As I write this, it’s 34 degrees outside and in just a few hours, I’ll be heading to the cottage for a vacation. Long slow days of swimming, reading and (maybe) a few cocktails beckon. I can’t wait.

But, it’s also the perfect time to think about Christmas.

Wait, what? Yes, you heard me right. If you’re a fundraiser, you should have your end of year fundraising appeals well thought out by now. After all, about 40% of gifts are made in the last three months of the calendar year. Online giving alone is worth paying attention to: about 40% of online gifts are made in December. And 40 to 60% of those gifts are made the last two days of the calendar year.

Trust me; you don’t want to mess this up. This is why we’re having this conversation right now. All too often, I talk to people in October and November who are just beginning to think about their year-end fundraising.

Christmas is Christmas

But first things first. Can we talk about the whole Season’s Greetings versus Christmas thing? It seems to me that, in 2012, our fundraising systems are sophisticated enough that we can actually call holidays by name without offending too many people. I presume most of you are doing some sort of donor survey? If not, you should be…but that’s a whole other article.

Along with questions like “may we call you?” and “may we trade your name?” why not ask donors which holidays they celebrate? Note their preferences and then act on them. It’s particularly easy to customize holiday messages within e-appeals and imagine the impact of sending your donors messages that are customized to the particular holidays they celebrate, whether it’s Christmas, Chanukah, Eid or Chinese New Year.

Getting started

Pull out your calendar. Let’s look at that September through December timeframe and start planning. Start plugging in some key dates: are you planning a walk, run or big gala? Plug it in. Is the communications department sending out a newsletter? Plug it in (or better yet, coordinate with them).

How to connect with donors

Now, let’s think about how we can connect with our donors through a variety of mediums and messages:

Direct mail: We have limits around what we can do via direct mail in the September to December time period. Why? Most of us use addressed admail, which takes a lot longer to land on our donors doorsteps than first class mail. Added to that, the mail, in general, slows down in December as the post office deals with increased volume. What does that mean to us fundraisers? It means we should avoid sending out direct mail any time after about the third week of November. And let’s not forget that direct mail means both house and acquisition appeals: both do well toward the end of the year.

Email: Email is a fundraiser’s best friend at the end of the year. It’s quick, it’s inexpensive, and it can easily adapt to changing circumstances. And, guess what? There’s no mail delay! You can send it and not have to worry about it taking three weeks to reach its destination.

Telephone: There are lots of ways we can use the telephone at this time of year. It’s a good time to convert regular donors to monthly giving, upgrade monthly donors, or renew lapsed monthly donors. But, don’t forget, the phone is also a great way to thank your donors. Why not set yourself a goal of calling at least one donor each day just to say thanks. Even better, get everyone else in the organization doing the same. Why not start with loyal donors: call every donor who’s given for ten years to say thank you, call monthly donors just to say thank you…the list goes on.

Website: If you haven’t already, pretend you’re a donor and head to your website to make a donation. Is it easy to find the donation page? Can you get there in just a click or two? Is there a compelling call to action? Is the form simple and easy to fill out? Is the thank you well-written and heart-felt? Are there typos or grammatical errors to be fixed? You’d be surprised what you might find. I recently made an online gift and a thank you popped up that thanked me for my 2011 gift. It was a small thing, but it annoyed me.

Social media: No, you aren’t going to raise money using social media, but it should be an essential part of your fundraising toolkit. Use Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to cultivate and steward your community: create advocates who will “sneeze” your message on your behalf. Integrate social media with the messaging you’re using in your direct mail and email. Have fun with it.

There are many other ways to communicate with individual donors, but those are the five big ones.

Think strategy

Once you’ve figured out the best medium to use to connect with your donors, now let’s look at some specific strategies:

1. Tell amazing stories. Make them compelling, genuine and real. Tell the story of how one person has been impacted by your cause. Tell it in the context of the holidays. An example? If you’re a children’s hospital, tell the story of the child battling leukemia who wasn’t going to be able to be home for Christmas. Talk about how the nurses gathered together to decorate the child’s room with twinkling lights, how someone dressed up as Santa and distributed presents, and how that child’s face lit up with the magic of it all. Give your institution personality. There are lots of hospitals out there (the vast majority of which seem to tout “world class health care”), but only you have your stories. They are uniquely yours and define who you are and what you do.

2. Invite donors to take specific action. For your emails, make sure your “donate” button is big, bold and above the fold (better yet, test it in terms of colours, placement and size). Send out a direct mail package that invites donors to return a send back card along with their donation (for a hospital, that might be a greeting card that could be placed on the trays of patients on Christmas day, or an animal shelter could invite donors to send along a photo of their favourite pet to help decorate the tree in the reception area). Offer e-greeting cards on your website and the opportunity for donors to make a donation in lieu of a gift.

3. Focus on the last week of the year. Plan out a series of emails for the last week of the year. Send a holiday greeting on December 23rd, remind them about the deadline for tax deductions on December 30th, and send a “last chance to give” email on New Year’s Eve.

4. Send mail. This time of year is your big opportunity. Ask well and ask often. Consider a special appeal in September asking for a gift for a specific campaign. In October, send an emotional, compelling story that has a holiday angle to it. In November, send a donor update letting them know how you’ve used their donations this year, and touch on the continuing need. And I know I told you not mail past the third week of November, but we’ve seen organizations have success with a really well-written, to the point, WHYFU during the first week of December (WHYFU stands for “Why have you forsaken us?” and is written around the theme of ‘we haven’t heard from you yet this year.”)

My challenge to you is this: before you head off on your summer holidays, sketch out your end of year fundraising plan, create some critical paths, and engage with your colleagues to coordinate efforts.

Trust me, your fundraising will benefit.

This post was written by Leah Eustace, ACFRE, former Principal and Chief Idea Goddess at Good Works. It first appeared over at Charity Village as part of our series on Deconstructing Philanthropy.