4 steps to improving your donor communications plan

4 steps to improving your donor communications plan

4 steps to improving your donor communications plan

Imagine, instead of GDPR, the new rule was that you weren’t allowed to communicate without knowing something meaningful about the person you were writing to?  

‘Meaningful’ doesn’t mean a description of what they are, for example, age, gender, where they live etc. It means knowing why they might support you, or a specific need you can meet. How would your fundraising change? 

How might the vague, amorphous world of ‘engagement’ change from what tends to be one-way, push-based communications based on well-meaning (but ill-fated) internal guesswork to something akin to a conversation? How many people might naturally opt-in to that? 

You can’t buy this data, you can’t find it in your CRM currently and you can’t guess at what the right formulation might be. You need a point of view on how relationships and loyalty form and a way to measure and manage it. 

Here are four ways you can know something meaningful, improve supporter experience, better communicate and by extension, increase retention.      

1. Measure Commitment

Commitment is our short-hand term for strength of relationship. It exists whether someone’s been a supporter for a minute or a lifetime. Although the former tends to be less committed (lower mental loyalty) than the latter, there is a lot of variation in commitment level among new and long-time supporters. Knowing relationship strength means knowing how much, or little, to send. We’re not talking content (yet), simply frequency.

In a yearlong frequency test, to determine what impact frequency had on retention, new supporters were asked the DonorVoice commitment questions. The control group got the normal amount of content and a test group got more ‘engagement’ (i.e. no-ask) communications. What happened?

Retention fellfor supporters with higher commitment in the test group but it went up by 12 points among lower commitment supporters. Why? Relationship theory told us so. Specifically, higher commitment donors are already mentally on-board; they don’t need ‘engaging’. While those with lower commitment seem to appreciate a little engagement.

2. Uncover what causes commitment

It’s one thing knowing how committed a supporter is. It’s another to know what you can do to increase commitment and value.

Supporter relationship, like any relationship, is created by the experiences they’re exposed to over time (i.e. e-news, signing a petition, calling supporter services, etc). Supporters haven’t created mental silos separating experiences. No supporter ever said ‘This e-news came from digital engagement, while this appeal came from DM’, as far as they’re concerned it’s all you.

All of those experiences have a purpose. Our impediment to effective communication is that we don’t know whether they’re doing their job or not. Yet all these experiences cost you time, effort and money. Some help relationships, some are harmful to them and some are neutral. Without knowing which is which how can you communicate effectively? By gathering data you don’t have (quality ratings on the main experiences and supporter commitment) and combining it with the data you do (behaviour and giving/doing).

This requires a point in time survey spanning key areas of the supporter experience. In each case the question we need an answer for is ‘How good a job are we doing at…’ Here’s a few examples from a homeless organization:

Brand positioning

  1. Helping people back to work through skills and training
  2. Helping people who have been part of the criminal justice system

Fundraising and communication

  1. Making you feel valued as a Charity X supporter
  2. Making you feel like your donation is having a positive impact

Supporter services

  1. Addressing your questions or concerns the first time you contact Charity X
  2. Thanking you for your donations in a timely manner

This could yield 50-70 or so questions, depending on the ‘world’ you are creating for your supporters. On a strategic level this tells you how much exposure to each experience is worth. On a tactical level you get empirical evidence of which messages do and don’t drive value. Not surprisingly not every message matters. So, the discipline is as much what you don’t say as what you do.

3. Donor Identity, the Coin of the Realm

Is the answer to which experiences matter the same for everyone? We know people are different, yet different treatments only exist (if at all) based on product type or channel – e.g. appeals to cash donors, monthly newsletter to monthly donors. Although some of that makes organisational (and even supporter) sense, surely that can’t be our best, collective answer on meaningful segmentation?

In the images below, we can see how three individual supporters look on the CRM of a health charity. By all the metrics we measure and manage (recency, frequency, value, tenure, channel, demographics etc.) they are the same person. But, as the quotes below indicate, they have three very different motivations.


These three ‘individuals’ (i.e. identities) represent three clear, distinct but invisible segments – no connection with disease X, an indirect and a direct connection. There is no doubt you have invisible motivational segments too. Maybe you have people who are flora vs. fauna, globalists vs localists, cats’ vs dogs etc.  

Make no mistake, their identity is the main reason they support (and stop supporting). Each communication triggers mental, subconscious judgements about whether interacting with you is reinforcing of the values/goals of their relevant identity or not. 

How does this look in practice? One well known conservation charity uncovered two basic segments; people who supported because they loved animals’ vs people who loved nature in general. Both issue-related identities were crucial to mission. But mission was compromised by ineffective communication; the one size-fits all approach didn’t fit either group well.

Both identities could find what they were looking for in communications. But they had to work to find them – and behavioural science tells us we humans just don’t want to work that hard. For those who were prepared to put the effort in, there was an additional mental pain point of seeing what mattered to them being diluted by what didn’t.

With these identities exposed, the charity put a test journey in place, starting at acquisition. Knowing why people might support them they’ve been able to pre-qualify potential supporters, animals or nature, and put the appropriate offer in front of them. You probably won’t be shocked to hear offering people what they want has led to better conversion and value.

Understand the preference differences within identity segments.

Not all flora (versus fauna) people are the same, despite their shared identity being the primary reason they support. There are distinct and defining differences within identity segments. Let’s say you’re a faith-based child sponsorship charity. And let’s say the two core motivations for supporting are either:

i)  You want to involve your own young children in sponsorship, or

ii)  You never had children

Clearly the way you communicate with one segment will be vastly different from the other. But there’s still the question of faith – which could apply, or not, to both groups, effectively adding two more segments. Complex? Not really, think of supporter preference as an on/off versioning ‘switch’ – in this case do we reference faith or not?

Preferences by this definition are not simplistic, tactical channel or frequency preferences, which is the default, lowest common denominator definition. Rather, preferences are innate, and needs based, meaning they don’t apply just to your charity. 

Uncovering and refining them is your opportunity to make yourself more relevant. To develop distinct and evolving journeys by identity and preferences. To a business model not predicated on volume but supporter understanding. To sustainable growth. Leaving them unknown is the status quo path to flat/no/low growth.

Beware oversimplification and faux science

Die hard defenders of the status quo often tell you fundraising isn’t rocket science. And they’re right – in all my years in this sector I’ve never built a rocket. But there is a science of decision making. And that science conclusively shows research methods we’ve relied upon for years (i.e. focus groups, surveys, phoning a random sample of supporters, etc) are fundamentally flawed.

Science aside, there’s the equally incontrovertible evidence of consistently low conversion and high attrition. If anyone tells you to stick to the ‘basics’ and ‘best practice’, run - fast.

And run faster if someone offers attitudinal segmentation yielding a set of generalised segments or personas. These likely contain more differences among the people in a given segment than between the segments because the underlying rationale (e.g. an assumption that demographics matter) is fatally flawed.

Effective communication (and by ‘effective’ we mean making a difference to the metrics that matter; conversion, value and retention) requires subject matter expertise in the application of these four proven principles.

Kevin Schulman, Founder and Managing Partner of DonorVoice

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