It’s August. For some, that means sweltering days spent in the pool, in the lake, or in the air conditioning. But for fundraisers like us, it means it’s time to start planning our year-end appeals!

Year-end, or ‘holiday’, appeals are often the most successful direct mail campaigns of the year for charities, big and small. And while it can be a challenge to get into the December mode when it’s hot and hazy outside, a little planning now will help set you up for big success in a few months.

Here are some basic planning steps you can take now to maximize year-end giving:

What Are You Asking For?

(Hint: the answer isn’t money!)

In every good direct mail appeal, you’re asking your donor to solve a fixable problem. That means you need to be able to clearly and simply identify the problem, the solution, and the specific action you want your donor to take to get to that solution.

This sounds simple, and for some organizations, it can be. But be wary of problems that are much too big for your one donor to solve. She can’t solve world hunger, but she can feed a hungry family in her neighbourhood. She can’t stop animal cruelty, but she can save the life of one pup at the local shelter.

Plan to spend a bit of time narrowing down your appeal’s problem, solution, and action from all of the other very important work your charity does—preferably in one or two sentences—and your call to action and everything else in your strategy and plan will flow straight from there.

Stories, Not Stats

Our brains are wired for stories. The more emotional the story, the more engaged we are. Your donor doesn’t want to read a list of stats about all the amazing work you do. She really doesn’t! She wants to know the story of that one person she can help. The dog she can save. The family she can feed.

As tempting as it is to use statistics as proof of how effective and ethical your organization is, remember that connecting with your donor’s emotions and values is always going to be much more successful.

If you haven’t already, start a story bank to collect the emotional stories that illustrate the need that exists in your community, as well as the impact your donor can have. Speak with front-line staff and beneficiaries to gather their stories and experiences (and permission to share them!). Ask them about what their lives were like before getting involved with your organization, how their lives have changed since, and what they’d say to the donors who made that experience possible.

And “emotional” doesn’t ever mean “manipulative”. It means authentic, urgent, and inspiring.

Segment and Personalize

Personalization doesn’t mean getting your donor’s name right at the top of the letter (but for the love of Mike, do that too!) It’s about sharing relevant content that makes your appeal feel as much like a piece of personal, one-to-one mail as possible.

Welcome your newest donors to your cause. Let lapsed donors know you’ve missed them and that you appreciate their past support. Thank monthly donors for being partners every day of the year (and don’t send them a reply coupon with “BECOME A MONTHLY DONOR” on the back).

Set aside time and budget to segment your list of donors—last gift date and amount are the most common criteria—and to create variable letter copy that speaks to each segment appropriately and warmly.

Integration Exploration

Your direct mail donor may love reading your compelling, emotional letter, but that doesn’t mean she’ll necessarily send in her gift through the mail. When she visits your website, she’ll want to see the same imagery and call to action as the appeal, so she knows she’s in the right place.

Integrating your direct mail appeal with your organization’s digital presence is entirely scalable, and entirely possible for even the tiniest of budgets. Your plan can and should include emails, social media posts, web content, and more, all echoing your year-end appeal.

Timing Is Everything

Even the most compelling story with a crystal-clear ask isn’t going to be successful if you send it at the wrong time. And this is even more crucial at the end of the year when donors tend to be the most generous. Make sure your plan gives your generous donors plenty of time to send in their gifts! Mailing an appeal too close to the end of the year is a common—but avoidable—mistake.

Your year-end appeal is one of the biggest opportunities you have to inspire your donors and raise more money for your mission. Prepare now for success!