Final Report: End-of-Year Giving 2020

We know, we know: The last thing anybody wants to do is voluntarily revisit the horrors of 2020. But as we compiled and analyzed data from the end of the longest year ever, we realized: The news for nonprofits actually isn’t bad. What we found was by turns fascinating, pleasantly surprising, and perhaps most exciting of all: directly actionable.

Our nonprofit partners spent EOY season pushing to prevent disease, end gun violence, stave off climate crisis, save vulnerable lives, and generally change the world for the better. They did it through a mix of deeply engaging content that paired our best practices with new innovations. And when all was said and done, they were part of an effort that raised $11,125,058 from 99,427 donors.

Curious what that all looked like? Here’s a breakdown of the numbers at the core of our 2020 EOY results, both over the course of November and December as well as in that ever-critical “final stretch” of Dec. 26-31:

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One of the first ways we’ll apply 2020 learnings to next year is by checking our benchmarks. You know what they say: Measure once, cut twice – especially if you can succeed by experimenting with volume. Here are some of the data points we’ll be comparing against – and improving upon – when planning for EOY 2021:

We teased this one in our numbers breakdown above but couldn’t resist revisiting because it fascinated us so much. We already knew that quality often outperforms quantity. But we were surprised to see that it was possible to raise EOY revenue this year while lowering overall send volume.

We did see an overall increase in YoY volume – +23% to be specific – across all our nonprofit partners. But individual organizations that sent fewer messages saw surprising returns. One nonprofit, which we mentioned above, lowered volume by –46% and still raised +23% more than they did over EOY 2019! By testing extensively throughout 2019 and 2020, and incorporating those learnings during the final stretch, this organization was able to serve its audience content and tactics we tested into – without overwhelming them with volume. It’s a classic reinforcement of the advice to “work smarter, not harder.”

The last few Decembers have been about as crowded as public transportation used to be, with Giving Tuesday and EOY both falling in the same month. This can be great news for your monthly projections, with baked-in reasons for your audience to give – but there’s a flip side, too. There’s a huge risk of burnout if you’re running major campaigns at both the start and end of a month like this, right?

Turns out: WRONG. A number of our nonprofit partners leaned in even harder and found ways to keep lifting revenue between major tentpole moments. So they not only ran robust Giving Tuesday and EOY campaigns, but also mid-month match campaigns, anniversary campaigns for major organizational moments, and specific offers for premiums or earmarked gifts. 

Now, we realize we just said that less can be more. But the overall idea here is that you know your program best, and there are very few hard-and-fast rules that will apply to every program equally. So in this case, we found that rather than burn the list, additional messages can remind audiences that nonprofits are constantly raising the bar and creating impact – so donations are always welcome and needed. Give people a good enough reason, and they’ll give no matter what the calendar says! 

The catch here is that the reason really does have to be good enough – the takeaway is definitely NOT “send four times every day in December because Anne Lewis Strategies told me to.” But if you lead with your mission, and follow with your best practices and thoughtful strategies, you could get results like one military nonprofit we work with. They had a strong Giving Tuesday and EOY, but one of their top-performing campaigns came in the third week of December, when they asked for donations to cover phone calls home for service members stationed abroad.

Standard wisdom goes that EOY is not the time to break out your fancy pants and test a bunch of new flourishes in your fundraising appeals. We’re not here to break convention on that one. Testing and experimentation are great to dig in to earlier in the year, but at EOY season, you want to lead with best practices, tried-and-true tactics, and clear messaging.

However! That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with the same old tactics every time. If you’ve written the same core message a million times and want to jazz things up without veering off the straight and narrow, we offer you: the supporter record.

The beauty of a supporter record is that it quickly, succinctly, and – perhaps most importantly – visually creates a sense of personal responsibility in the person reading it. On the one hand, this organization they care about knows who they are! They feel seen and validated! But on the other hand, that means someone is paying attention to how much of an impact they’re making – and counting on their donation not just abstractly, but personally. It’s a perfect storm of personal interaction and individual power. 

