It's that time of year again:
a calendar guide to fundraising from American individual donors
by Ken Hoffman - 17 January 2018
In which months should you avoid asking your American supporters for gifts? When are the optimal seasons? Ken Hoffman shares insights into the rhythm of US generosity to help you plan your fundraising year.
To raise money cost-effectively from Americans who are donating their own funds – not a foundation’s or corporation’s – you need to be aware of the American fundraising calendar. There are different social customs, tax laws, and demographics to consider. All influence what you do and when you do it.
Here are some useful ‘rules of thumb’ to consider as you plan your American programme for the coming year. But the rules are not hard and fast. Nor are they enforced. They just express a body of received wisdom from which you should always be ready to diverge…if you have a good reason!
Your best donors are the ones who are already giving. Try to send thanks for gifts within 10 days, which will be well in advance of the industry average of three weeks. January’s other task is to consider the prior year’s results and sketch a plan of action and goals for the new year. Even if the prior year’s results were zero, everybody started from there at some point!
Don’t ask anyone for gifts in January, it’s a blackout month. The donors are exhausted from the blizzard of year-end requests. Many requests were fulfilled with cheques written in the first 10 days of January and backdated to December 31, to stay within the tax year…which in America is the calendar year. And yes, paper cheques are still the primary delivery method for major individual giving in the US.
Some number of the wealthy travel south in the winter to places like Palm Beach, Florida. This is a bizarre, rarefied, and hotly competitive charity venue. While huge sums can be raised, you will want expert advice in these waters.
March is a possible time for a secondary appeal to individuals, but only if you made your primary appeal early, in the previous September-October. If you waited until November-December, do not send another appeal in March. Secondary appeals differ from annual appeals in two ways: they ask for less and they focus the purpose more tightly. The language of the request is crucial: it usually defines the uses for a gift. So there is a vast difference between ‘We will do activities A, B, and C’ and ‘We will do activities like A, B, and C’.
Blackout. Don’t ask for money. Tax Day for US individual taxpayers is April 15, when they pay the prior calendar year’s tax bill and, if self-employed, the first quarter’s estimate for the current year. Nobody feels wealthy when paying their taxes. And yet, every year, I see solicitations roll in before, on, and immediately after Tax Day!
This is the traditional month for secondary appeals to individuals, especially favourable to causes that suggest outdoors and summers: environmental protection, animal welfare, summer arts. Memorial Day falls on the last Monday in May and, for most Americans, signifies the start of summer.
June is a possible time for a secondary appeal, though not as good as May. Whatever you do, don’t slide into July!
July - August
On account of America’s famous extremes of climate, July and August are not good solicitation months at primary residences because so many of the wealthier classes migrate north and east. People in New York and Philadelphia might go to Vermont or Cape Cod; people in Boston go to Maine and Nova Scotia. But these migrations offer another opportunity: fundraising cultivation events in upmarket summer resort settings. If you have a board member or major donor on Nantucket Island or in Mt Desert, you have the essential elements for a charity reception. Anyone who attends will expect to receive a solicitation in due course; even those who were just invited but did not attend can be solicited.
The other task for August is planning the sequence of events for the annual appeal in November and writing the fall ‘warm up piece’ for distribution in September. This might take the form of a newsletter. For the transmission medium, it depends chiefly on age. People older than 55-65 typically prefer hard copy; younger, electronic.
Labor Day is the first Monday of September. The day after is treated as the start of the fall, even if it the weather is still hot and humid. Don’t expect messages left in August to be returned any earlier than this. Do expect meeting calendars and hotels to fill up steadily between Labor Day and Christmas. Circulate the ‘warm up piece’ during September to everybody who will receive the annual appeal in November.
This is the month to create and start production of the end-of-year, ‘annual appeal’, which typically seeks unrestricted gifts. If you are using direct mail, the minimum package is often five pieces: external envelope, solicitation letter, ‘credibility enclosure’ with a third-party endorsement of some kind, pledge/gift card, and return envelope. The last two can be combined. You should anticipate paper cheques and credit card charges; direct debit is rare. If there is one key word to characterise the goal of annual appeal production, it is: personalisation. And the single greatest boost to yield in a mail piece will be a signed letter with a handwritten postscript from a gift solicitor known to or respected by the donor. ‘Top and tail’ are rarely seen in America and make a very good impression.
The classic time of arrival for annual appeals is during the 2nd and 3rd weeks of November. This is because Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of November. More Americans come together at Thanksgiving than Christmas and Easter; some number of them hold their annual family foundation meeting on the weekend following Thanksgiving. Even without a foundation to administer, the end of the tax year is just five weeks away. The annual appeal can be preceded by or followed up with a phone call: ‘You will soon receive…’ or ‘I hope you have received…’ This boosts yield in number and size of gifts.
If you did not manage the November deadline for requests, you still have until December 31. But there are no extensions! If you miss New Year’s, you’ve missed the principal opportunity for large, individual gifts.
In addition, December is the time for fulfilment of gifts pledged at any time in the calendar year. Regardless of when pledged, most donors will wish to keep the ‘use’ of their money until the end of the calendar year. So early to mid-December is the time to send ‘pledge fulfilment’ reminders. If it is a multi-year pledge, do not be shy about citing the total balance due: many donors treat a pledge as a routine bill and advance payment is common.
This calendar applies only to individual giving, as there are other guidelines for foundations and corporations. For a related blog, see ‘Raising funds from America without your own 501(c)(3)’.
As you may have read or heard, the US Tax Code was revised in December 2017 for the first time in 30 years and there is uncertainty about the immediate prospects for charitable giving. On the whole, US giving has been remarkably resilient through market turmoil and taxation changes. The guidelines and suggestions offered here should withstand the current regulatory alterations, particularly with major donors. We’ll be blogging about the changes in more detail soon.