Year-End Fundraising: 2018 Practical Lessons Learned

Fundraising Lessons Learned

Your 2019 calendar is probably already jam-packed with fundraising opportunities. Because fundraising is so important to your nonprofit organization, this absolutely makes sense! But have you taken the time to review your fundraising calendar from 2018, specifically the last few months?

There’s so much hustle and bustle at the end of the year that, once it’s over, we’re ready to dive straight into our next calendar without ever looking back. But taking a couple minutes to review last year’s calendar and making adjustments based on what you learned can do a world of good for your organization. 

When you start going through your calendar from last year, ask yourself:

  • Did our fundraising and stewardship events occur as scheduled?
  • Did we have enough time to plan all of our fundraising campaigns?
  • Did we hit our fundraising benchmark goals throughout the year?
  • Were there any particularly slow or productive seasons I can take better advantage of?

Focusing a little bit more in-depth on the last question, how did the end of 2018 look for your organization? Did you have an effective plan to approach year-end fundraising, or were you overwhelmed by the season? 

In the last couple months, you probably had some realizations, and you’re not the only one. We’ve pulled together some of the top lessons that nonprofits found while checking off their to-do lists toward the end of 2018. Let’s dive in and learn how to apply these lessons to make 2019 the best year yet! 

October

October

October was the last full month before holiday crunch time really took off. During November and December, lots of nonprofits regret not taking full advantage of October and the other “easy” months of the year. Learn from this experience and make sure you reach your full potential in months like October.

On your calendar, be aware of the months of the year that are the least busy for your organization. Then, schedule your strategy check-in dates during these months. This is the time when you can reevaluate how well your strategy is working and make changes that will best set you back on track. 

While you can’t easily change hard deadlines like your stewardship events or board and budget meetings, your soft deadlines are flexible and can be adjusted slightly for your needs. These deadlines include things like scheduled donor communications or sponsorship finalizations. 

When you’re evaluating various aspects of your schedule, consider the timeline for the following activities:

  • How long did the planning process take for various fundraising efforts? Did you have any initiatives that were of comparable size this year or in previous years? Check the average length of comparable campaigns to make sure you plan accordingly for future ones.
  • Did you hire a capital campaign consultant or a general nonprofit consultant to help you with your fundraising? How long did the hiring process take? Did they help plan and adjust a content calendar for your capital campaign or other major fundraising campaign?
  • Did you hit all of your hard deadlines with ease? Did you have ample time to plan for important initiatives, meetings and milestones? Or were you rushing at the last minute? 

If you will be in the midst of a major fundraising campaign during your strategy check-in, remember to consider that campaign both separately as well as a part of your overarching fundraising strategy. This evaluation may require you to relearn a bit. Go back and refresh your memory with this capital campaign guide by Aly Sterling Philanthropy. 

A couple reminders throughout the year will help your nonprofit stay on track. If you don’t like October for that benchmark, that’s okay. Pick the month that will work best for you as a check-in point. 

Novemeber

November

The month of November is when the year’s end really kicks into high gear. As soon as Halloween ends, holiday lights and decorations start appearing around your community. But your nonprofit probably wasn’t ready to break out the garland during November 2018. You were probably preparing for #GivingTuesday. 

While this may not be the biggest money-maker for a lot of organizations, #GivingTuesday and other similar holidays are great opportunities to recruit new donors. Therefore, in your upcoming strategy, be sure to dedicate these types of holidays to recruitment. 

Many nonprofits focus heavily on their recruitment strategies year-round. However, it’s always smart to maximize your use of existing events and specific holidays like #GivingTuesday to attract and steward donors for future major giving. 

Therefore, when you’re looking through your calendar, identify the opportunities for recruitment holidays such as #GivingTuesday, annual days of giving or even your nonprofit’s birthday. Then, you can plan well-managed campaigns to dedicate these days for recruitment. 

Identifying and setting aside these holidays (and some time leading up to them) will ensure you’re dedicating appropriate time and effort to cold outreach for small- to mid-level donors. After the holiday is over, you can steward them with:

  • Personalized mail. Whether digital emails or hand-written letters, show these donors you care and want to build a relationship with them. 
  • Event invitations. Let these donors know when your organization is hosting events or networking opportunities and invite them as a newly-recognized supporter.
  • Feedback invitations. Surveys and other sources of feedback are a great way to show your donors you’re taking their opinions into consideration and care about what they think. 

Recruitment and stewardship are just two of the steps in the fundraising process. The third step is landing the donation. Draft your fundraising letters ahead of time so when it’s time to ask for another donation from your new supporters, you’re ready!

Because major gifts are nonprofits’ primary source of revenue, and these major gifts tend to come from past donors, stewarding these donors is critically important. But that doesn’t mean that recruitment should have no place in your schedule! #GivingTuesday and other holidays give your organization a set schedule for recruitment so you are organized and focused throughout the year. 

December

December

The month of December is often quite hectic, especially with the holidays. Somehow, we often forget that December is a time when many staff members take time to go home and be with their families. You need to plan ahead for that.

From December, one of the major takeaways nonprofits should remember is the importance of prioritizing. This is especially true when it comes to trying to secure a major gift. 

Nonprofits tend to scramble throughout the month of December to convert earlier conversations into major gifts. When asked the right way, donors tend to feel generous during this month because of the holidays. Plus, they have tax deductions to worry about come the new year. But if your nonprofit doesn’t have an organized method of prioritizing major gift conversations, you could be missing some important opportunities. 

When you’re establishing priorities, consider the following elements:

  • How long the conversation has been going on. How long have you been talking to a particular donor? If the conversation has been going on for some time, it may be the right gift to secure over others from newer recruits.
  • Your impression of donor inclination. How have the conversations been going in the past? If someone seems zealous to give to your organization, keep this in mind when you’re choosing who to convert into a major donor during this short month.
  • A donor’s wealth indicators. Have you decided how much to ask for from each of your prospective donors? Try to secure the highest level donors first to get the most out of your year-end push for donations. 

Setting up a system to consistently update priority conversations will help your organization land more major gift opportunities. Then, at your check-in points throughout the year (as discussed in the first section), you can assess your method for establishing these priorities as part of your fundraising strategy.

For more strategies about soliciting major gifts and getting them in before the end of the year, check out Softrek’s guide to major giving. 


Although 2018 has come and gone, we can still learn valuable lessons from our year-end fundraising approach. Make your fundraising calendar even better for 2019 by putting these lessons into practice!

About the Author

Aly Sterling

Aly Sterling's decision to start her own consulting business in 2007 was driven by her belief in leadership as the single most important factor in organizational success, and her determination to work with multiple causes at one time to scale societal change. Today Aly manages the direction and growth of her firm while advising clients on the organizational challenges that affect their sustainability and mission success. Most recently, she partnered with a legal aid foundation in Los Angeles to lead their first-ever capital campaign for a new building headquarters, and currently serves as fundraising counsel to a prominent healthcare system managing multiple regional and national campaigns raising more than $85 million. In 2015, Aly led her firm to membership in The Giving Institute, an exclusive and highly respected professional organization for nonprofit consultants. The Giving Institute is best known for publishing the annual Giving USA report. Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute. Her workshops and keynote presentations have been featured at the meetings of the National School Foundation Association, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, Boys & Girls Clubs of America and a variety of foundations around the country. Today, Aly serves on the board of trustees for St. Ursula Academy and the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, as well as the advisory board for the University of Toledo Family Business Center. Aly is past president of the Northwest Ohio chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and has served on the boards of Leadership Toledo, David’s House and Advocating Opportunity, an organization formed to stop human trafficking.

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