December is a critical time for nonprofits. About a quarter of all annual giving happens in December, and the bulk of that happens in the last week of the year. So, it’s important that nonprofits put their brand and their mission out there, and send year-end email appeals to supporters. And, yet, some nonprofit fundraisers still struggle with the eternal question: How many emails is too many?! 

Year-end is not the time to get jelly-bellied about emailing supporters. Here are six of the most frequent questions and concerns we hear from nonprofits, and why you should ditch the fear and email away.

1. “We’ll annoy our supporters if we email them too many times.”

Okay, so if you email your supporters 20 times per day, you may annoy them. That is true.

gif of ron swanson from "parks and recreation" throwing is computer in a dumpster

But the reality is that most nonprofit donors and supporters expect email appeals at the end of the year. Tis the season for charitable giving! People see appeals to donate on TV, on their social media feeds, in their mailboxes, at the registers of retail stores, even when they’re buying groceries. And you’ll need to compete with all of those appeals in order to get a year-end donation. So, you should be worrying less about the number of emails you send, and more about losing donors because your email strategy is too passive.

Best Practices for Year-End Emails

That said, it’s not advisable to simply blast emails out to all of your supporters as often as possible. Not because it’ll be annoying, but because it just isn’t an effective way of raising money. Here are some best practices that will help you utilize email marketing to bring home the bread your nonprofit needs to continue your important work.

Create Journeys

If your typical email strategy usually consists of sending the same email out to your master email list, it’s time to get a little more nuanced with your email marketing.

Most email marketing software allows for some degree of automation — that is, setting up trigger events, conditions, and actions. (For instance, signing up for your email list could be a trigger for the action of sending that email address a welcome series of emails. A condition would be ensuring that they have not already received a welcome email from your nonprofit.) Every program functions a little bit differently, but you can find information about how to set up automated customer journeys in their support libraries.

One thing you can do with automation is get more aggressive with people on your list who are interacting with your emails. That way, you’re focusing your time and energy emailing people who are more likely to click through and make a donation. You’ll be sending more emails, but in a targeted, strategic way.

Depending on the software you use, you may be able to easily build this in an automation canvas, or you may need to do something more manual like sorting users into different lists based on their behavior. (Key behavior with emails is opening the email and clicking.) Someone who opens your email is a warm lead, so if they open without clicking, you’ll want to make sure you send follow-up emails. And someone who opens and clicks is a very warm lead; you may want to send them a personal note in follow-up instead of an automated email. (Or, create an email template that looks like a personal email — it’s easy to do!)

Identify Key Segments, Send Targeted Content

So, while you shouldn’t be afraid to send out lots of emails at year-end, that doesn’t mean you should just blast the same message to your whole list a bunch of times. You can send out more appeals, and see greater returns, from sending out lots of segmented emails.

What does “segmented emails” mean? Well, it means that instead of one general appeal to everyone on your list, you’re sending a different email to different types of supporters. Here are some segments you’ll want to send targeted emails to:

  • Board members
  • Volunteers
  • Major gift donors and/or sponsors
  • Recurring donors
  • People who gave in December last year
  • #GivingTuesday donors
  • People who’ve given to another campaign this year

You can also segment by interest or demographic group. Segmenting your lists allows you to send more emails, but also more specific emails, that speak to who the recipient is and how they interact with your nonprofit. When you speak more specifically to who someone is, they are more likely to respond … and donate.

Get More Tips in Our End-of-Year Toolkit

2. “But people might unsubscribe if we send them too many emails!”

There is some truth to this: The more emails you send, the more unsubscribes you will get.

But that shouldn’t stop you from sending emails. Here’s why.

The Problem With Worrying About Unsubscribes

When you’ve put lots of effort and love into building your nonprofit’s email list, an unsubscribe can feel like a smack in the face. It hurts! They’re telling you that they don’t want to hear from your nonprofit. You’re losing a potential donor.

gif of malcolm mcdowell saying "unsubscribe"

But here’s the thing: People who unsubscribe aren’t people who would have donated … if you had just sent fewer emails. They are people who are not engaged in your nonprofit’s work. They probably got plenty of emails, and didn’t open them. When they finally decided they had skipped over enough emails from you, or were attempting to declutter their inbox, they unsubscribed. They let you know they weren’t interested. They’re just not that into you.

