are asked to give an additional five cents for each room in their home or 10 cents for each box of cereal in their cupboard. 

This campaign is so effective because it offers a stark look into the basic privileges not afforded to the most vulnerable members of our community — creating a powerful emotional connection between donors and the cause they’re supporting. 

Although this campaign asks for tiny increments of money, most donors will get the point and donate much larger sums. 

Christie Refugee Welcome Centre

3. Choose a Partner

This isn’t a must, but partnerships can be a great way to boost your year-end fundraising efforts. 

Are there any other organizations — a community organization, another nonprofit and/or a corporation — in your area whose mission compliments yours? Or local businesses you could connect with to raise awareness? 

For example, every year the United Way partners with dozens of corporations to raise funds for local branches.

Even if your organization doesn’t have that kind of name recognition, we’ve seen smaller organizations find success by reaching out to local businesses that share their passion for the community. 

4. Set Your Fundraising Goal 

Of course you want to get donations… but how many? From whom? By when? 

And how will you know if your campaign is successful if you haven’t defined what exactly success is? 

That’s why, in your planning sessions, you should avoid setting vague objectives for your year-end giving campaign. 

And make sure your goals are in direct competition with… yourself. 

“It’s always important to benchmark yourself against yourself,” says Bedlington. “You need to know what your organization has done to predict what you can do.”  

Bedlington recommends looking closely at past campaigns to see what’s worked and what hasn’t, and then setting your fundraising objectives using simple math. 

“It’s always nice to project an increase of at least a couple percent compared to last year,” she says. “If you have a past campaign to benchmark against, estimate how many more people you’ll need to reach based on last year’s average gift to achieve your increased goal.”  

What about if this is the first time you’re launching a year-end campaign? 

In this case, take a look at your revenues for the year and figure out how much you’ll need to raise to meet your overall fundraising goals. 

Keep your final number realistic but make sure your community knows you have real needs that they can help you meet. 

It also helps to tie your campaign to SMART goals: goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely will hold you and your team accountable. 

Here’s an example of a very specific year-end fundraising email from MAZON, an organization devoted to combating hunger. 


This goal met all the SMART standards, allowing them to follow up at the end of their campaign and determine how they found success.

5. Segment, segment, segment – then customize

Donors are bombarded by communications from charities during the year-end period. 

That means you need to find ways to stand out. 

And standing out means customizing your communications for different donor demographics — also called segments — rather than sending out generic messages, which can tank even the most thoughtfully planned year-end giving campaign. 

Your best bet for customized messaging success? 

Segment your donors by using your data to categorize them into groups, then tailor your ask based on what you believe will resonate best with each group. 

Bedlington suggests segmenting based on donor type using the “recency, frequency and monetary” (RFM) model — a tried and true approach that also takes a lot of the guesswork out of the process.

RFM means thinking about how recently your donors have contributed, how often they contribute and at what level. 

“I’d recommend segmenting your list into new, monthly, mid-level, active and lapsed donors,” she says. “You can have up to six segments and maybe even more if you have a really diverse donor community. The more personal the message, the better the response.” 

But how exactly can you customize your messaging for each group? 

“First, however you’re communicating with donors, you should always be specific about how they support your organization,” says Bedlington. “If I’m a monthly donor to an organization and they don’t acknowledge that fact in their communications, it makes me feel like they don’t appreciate my regular donations.” 

But what about how you’re communicating with them? 

This is where leveraging multiple channels becomes really important. 

For mid-level donors, who may have capacity to give larger gifts, a mailed letter directly from the head of your organization — live signature and all — is usually an effective strategy. 

Your new donors might expect to see you in their inbox with photos and videos demonstrating the impact they’re helping to create. 

And maybe your monthly donors, who are among your most engaged donors, like to see what you’re up to through social media. 

To keep things simple, don’t write a brand-new letter or email message for every single donor group. Rather, try customizing the opening lines of the same message to reflect each group’s giving type. 

If you need some help concocting the perfect communication, check out our articles How to Write the Perfect Donation Letter and 5 Year-End Fundraising Emails That Are Sure to Increase Donations. 

6. Find a Match 

Finally, you may want to consider identifying a match opportunity to get your community fired up about your year-end giving campaign. 

A match is when you ask a supporter — this could be a board member or one of your closest, most engaged donors — to commit to “matching” donations up to a certain amount, essentially doubling the impact of every dollar raised. 

Matches are a great way of encouraging people to donate. 

A study by Yale University and the University of Chicago found that a matching opportunity increases the likelihood that an individual will donate by 22%. 

So how do you go about finding your match?

“We always start talking to major gift officers in the middle of the year about whether any matching opportunities may be possible for year-end giving,” says Bedlington. 

