Originally posted on BigDuck.com on Sept 17, 2020

By Farra Trompeter, Partner, Chief Growth Officer at Big Duck


COVID-19, the upcoming election, and shifts in the economy have many people questioning how this year-end campaign cycle will be different from others. Some of you may also be wondering if, or how, to engage major donors during this unusual year-end campaign season. To spark your thinking, consider that:

Combining these data points together, we recommend putting energy into planning your year-end campaign and that you should not omit your major donors or those donors who gave immediately as part of your COVID-19 relief efforts.

Here are six insights to guide your communications with major donors this year-end campaign season.

Carve out time for appreciation.

Many year-end campaigns kickoff right before Thanksgiving, with a full launch on GivingTuesday. While it’s hard to say if folks will be able to spend this Thanksgiving gathered around the table with their extended families this year, the tradition of reflection and gratitude will certainly continue. There are also some families who may not celebrate Thanksgiving at all, acknowledging it as a holiday that ignores genocide and promotes harmful stereotypes about Native peoples.

November is a great time to reach out and thank your major donors. Call them on the phone and leave a voicemail. Send them a handwritten note. Record a quick video and send a quick email. Drop a direct message on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, if you are connected. A quick message of thanks in whatever format makes the most sense given your relationship with the supporter is a simple way to express your appreciation for their support. Try to make it as personal and direct from you to each one as possible.

If you have a lot of major donors, divide up the list with your colleagues, board members, or volunteers. Some of your most engaged donors might even be game to pitch in and reach out to other donors as well. Provide your gratitude team with a script, talking points, or simple phrases they can copy and paste in any messages they might distribute–you can use this donor thank you call guide as a starting point Making this outreach as individualized as possible will involve extra time, but it’s well-invested to help you build mindshare and cement your relationship with the donor.

Acknowledge what’s different this year.

The 2020 year-end giving season will likely be different in ways that are hard to predict. We have all had our lives impacted by COVID-19 in one way or another, and your major donors are no exception. From health and safety concerns to employment and economic uncertainties and racial justice responses and reckonings, your donors’ mindsets may be quite different than what you are used to. Many of them may also have responded to #GivingTuesdayNow, a one-time extra push that occurred on May 5, 2020. Try to get a pulse of where they are, how are they feeling, and what’s on their mind.

But that’s not all we have to contend with this year. Your donors are also inundated with messages from candidates as we head into a very anticipated Presidential election, the outcome of which may also impact their giving behaviors.

If you implement an offline and online year-end campaign, struggles with the US Postal Service could also impact your campaign. As we spend our days on one Zoom meeting after another, having a mail piece may help you stand out, but not if it never gets delivered. Rethink your traditional approach — the format of the mailing, the list it goes to, the timing you allow for deliverability, the postage you use, etc. What worked in 2019 may not work in 2020.

Reexamine your approach to storytelling.

For many years, fundraising consultants (myself included) have recommended centering your donors in your content, citing an increase in response rate as we make the “donor the hero.” I’ve since realized the harm that approach can take, particularly as it may perpetuate white supremacy or saviorism. You may be familiar with the push for international humanitarian organizations to move away from featuring exploitative images and stories in fundraising appeals. Regardless of where your organization works or what your mission may be, are you reinforcing some of these harmful storytelling practices in your appeals? We’ve seen many local, regional, and national nonprofits across the U.S. commit these behaviors and invite you to examine your own materials and recognize patterns to change.

In a recent training with my colleague Hannah Thomas, she shared some questions to encourage participants to look for ways to practice antiracist, inclusive, and equitable storytelling. I encourage you to look at your fundraising materials and ask these questions as a starting point for examining your donor communications.

  • Does your story’s subject have agency over how their story is told and shared?
  • Are you framing your organization as a savior?
  • Are you framing your donor as a superhero?
  • Does your story imply there’s an “us” and a “them”?
  • What do the photographs and imagery you choose communicate?
  • Do you use multi-syllable words? Rely on the audience’s understanding of jargon?
  • Are you communicating that the amount of wealth translates to the amount of value?

If you are looking to shift your approach, I’d also encourage you to follow the work of Community-Centric Fundraising who have been questioning traditional approaches to fundraising and offer this helpful list of actions you can take.

Customize what your major donors receive.

Major donors are often among the most interested in what you are doing, so keep inviting them to the party (e.g. your petitions and not just your galas). Where you can easily apply segmentation (via email or mail vs. social media or your website), do it. Keep your major donors in your year-end fundraising campaign, but consider if you should hold back on the frequency of what you send. It can be tempting to keep them out of your email alerts and appeals completely, but we’ve seen major donors with higher open and clickthrough rates in campaigns we’ve managed. As per the point above, I do not think you should do or say things to major donors you wouldn’t share with your whole list. To begin, ask if and how you are treating major donors differently and question if that approach may be alienating or excluding your other donors or asking your staff to do things that are simply to satisfy the whim of one or a few supporters.

When you do send messages to major donors, consider sending them to landing pages with ask strings that feature amounts based on their previous giving levels. In other words, better to send a $1,500 donor to a page that starts with a $500 or $1,000 ask than one that tops off at $250. You can also preface certain messages or add a lift note to a mailing that describes their relationship with your organization (e.g. as one of our closest donors…). You might even test sending a slightly different message or letter to them, so they don’t feel like just another name in your database.  

Invite them to take other actions beyond giving.

A lot of year-end campaigns start with a warm-up or engagement phase that seeks to connect donors and prospects with your mission or the theme of your campaign. This phase includes one or more actions that don’t involve a donor’s credit card or PayPal account such as changing their profile picture, responding to a survey, signing a pledge, posting a selfie, voting in a contest, answering a quiz, participating in a webinar, watching a live interview, and even recruiting friends to become donors too. Participating in these actions can be very motivating and remind supporters why they care about you.

If your year-end campaign has an engagement phase or is preceded by an action campaign, add your major donors to the mix, but keep your requests limited. A recent study by DonorVoice concluded that “higher commitment donors are already mentally on-board; they don’t need ‘engaging’. Whilst those with lower commitment seem to appreciate a little more engagement.” This is another place where data is your friend. Create segments within your major donor pool based on past behavior or run a small test to see if sending a small group of major donors messages of engagement or appeals lead to inactivity or unsubscriptions.

Don’t just tout accomplishments for the past year, tell donors what’s to come.

Many nonprofits include a recap of the past year’s activities and victories in their year-end campaigns. To prove a hardy return-on-investment (ROI), nonprofits are often compelled to share a report card or annual report. I understand the desire to reassure donors, and I love it when nonprofits make a more regular practice of sharing impact reports or updates on a monthly or quarterly basis.

If you are reporting back, don’t stop there. Tell donors your plans for what’s ahead. To get your major donors to renew their support or even increase it, show them what you will do with their support in the future. Give them a sneak peek of your plans on a webinar or conference call. Don’t assume that because you’ve won their support before you’ll hold on to it.