In a way, by opting out of your emails, they have done you a favor. As your email list grows, email marketing tools can become more expensive. And when unengaged subscribers just sit on your list, never opening an email, never clicking on a CTA button, they become dead weight … that you may have ended up paying for. That’s also one less person you have to communicate with who just isn’t interested.

Focus on What Works

As you grow your email list and send out more emails, you’re going to get unsubscribes. That’s normal! And it’s okay! Certainly, keep an eye on your unsubscribes. If you average about 10 unsubscribes for an email campaign, and one email brings back 50 unsubscribes, it’s worth looking into why that email went over like a lead balloon. Or, if you are hemorrhaging subscribers, it makes sense to take a step back and evaluate why. But hyper-focusing on unsubscribes is not a wise use of your time and energy.

People unsubscribe for all sorts of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with you. They may be trying to declutter their inbox, a noble pursuit most of us can relate to. They may not remember why they subscribed to your emails in the first place. Perhaps they moved out of state and no longer have a connection to your community-based services. Some people may even unsubscribe because they don’t like it when you ask them to donate. But so many of these reasons are beyond your nonprofit’s control, and you’ll probably never know exactly why someone unsubscribes.

Instead of focusing on what might have chased some people away, look at what gets donors engaged. What emails get opened? Do the emails you’ve sent that have gotten lots of clicks have anything in common? What factors make people more likely to donate? You can conduct A/B testing to find out which factors make an email more successful, and examine your results each time you send an email. You can refine your email strategy with methodical focus on what provides results. Letting speculation about what may or may not cause unsubscribes drive your email strategy, and focusing on the people who left above the people who are opening and clicking, is a recipe for email inaction.

How to Prevent Unsubscribes

Well, first off, you can’t literally prevent unsubscribes. There is a law called CAN-SPAM that is in place to protect email users from unsolicited or unwanted emails. It’s important that your emails not only give recipients the option to unsubscribe, but that it’s clear where and how to do so. And, as we discussed, people unsubscribe for all sorts of reasons that are out of your hands.

That said, there are a few things you can do to ensure better returns on your emails.

  1. Personalize them. People are more likely to unsubscribe from emails that are generic, not tailored to them, and don’t take into account who they are and what their needs and interests are. Segmenting will also help you create emails that feel more personal to your subscribers.
  2. Email with purpose. Never email just to email — make sure you have a purpose each time you send an email. Whether it’s sharing a piece of news, sharing a story about your work, or asking them to donate, have a clear purpose and reason to send an email.
  3. Email people who don’t open your emails less frequently. If you keep sending emails to users who never, ever open them, they will either unsubscribe or their email service provider will start sending your emails to their spam folders. So, interact more with people who interact with your emails. You can often easily find the subscribers who don’t open your emails, and haven’t in a long time, so check your email marketing software’s support library for instructions. Stick these ghost subscribers on a snooze list and email them only with big announcements, nudge them with entry-level asks, or run a campaign specifically to reengage them.

Learn More About Donor Retention

3.  “But how many times should we email our supporters? Is there an optimal day and time? Our email schedule must be 100% optimized!”

We really, really wish there were hard and fast answers to these questions. If there was a concrete day and time that would guarantee opens and clicks, we would tell you. But the truth is that there just aren’t any rules here. There is no magic hour when everyone will open your emails. Sure, there is data out there that suggests what days and times get more opens — but they vary from source to source, and vary from industry to industry.

gif of doug funnie from "doug" looking distressed with mathemathical equations swirling around his head

So, you should focus less on how many and when, and more on your overall strategy and messaging.

