“This year will be different.”

Back in college, each year that I stepped back on campus, it was all about the possibilities.

Meeting new friends. Having new experiences. Buying new books. Setting goals for all the things I’m going to accomplish, all the habits I’m going to form. Even the resolve to make it to the gym every week.

Then reality set in. I forget the other things a new semester entails. It takes time and energy to attend classes, take tests and combat the merciless grind of homework.

And sooner or later, I’m three months in, wondering how I lost track of all my goals and enthusiasm. I’m just getting by paper-by-paper, day-by-day. It’s the busywork that gets you.

Sounds a little like our fall fundraising ambitions, doesn’t it?

Fall Fundraising Tips for Those Playing a Whole Different Game

For most organizations, fall fundraising is just end-of-year fundraising in advance. You’re amping up and preparing your donors for the real commitment that happens later in the year, when most annual donors give their pledged gifts.

But you don’t have to be “most organizations.”

Fall shouldn’t just be an excuse to put off your hardcore fundraising push a few months down the line. Top performers realize that the times that are normally discounted as poor fundraising months means less competition.

The 1% of fundraisers who can buckle down, get appointments now (or get them to commit to an appointment in September) see disproportionate rewards: kind of like those rare students who began studying for their test when they’re announced, instead of the night before.

But because the urgency isn’t there, most of us don’t achieve what we could.

Here are three ways to overcome your fundraising demons:

1. Average Preparation DESTROYS Perfect Last-Minute Work

An important rule in fundraising (and life): 80% of the work happens before you get in the room. Or in the mailbox, as it were.

In other words, the way you succeed is by going the extra mile before you have a high-stakes interaction with your donors.

Which of these fundraisers is better off?

  1. The fundraiser who sends three low-pressure, high-personalized fundraising messages and then makes a soft ask in December.
  2. The fundraiser who waits until December to send the PERFECT direct mail appeal, hard sell-style.

9 times out of 10, Fundraiser #1 smokes Fundraiser #2.

And reason why is pretty clear. Because she’s done the work and taken the time to truly understand her donor, Fundraiser #1 is both recognized and trusted when she shows up.

Fundraiser #2 banks on his polished boilerplate—which is either a) too late to get in the door, or b) too little to have made a memorable impression in the sea of appeals.

So why don’t we forget to show up and do the work of researching and nurturing our donors?

2. We Neglect the Important But Non-Urgent Work

One of my favorite paraphrased quotes actually comes from a Venture Capitalist, but it applies to any organization trying to do work that matters:

“Nonprofits don’t starve; they drown.”

It’s more likely that trying to do too much will finish you, not needing more resources. We all have the same amount of time to fundraise as anyone else, so it comes down to how we make use of it.

A useful way to structure your time is by using a priority matrix. Take all your daily tasks and put them on the matrix:

Q1 and Q4 are no-brainers: you have to get the former done immediately and boot the latter.

But Q3 and Q2 are where we get stuck: it’s easier to answer emails and react to minutia than it is to intentionally focus on the more important, but less obviously urgent work. And that’s exactly where fall fundraising usually lands.

Here are some important but non-urgent items that you’ll be tempted to neglect:

  • Writing your fundraising letters in advance.
  • Segmenting your fundraising appeals by donor type (lapsed, loyal, first-time, etc.)
  • Calling to schedule donor meetings and advice visits.
  • Going to your donor meetings and advice visits.

3. Let Your Loyal Donors—and Your Lapsed Donors—Feel the Love

The essence of not treating donors like ATMs is making them feel loved and important when you aren’t asking for money.

That means checking in and nurturing the relationship throughout the year, not just during appeal season.

Here are some tips for loving your donors this fall:

  • Don’t: Start by talking about money.
  • Do: Talk about impact. Tell stories. Show the change in the world.
  • Don’t: Talk about the amazing work your organization has done.
  • Do: Talk about the amazing work THIS donor has made happen (and will have the privilege of making happen in the future).
  • Don’t: Send obvious copy-paste messages to donors who haven’t asked to hear from you.
  • Do: Send anticipated, personal and relevant messages that will be missed when they’re gone.

Remember: the best time to start fall fundraising was probably a month ago. But the second best time to start is today.