She also offers this advice for a simple way to secure a match: “Simply ask a donor who has already given if they would approve of having their gift positioned as a match.” 

Here’s an example of how the David Suzuki Foundation positioned not one, but two matching gifts from different supporters: 

David Suzuki Foundation

Launching Your Campaign

Once you’ve established your strategy and laid out your plan, it’s time to execute. 

To increase the impact of your launch, try implementing some of the following best practices.

1. Extend Your Reach  

Your campaign may be well underway across your chosen channels, but you’ll want to think about how your messaging can reach even further afield. 

Ask your board of directors, staff and volunteers to spread the word about your fundraising campaign. 

Share as many resources, links, key messages and other campaign assets as possible with these groups so they can easily hit the ground running. 

Ask them to reach out directly to their contacts with links to your campaign materials or share your messages on their own social media platforms. 

But don’t stop there — get the media involved! 

Just prior to launch, compile a list of reporters, editors, bloggers and other influencers who work in the same space as your nonprofit, or who are major figures in your community. 

Put together a compelling press release about your campaign and your cause, and hit send. 

The media can help you get the word out about your campaign and encourage their followers (who might not already be following you) to learn more and donate. 

Once your campaign is live, you can start reaching out to them with the details of your campaign and newsworthy key messages that they’ll want to share with their audiences. 

This article is a unique example of successful nonprofit media relations. Not only did the Daily Bread Food Bank secure media coverage for its year-end campaign, it also managed to squeeze in another critical message for readers: don’t stop giving after the holidays are over. 


2. Consider Paid Media  


If you have the resources, consider paying the pros to spread the word about your campaign. 

In addition to earned media (coverage that you get for free through your media relations efforts), radio, TV, social media and other platforms offer ways to share your message with the masses — for a price, of course. 

If it’s within your budget, look at ad platforms that make sense for your message and audience in order to get the most bang for your buck. 

3. Don’t Lose Momentum!  

One of the biggest mistakes we see nonprofits making is a loss of momentum over the course of a campaign. 

It’s easy to get complacent: your campaign kicks off, it’s well received, the feedback is great – and it seems like it may raise those dollars without much more effort from your team. 

This is a complacency trap. Don’t let it catch you! 

As we mentioned at the beginning of this guide, people who donate to charities are bombarded by communications and calls to action all throughout December. If your message suddenly disappears from the mix, you’ll be quickly forgotten about and your numbers will start to fall. 

The easiest way to avoid having this happen to you? 

Build in regular communications at specific points throughout the period of your year-end campaign. 

For example, schedule emails to go out once a week from mid-November until December 31 or a series of social media posts that run for the entire duration of the campaign.  

And make sure to regularly remind your staff, volunteers and supporters to keep spreading the word until your goal has been achieved. 


Your year-end giving campaign isn’t over once you’ve launched and executed it. 

That’s because it’s now time to follow up and share your results.

1. Measure Your Outcomes

Remember those SMART goals you set when planning your year-end campaign? 

It’s time to follow up to ensure all of them were met. 

Host a meeting with all your stakeholders to discuss:

  • Your original objectives

  • Whether they were achieved

  • Where you excelled… 

  • And where you fell short

The most successful nonprofits host this kind of post-mortem because it helps reveal deep insights into what worked and what didn’t.

That way, you can improve your tactics for next year’s campaign (which you’ll want to start planning right about now!).


2. Say Thanks


Everyone likes being appreciated for their hard work… including your donors. 

A quick thank-you note, email or even video goes a long way to building relationships with your supporters and encouraging them to become recurring donors

And of course, don’t forget to send everyone tax receipts for their donations — one of the biggest thanks of all!


For more ways to say thanks, check out this video:


3. Sharing Is Caring

Whether you met, exceeded, or didn’t quite get to your fundraising goal, don’t forget to share the campaign’s results with your followers and donors.

Here are a few quick ideas:

  • Share live results as donations come in via social media. 

  • Display a fundraising thermometer on your website to offer a visual of your year-end goal.

  • Email your results to everyone who participated in the campaign to demonstrate their impact. 

Sharing both how much you’ve raised and the learnings from your campaign will help show your supporters you’re prepared to learn from your mistakes (as well as your strengths) and can do even better next year. 

 Monthly giving banner

So, What Are You Waiting For? 

We’ve told you everything we know about how to create a successful year-end fundraising campaign. 

Bedlington sums it all up nicely: “Use consistent messaging and powerful stories, use your data, leverage as many channels as possible and never fight against yourself — set realistic goals and use what’s available to you,” she says. 

Now it’s up to you: get out there and start raising those funds! 

Let us know in the comments if there’s anything you think we should add to this list — and don’t forget to share how your year-end giving strategy is shaping up! 


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