When to Send Year-End Emails

The good thing about year-end is that there are some days you should most definitely be sending out emails:

  • December 24th and 25th: Plan on using the holidays and the spirit of giving to encourage gifts to your cause! This messaging is simple and effective. People are in the mood to give, so be sure to include a holiday appeal or two in your email plan.
  • December 28th: Starting on December 28th, you’ll want to ramp up your email contacts significantly. This is because the majority of charitable giving throughout the year, and December, happens on the last three days of the year. With your email on December 28th, you’re kicking it off.
  • December 29th: This is go-time! You’re now in the busiest three days for charitable giving of the year.
  • December 30th: This is a day to send a strong appeal. If you have heavy-hitting content, like a video, or a tearjerking or heartwarming story, this is the day to pull it out.
  • December 31st: Just to be clear, we’re not saying you should send one email on December 31st. This is the day to go the hardest. So, plan for a few emails on December 31st. Send at least one with heavy-hitting content that stirs up your supporters’ emotions, using urgent language. You can also send an email about the tax benefits of donating to your organization, as tax deductions are on many donors’ minds. And before midnight, send out a reminder to donate before the new year! That’s the bare minimum. The more segmented and specific your appeals are, the better.

Get Year-End Fundraising Ideas

4. “But our donors are older and don’t seem to like getting emails or donating online, shouldn’t we focus on other methods of fundraising?”

Your nonprofit obviously knows your donor base best, but be careful here! Don’t let ageism creep into your fundraising strategy.

gif of senior man dragging "my computer" into trash and causing computer to disappear from desk

The truth is, more and more older Americans are embracing digital communications. And while there will always be people who insist on sending a check and prefer postal mail to email, don’t let a loud minority dictate your entire fundraising strategy or decide what is best for your entire donor base.

If other forms of fundraising have worked better for your nonprofit, awesome! Stick with those methods. But don’t be afraid to add year-end email marketing to the mix, or get a little more aggressive, especially when you’re sending appeals with deadlines and urgency. Some donors may still send a check, but some donors may be happy for the convenience of donating online!

5. “We don’t like to put too much pressure on donors — isn’t sending a lot of emails kind of aggressive? What if it angers our donors or makes us seem manipulative?”

This is such a common fear among nonprofits, even large ones. It can be hard to strike a balance between laying the solicitation on thick at the end of the year and staying in your comfort zone with donors.

But most people expect solicitations at year-end. It is, after all, the season when you can’t make it through a viewing of “Elf” on basic cable without seeing DRTV ads from big nonprofits like St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the ASPCA and Shriner’s Hospitals for Children. So they’re already being hit with solicitations left and right. And your nonprofit deserves to be in the mix.

The trick is ramping up your year-end email appeals in a way that jibes with your nonprofit’s normal cadence and feels authentic to your supporters.

Keep Your Year-End Email Tone and Strategy Authentic

Your supporters subscribed to your emails because they are interested in your nonprofit’s mission and work. (And if not? They’ll hopefully unsubscribe!) So, it’s vital that your email appeals sound and feel like they’re coming from you.

If you’re worried about coming across as inauthentic or manipulative, stick to topics you’re comfortable with and keep it positive! Here are some year-end email ideas:

  • A letter from your Executive Director discussing all your nonprofit accomplished in 2018 and everything you hope to accomplish in 2019 — with generous supporters making it all possible
  • A happy story from your work in 2018 that demonstrates the kind of work you do
  • An email focusing on one of your staff members or volunteers and what your nonprofit means to them, why they choose to work or volunteer there, and how important supporters are to the work
  • An infographic detailing your biggest milestones and achievements from 2018 (Need help building an eye-catching infographic? Try a free website like Canva!)
  • A video detailing your biggest successes in 2018

You don’t have to go maudlin or over-the-top in year-end email appeal … unless that’s your style, of course. There are lots of creative ways you can stay true to your nonprofit’s mission and voice while still firmly and directly asking your supporters to donate to your cause. You’re just ramping up the urgency and frequency of your appeals for the month of December, not changing your nonprofit’s core messaging or how you relate to donors.

