The Ghosts of Christmas Past are a Fundraiser’s Best Friends

Published by Mark Phillips on

Screenshot 2014-12-14 08.39.11Christmas is the time when fundraisers get excited about the sound of a man or woman trudging through the snow struggling under the weight of a sack full of gifts. Only for us, it’s the post delivery that gets our hearts beating a little faster. Not the thought of Santa Claus.

That’s because Christmas is the season of goodwill. It’s a time when we can expect our donors to be at their most generous. CAF in the UK have found that as Christmas appeals start dropping through letterboxes, the number of people giving rises to over 57% of the population (and to almost 80% of the over 65s).

But why does Christmas have such a big impact on our attitudes to giving? Of course, the celebration of Christ’s birth is hugely important, but in the secular society within which we live, is that explanation enough?

Not to my mind.

Christmas is far more than a religious festival. It is a multi-dimensional event that has happiness as a supreme goal – often defined by consumption. But to fully understand what constitutes a happy Christmas, we have to identify those factors that actually do make us happy.

Tim Kassler and Kennon Sheldon of the University of Missouri looked at this very subject in their 2002 paper, What makes for a Merry Christmas.

They found that “Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behaviour apparently contributes little to holiday joy”.

What mattered most was celebrating with close friends and family. And the focus on materialism did nothing more than distract “people from the true meaning of the season.”

This was particularly pronounced amongst older respondents who reported greater feelings of happiness largely explained by the opportunity of spiritual and physical reconnection.

And in my considered opinion, the chance to reconnect is why Christmas is such a powerful driver for giving to charity.

If you were brought up in a Christian country, you’ll have many memories of Christmas. And when any of us think about Christmas, we think about traditions. Not just national traditions, but, more importantly, family ones. Where were your presents going to be on Christmas morning? Under the tree? In stockings by the fireplace? In a sack at the foot of your bed?

What time do you open presents? As soon as you wake up? After breakfast? After church? After lunch?

Do you have Christmas dinner or lunch? Do you make a toast before you eat?

The list of traditions that families adhere to is almost endless and it’s very rare that any will be broken without good reason. Even though there’s obviously nothing stopping us from changing the way that we celebrate Christmas other than that profound and deep link to the past.

And as fundraisers we should learn from this. This need for tradition can be a very powerful driver for giving.

Let me give you an example.

For several years at Bluefrog, we have included a sheet of sticky gift tags with a Christmas appeal produced for one particular client. Though the appeals differ, each year the stickers are the exactly same. They feature old fashioned, cheesy images of snowmen, reindeer and Santa Claus.

A few years back we were asked to bring them up to date. We created a modern set that many of the younger people involved in the project loved. Luckily we tested them alongside the traditional design. The new stickers suppressed response by a significant margin.

Why would a new set of Christmas stickers have such an impact?

The answer is simple. Many donors had incorporated the use of our stickers in their Christmas traditions for many years and by changing them we had broken a link with the past. The tags helped make the giving of presents a richer experience because they bridged the gap between the commercial and the charitable sides of the season. And the new design simply didn’t have the same resonance as the original version.

By responding to this need to reconnect with the past, we can create far more powerful appeals than those that simply present a request for help. We can actually offer an antidote to the commercialisation of the season that so many donors (particularly older ones) dislike.

So my first piece of advice is to pull out your archives and guard books. And use them to build an appreciation of how your donors have previously engaged with charities over the years. If you haven’t got an archive of your own, visit SOFII or take a look at this Pinterest board which features hundreds of ads going back almost two centuries.

Screenshot 2014-12-13 22.13.47You’ll see similar themes repeated decade after decade. Themes that when incorporated in your appeals, can significantly increase your income.

Take this advertisement from Barnardo’s from 1927 asking donors to play the role of Santa Claus and buy Christmas food for an orphan or destitute child. Alongside it is an advertisement from the NSPCC produced in the 1990s that has a similar message. It might not be particularly innovative, it might even seem boring to some, but it’s just what many donors – particularly older ones – find motivating.

Even now, the Salvation Army in the UK uses a similar technique. Each and every Christmas they ask their donors for exactly the same thing – to buy a Christmas meal or box full of food and toys for poor families. Just take a look at their annual report and you’ll see that they generate an ROI from their donors that puts most (if not all) big British charities to shame.

As I’ve already said, there’s nothing particularly clever about the technique. But it taps into, and helps satisfy, the donors fundamental need to reconnect to their past and the true meaning of Christmas. I am still surprised that it isn’t more widely used. But I’d imagine that there are few organisations willing to stick with an approach for the necessary number of years to turn it in to a tradition in its own right.

And that’s the problem.

There are many similar ideas just waiting to be rediscovered and developed. But your starting point when developing a new idea should be to reject the idea of producing different appeals each year. Instead I’d advise you to focus on developing a campaign that can underpin your Christmas appeals for a decade or two.

In my experience, the more you use an idea, the stronger it becomes. Yes, creative will need to be refreshed, but as long as the core approach and visual identity remain the same, it will grow and grow, year after year.

So as with shopping, start planning for Christmas 2015 early. As soon as you get back to work in the New Year, start to learn about what Christmas really means to your donors and find out what they feel it lacks. Then build a campaign aimed at giving them just what they want.

It won’t be easy. It will certainly require a great deal of hard work. But if you can develop an idea that cements your charity into your donors’ psyche as truly part of Christmas, you’ll be repaid many times in terms of extra income and engagement in the coming years.

It seems apt to leave the final word on this matter to Charles Dickens, who helped invent so much of what we take for granted about the season. He summed up it’s power quite neatly when he said, “Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!”.

Mark Phillips

Mark Phillips is founder and MD of Bluefrog, the longest established fundraising agency in private hands in the UK. He started out his career at ActionAid in1988 before moving on to YMCA in 1990 where he became Head of Fundraising. He set up Bluefrog in 1997 with the goal of creating the agency he would want to employ. As well as managing Bluefrog, Mark blogs at queerideas.co.uk, curates the pinterest board, Old Charity Ads and can be found on Twitter as @MarkyPhillips. He once thought he knew everything there was to know about fundraising, but now realises he knows next to nothing. His proudest moment in fundraising was being described as a Brand Grump by the managing director of another agency.


Margaux Smith · December 19, 2014 at 21:50

You’ve hit this one out of the park, Mark. So beautifully written that I even started to cry at that last Dickens line! (But I’m soft and currently a traveler missing the fireside at home.)

It’s a good reminder that repetition works better than cleverness, and has given me a new perspective on one of my client’s themed Christmas appeals. Thank you :)

[As an aside, there’s a small typo in your description in your blog’s URL – I think a lot of people around the world will want to subscribe to queerideas.co.uk after reading this, so thought I’d point that out]

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · December 20, 2014 at 16:55

    I fixed the typo. Now everyone can visit: queerideas.co.uk

Mark Phillips · December 21, 2014 at 00:14

Thanks Margaux. Much appreciated.

Merry Christmas


Mike Zywina · December 30, 2014 at 18:15

Thanks Mark, I found this really interesting. We place so much emphasis on ‘innovation’ now that it’s easy to forget the value of tradition and consistency. Many of your tips here really make sense!

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