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3 Ways to Personalize Communications to Donors

Posted: 12/18/2020

Click here to read on The Chronicle of Philanthropy

by Gabe Cooper

When we donate money or time to a cause, it's a deeply personal act. It makes us feel that we're part of something bigger than ourselves, which in turn can lead to a desire to connect in a personal way with the nonprofits we support.

Yet three-quarters of donors give to a nonprofit only once. Why are they uninspired to keep giving?

Too often there's a disconnect between a donor's first and second encounters with a charity, and as a result, opportunities to foster loyalty are squandered.

The traditional fundraising playbook sends all donors the same response, making the connection feel more transactional than relational. Usually a few people will take the action you request, but that impersonal, mass-marketing approach pushes away many donors.

Blanketing all donors with the same messages may be stifling generosity and reducing your impact. Most nonprofits have amassed a large list of "one-and-done" donors. What can your nonprofit do to rebuild the relationship?

Here are three ways to inspire loyalty and connect donors to your cause.

1. Start with data and move beyond segmentation. Many nonprofits send different marketing or fundraising campaign messages to different donor groups; some have created "personae" that represent different types of donors supporting their causes.

The next step is personalization, a concept that has taken hold in the for-profit world. It means communicating the right message, at the right time, in the right way, taking into account the stage of each donor's "journey" with your organization.

Personalization helps encourage donors to get more involved. You're probably already doing this with your big donors, but nonprofits must learn how to do this on a large scale. You may be thinking that it's impossible because of limits on resources and time. But personalization doesn't have to mean in-person, white-glove experiences for each donor.

To personalize your messages to supporters, look beyond their attributes. Pay attention to how and why they engage with your organization.

If you aren't collecting this type of information already, start now. You should be gathering publicly available data (e.g., wealth and location data), too, and observing social-media behavior and relational insights. Existing technology can plug in social-media information, wealth, and location data. For example, you can aggregate work histories from LinkedIn, photos shared on Instragram, and tweets in addition to records of charitable giving, housing value, and so on.

Equipped with the right data, you can engage all donors, not just the biggest ones, and make them feel like part of your cause rather than a means to an end. The more you know about why and how they give, the more opportunities you can give them to express their generosity in ways that align with their values.

Nonprofits that take this approach realize that their efforts are less about fundraising and more about unlocking generosity. To personalize your communication in this way, you have to start with what you know: your data.

2. Step away from mass email blasts. We know it's easier to tee up one big email to your entire database and hit send. Easy, yes. Effective, no. Personalized communication requires more effort than mass emails, but it doesn't have to be hard. Start with one small campaign to a targeted list of donors. Here's how:

  • Gather as much information about a specific group of inactive donors as you can. It can be a small list. If you're using a donor-engagement system designed for nonprofits, this can be done quickly. But you can also do it manually by downloading information from your database and organizing it in a spreadsheet.
  • Analyze your data to uncover specific insights. For example, did many of these donors give through social media? Was their generosity triggered by a specific event? The answers will determine what you say to them. Your list may split here and get even smaller. That's OK.
  • Create a series of tailored messages based on the insights you've gleaned about each group. Consider writing a series of emails that highlight inspiring stories of your nonprofit's beneficiaries.
  • Use marketing-automation software (HubSpot, Virtuous, Marketo) to send the emails out at consistent intervals over a specific period. By automating messages, you can increase engagement without increasing your workload.
  • Gather data on how recipients interact with the email series. Who opens the messages and clicks on links to watch videos? Who revisits your website? Who signs up to attend an event?

The goal is to move away from the one-message/one-request for everyone and tailor your message to donors on the basis of their interests and behaviors.

3. Let donors' actions determine the "ask." Your nonprofit depends on donations, which means you have to get comfortable with asking for money. But how, when, and what you ask for matter greatly. If someone hasn't given in a while, reaching out in an impersonal way to ask for money won't be effective.

Knowing how donors interact with you will give you a clear sense of what to ask for, and how. Sometimes you need to drop the ask entirely.

Here are some examples. Say you have identified a list of people who gave once via social media. Instead of sending them a promotional email about a forthcoming fundraising event, create a social-media campaign that shares an inspiring story (perhaps a video) about one of your recipients. The call to action at the end of the message should be to share the story or to visit your website to learn more about the people you help.

Alternatively, compile a list of one-time holiday check writers. Send them several emails over the summer; include stories of how you help people year-round. Instead of asking for money, ask for in-kind donations (such as canned food for a food pantry), a donation of their time, or some other action, like signing a petition.

To get donors back in the fold, help them reconnect with your cause in a small, easy way. It's easier to inspire them to share a video on social media, or to spend some time on your website, than it is to ask for money.

Personalized communication, delivered at the right time and in the right way, can turn inactive donors into supporters who advocate for your cause and raise awareness of the good you do.

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