Making Use of December

There is a popular myth in fundraising circles that December is the best month to raise money. Like most myths, this one has some elements of truth. December is a great month to raise money. In this way, it is strikingly similar to the other 11 months. And some people do make most of their donations in December. Some very wealthy people wait to see which stocks they should donate to get the best tax advantage, and self-employed people whose monthly income varies widely may wait until year’s end to get a clear sense of their financial picture.

However, for every person who waits until the holidays to make major giving decisions, a hundred more have already given away all they are going to give. Very few people make all their charitable gifts in any one time period. And December is in fact a very competitive month during which to raise money, particularly among social service agencies, as the needs of the poor, homeless, and hungry tend to be highlighted at this time of year. From the other direction, the gift-buying frenzy also competes for attention and money.

From an organizational standpoint, December is not a very productive month. Little actual work gets done between December 15 and New Year’s by nonprofits or by the vendors they rely upon. Many people take time off, and for those still working, there are holiday parties and last minute gift-shopping over long lunch hours. Volunteers tend to be busy.

But there are some good season-specific fundraising projects. Anything big, like a year-end major gifts campaign or calendar sale, needs to be planned months ahead, but the following suggestions take less lead time.

Solicit donations as gifts. At the end of November or in the first few days of December, send a letter to all of your current donors suggesting a contribution to your organization as a holiday gift to a friend. Indicate that you will send the gift recipient a nice card in time for the holidays that will identify who gave the gift, describe the important work of your group, and explain whatever benefits the gift brings, such as a newsletter.

Hold an open house. Invite either all your donors or just long-time or major donors. The purpose of an open house is not to raise money, but to thank people and build community among your supporters. It is also provides board members good practice talking to donors without having to ask them for money. If you invite all your donors, also invite funders, press, volunteers, and anyone else who has helped you during the year. Hold it on a weeknight from 5:30 to 8:00 so people can come right from work. If you have T-shirts, books, calendars, or other products, display them for sale as holiday gifts, and provide gift wrapping.

No one should stand alone at an open house. Assign volunteers from your board or staff to circulate and talk with people. These volunteers should meet as many people as they can and learn their names, take notes on what they express interest in, and make sure to follow up. Afterward, everyone who greeted people should get together and make a list of whom they met and what they learned.

You may also get unexpected offers. A guest at one group’s open house, seeing that staff had hung sheets and pieces of cardboard to keep the sun off their computer screens, promptly bought them custom-fitting window shades.

Send holiday cards. The board chair or executive director should send cards to board members, volunteers, staff, and anyone else who has helped out. The cards should thank them for something specific – a foundation program officer going out of her way to help strengthen your proposal, a computer technician not charging to repair your printer when you jammed it with cheap labels. Two scribbled personalized sentences are 1000 percent preferable to a flowery form letter.

Check renewals and pledges. Make sure all your major donors have been asked to renew their gift sometime during the past 11 months. If anyone hasn’t been contacted, figure out why and contact them by December 15th. In particular, be sure to contact anyone who hasn’t paid a pledge.

Prepare a mail appeal. That way, it will be ready to go out in January. January is a very good month for direct mail and the earlier your mail lands, the better your response will be.

Get organized. Clean out your desk, and get caught up on filing, data entry and prospect research. Start the new year with only the files that you need and use.

And finally, take some time off. Forget about work for a few days. Come back after New Year’s rested, refreshed, and ready to raise money in January.

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