We borrowed this idea from the political minds on the other side of our practice, where we raised big for the president-elect and major Democratic players across multiple cycles. And this year, nonprofits saw it significantly improve their metrics, too. Supporter record messages were the top performer by gifts and revenue for an education nonprofit, top by gifts and second-best by revenue for an international humanitarian organization, and second-best by revenue for a gun violence prevention nonprofit as well. 

We’ll be frank: This tactic has stirred up some controversy among nonprofit practitioners. But if you’ve been wary to try it yourself, our data shows that now is the time. We’re in a sweet spot where supporter records are still new to many nonprofit donors, but have been tested by enough big names to serve as a proof point that, done correctly, they have a high chance of delivering for your cause.

Not sure you know what a supporter record looks like? The beauty lies in the simplicity. Here are some examples from high-performing EOY messages:

If you love data like we love data, you’ll find any excuse to dive under extra layers of information to find a new insight. As we prepped this analysis, we looked into everything from the impact of specific content strategies to granular gift amount data to this gem: analyzing send times and days of the week. 

This year, organizations seemed to push a bit harder than usual at the start of what we’ve been calling that “final stretch” period from Dec. 26 through 31. And in large part, it paid off! Revenue was up YoY for our nonprofit partners during the final stretch, with the two biggest days for revenue growth being the 28th and 29th.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the 28th and 29th also had the greatest increases in email volume: Our nonprofit partners sent twice as much email on Dec. 28 of 2020 than 2019, and 85% more on the 29th. 

It’s telling that more and more nonprofits moved volume up in the week. This lets us know that there’s no need to stack everything up at the very end, or save all your energy for the 31st. There is plenty of revenue to be raked in between the time Santa heads back up north and the ball drops on New Year’s!

We’ll be honest: We wanted this insight to be way more definitive than it’s about to be. For all the discourse around matches this year, especially on the political side, some of us were really crossing our fingers for a clear, final word from the data on whether and how matches impact nonprofit emails across the board.

Trouble is, data doesn’t bend to your whims. That’s part of why it’s so great – but also why this insight is a bit broad: Matches will work for you or they won’t. Big matches will work better, or a typical 2x one will. It kind of just … depends. 

That’s not to say we don’t think they’re worth trying. Just the opposite: The takeaway you can always expect from us is that if you think something is worth testing, develop a strong test and run with it! Our own nonprofit partners ran some tests and carried those learnings into EOY themselves:

One education nonprofit tested a match in November, trying to circle back on some inconclusive results from Giving Tuesday of 2019. This fall, there wasn’t a significant difference in their primary cohort, but the match did turn out a lower number of gifts from names acquired through Facebook. The mini-lesson here: Make sure you look at all the nooks and crannies of that test data! Just because you don’t see a sweeping result doesn’t mean there’s nothing actionable in a particular segment.

One last idea we’ll mention on this point: Matches aren’t diamonds – they don’t have to last forever. A year or two ago, we introduced the tactic of time-limited matches for a gun violence prevention nonprofit, and they’ve worked like a charm. For this strategy, the organization offers a standard double match over the first part of a match campaign, then sends an update that “for the next [x] hours, we’ll be tripling all gifts!” We consistently see a bump in revenue, even when those few select hours have passed. During this organization’s 2020 EOY campaign, for example, those time-bound triple-match messages raised 33.2 percent more on average than the rest of the emails in the series.

So there you have it: another EOY season in the books! Of course, we could write many more volumes, especially when you consider the stats on SMS, web features, acquisition, and even heading offline into direct mail and phone solicitation. But for now, thanks for reading along as we broke down the year(-end) in email fundraising. Stay tuned for more reporting as we find new milestones to analyze and data to play with! After all, these days, we all deserve to take our joy where we can find it.

Psst – in the meantime, have you signed up for our weekly nonprofit newsletter, Recurring? Join the list now to get regular updates sent straight to your inbox! And if you want to have a more one-on-one conversation about data, tactics, or how we might be able to help you optimize your digital program, reach out at nonprofit@annelewisllc.com

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