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Personalization Is the Engine That Drives Today's Givers

Gabe Cooper
Gabe Cooper

Personalizing your nonprofit's communication plan doesn't have to be overwhelming, costly or resource-intensive.

As the founder of a tech company, I have a healthy respect for the power of software. In our modern world, great software is at the heart of nearly every fast-scaling organization.

The problem with software, however, is that one size does not fit all. When I started Virtuous, plenty of experienced advisors offered their opinions on the software we should use to grow our business. I learned quickly, though, that what worked for others didn't work for our organization, not because the recommended systems were bad; they just didn't fit the unique needs of our business.

If you're the leader of a nonprofit, you've likely felt this in your organization. You've tried out a tool or a service that's supposed to be the best at (fill in the blank), only to find that it didn't work at all for your organization.

When it comes to marketing software, in particular, nonprofits have long tried to make square pegs fit in round holes, getting locked into software and marketing practices that are fundamentally designed for for-profit marketing or that are based on legacy fundraising practices. This has resulted in mass marketing efforts that make your donors feel like "sales opportunities" rather than crucial stakeholders in your cause.

When you think about your top 100 donors, you likely know who they are, how many kids they have, where they work, their favorite restaurants, etc. There is no shortage of consultants in our world whose jobs are to ensure a personalized approach with those top donors. The problem, however, is the personal touch completely falls off for the next 10,000 people on your donor list. They're on the receiving end of the exact same generic institutional email or mail piece, with the exact same message, and the exact same ask. Nothing kills generosity faster.

In our modern world, impersonal fundraising is a wet blanket on generosity, and that's a problem when you consider that nearly three-quarters of people who give a single gift never give again. They simply don't feel appreciated. That's where personalization through marketing automation comes in.

Personalization allows each and every donor feel as though you're talking directly to them. It's more than just referring to your donors by name and recognizing the date of their last gift (they know that's automated).

Great personalization provides every donor with the right message at the right time based on their individual passions, capacity and relationship to your organization. Personalization, in this way, creates extreme loyalty. With so many brands finding their way into your donors' hearts and wallets every day with personalized experiences (think of Amazon and Netflix), loyalty might be the only thing that ensures consistent giving.

Introducing personalization within your communication plan and donor marketing efforts doesn't have to be overwhelming, costly or resource intensive. One of the easiest ways to apply personalization is a process I call know, automate, amplify.

Think about how you meet and get to know someone at a party. You start by asking them questions about themselves to get to know them better. Then you'll tailor the conversation around topics they bring up and their specific interests. Perhaps they enjoy bowling, so you ask them about their best game or the last time they went bowling. Finally, you might make an "ask." Do they want to go bowling with you sometime?

Here's how to break it down as a marketing process that fits for nonprofits.

How to apply personalization to your nonprofit's fundraising efforts


Gather as much information about your donors as is possible

If you're using a donor engagement system designed for nonprofits, this is a lot easier than if you're gathering data manually. You can collect info like their age, income, level of social media activity and the reason the initially gave to your cause.

To make personalization really work, it's important to gather attributes about your donors as well as behavior as it pertains to their engagement with your nonprofit. Do they engage with you on social media? Do they attend your events? How often do they visit your website?


Use marketing automation software to send tailored messages - at the right time - based on what you know about each donor

It's not enough to have good data; you need to know how to use it. The donors who only gave once get different messages, stories and marketing cadence than those who give regularly, and so forth. By automating these donor journeys using software, you can dramatically increase engagement, without increasing demands on your staff.


Use data analytics to understand what the right "ask" should be

For instance, based on donors' behavior and attributes, should you ask them to volunteer or give money? Is it more appropriate to ask them to buy tickets to your event or donate items for a silent auction?

Here's a great example of personalization in practice: One of our customers is a nonprofit that helps people living in poverty. Most of their communication is related to the work they do with the poor. When the most recent hurricane hit South Carolina, they  used geolocation data to identify all of their donors who had been affected. Rather than ask for money, they set up an automation workflow that sent emails and prompted their team to call and check in with their donors. The response from their donor base was huge. They felt that this nonprofit was there for them right they needed it. Their connection with the nonprofit was strengthened and their loyalty solidified.

If this nonprofit didn't have a personalization practice in place, they wouldn't have been able to locate their donors within a very targeted geographical area, contact them in a timely/scalable way and forge that connection. This is reciprocal generosity at work.

Other ways to personalize your marketing efforts

Here are four other suggestions to add personalization to your marketing efforts that can have tremendous impact on giving right away.

New donor campaigns

Most nonprofits don't follow up with their donors until 60 days after they've given. By that time, the "emotional" aspect or whatever drove that person to donate has probably been stifled, and the follow up/thank you feels a bit "too little too late."

Set up an automated email campaign specifically for new donors that welcomes them to your nonprofit. It should include invites to events to engage on social media, links to pages that outline ways to volunteer and stories about the good you're doing every day.

How those new donors engage with you from there should be tracked and scrutinized regularly so you can further tailor experiences for them. In other words, strike while the iron is hot, and give them something in exchange for their generosity. They'll be more compelled to keep giving.  

Persona segmentation

Identify three to five personas that love to give to your organization (e.g., Chase, the activist college student, Cindy, the art lover, etc.). Once you've identified your key donor types, find the stories and content that connect best with each persona. Segment your database so that each persona receives the targeted content and asks that are most relevant to them.

Personalization tech

Implement marketing automation technology that's designed specifically to help nonprofits automate communication and create personalized experiences for donors.

You don't have to get locked into using systems that aren't designed with nonprofits in mind. You have unique marketing needs, and your systems should meet those needs so your organization can grow.

Bottom line

Taking a more personalized approach to your nonprofit fundraising efforts can result in more donor engagement, higher average gifts, big increases in donor loyalty, and most importantly, you donors will feel that they're part of your cause.

Image Credit: marchmeena29/Getty Images
Gabe Cooper
Gabe Cooper Member
My drive stems from a passion to create market-defining software and help charities reimagine generosity. After graduating from Arizona State University, I served in a leadership role at a large nonprofit in the early 2000's. Next, feeling drawn to the innovation happening in the tech sector, I co-founded Brushfire Interactive and Shotzoom Software where my team and I built a series of successful products in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Our work has been featured on CNN, Apple's WWDC, the New York Times, Mashable, USA Today, and Wired Magazine. Today, having combined my love of both worlds, I frequently write and speak about empowering nonprofits to grow generosity using technology. In 2017, I launched a podcast called The Modern Nonprofit Fundraiser, where I speak with today’s leading nonprofit fundraisers and marketers as they reveal strategies for strengthening donor relationships to propel organizations forward.