6. “But what about donor fatigue?!”

The dreaded donor fatigue! Donor fatigue is the scourge of fundraising professionals everywhere. It’s a boogeyman that scares nonprofits into not participating in giving events and opting out of fundraising opportunities, prevents them from sending emails, and contacting donors.

nancy from "nightmare on elm street" asking "do you believe in the boogeyman?"

Donor fatigue is when people become tired of giving to charities they used to give to in the past, or reduce the amount or frequency of their donations.

And it’s pretty much fictional.

The Myth of Donor Fatigue

Donor fatigue is basically a broom in the corner of your basement you mistake for an intruder. You thought it was one thing, but it was something else all along. And where donor fatigue is concerned, it’s not that people are getting tired of donating or hearing you ask for donations. It’s that they’re tired of being asked, and asked, and asked, without proper acknowledgement or follow-up or stewarding. What many nonprofits see as a scary state donors can slip into is actually a scary state of passivity the nonprofits themselves have slipped into.

The truth is that donors are happy, and even proud, to give to causes they care deeply about. If they stop donating, or reduce the amount they give, or give less often, it’s because your nonprofit has failed to engage them and has not given them the donor experience they were looking for.

 Preventing Donor Fatigue

Preventing donor fatigue is honestly a simple matter of keeping your supporters engaged. Here are a few easy ways to combat this fictional beast we call “donor fatigue”:

  • Promote and invite donors to fun, casual events without an “ask.” For instance, a happy hour for supporters, a meet-and-greet with your Executive Director, a tour of your facilities, a volunteering event, lunch-and-learns, educational events with guest speakers, and so on.
  • Follow up. And we don’t mean just sending an email thanking them for their donation. What did you do with their donation? How did it help? What goals did it help you achieve? Donors need to feel that their donations are making a difference in order to keep giving. So, if your donors seem fatigued, it may be because you’re asking and taking without reporting back to them on your results. (Just so you know, it’s not too late to do this for your #GivingTuesday campaign! You can even weave reporting on your results into a year-end email appeal.)
  • Focus on building the relationship. When a nonprofit neglects to actually get to know a donor, that’s when donors turn away from your appeals like you’re a stranger asking for money on the street. Get to know your donors! Do some personal outreach — send emails, make phone calls, try to meet them face-to-face at events. This personal contact will help the relationship with the donor grow, and help you get to know them. Then, when you need to send an ask, they will see your nonprofit as a friend they want to support rather than a stranger asking for money.
  • Make them feel proud & important. Creating donor tiers can be a great way to keep donors engaged. Being a “hero” or a “champion” for your cause makes them feel respected, seen, and proud. (And this ties back to James Andreoni’s “Warm Glow Giving” theory, which states that people give to charitable causes out of “impure altruism” and for want of things like social prestige, friendship, and belonging. But, theory aside, everyone likes to be recognized when they do something good!)
  • Ask for their feedback. This can include everything from sending them a survey, to giving them a call to find out what’s most important to them as donors, to holding regular meetings for donors to address your organization’s leadership. Not only will this help your nonprofit get to know your donors a little better and gather vital data about what drives them, it’ll make your donors feel like they have a voice in the work they help fund.

Preventing “donor fatigue” is a year-round, ongoing process of engaging your donors. It’s not something you can cause by going over a certain number of emails, or fundraising too much. And when it comes to year-end appeals, the best way to prevent it is to simply have a solid plan to follow up with your supporters that keeps them tuned into what you’re doing and how you’ve made good use of their donation.

Conclusion

Year-end is a critical time for nonprofit fundraising, and the worst mistake a nonprofit can make is not participating with gusto. All nonprofits have fears and worry about how to strike the right balance with their year-end email appeals. But most common worries are based on misunderstandings and myths.

So, send those emails! Get a solid plan in place, and make sure to follow up. But don’t let fear of email too often derail your nonprofit’s year-end fundraising. Your work depends on it!

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