Engaging diverse donors

Targeting and personalization are key, experts say.

By Michael Easterbrook

Here are three quick tips that may help you engage donors:

* Young ones will identify easily with Starbucks.

* Older women will avoid long-term financial commitments.

* Generation Xers are financially strapped, and don’t have much money to give away.

That advice from the experts underscores a more general solution to the question of how to engage donors: Use targeted messages whenever possible.

“Not only does it work,” says Karla Williams, a consultant based in Charlotte, N.C. “It works because we have an increasingly-sophisticated donor base and one that is saturated in solicitations.”


Many of the techniques nonprofits use to target donors of different ages, gender, income levels and ethnic backgrounds were first used by the for-profit sector, Williams says, and nonprofits started using the same techniques 10 to 15 years ago.

“It has now become a way of gaining a competitive edge,” she says.

Using targeted messages has become even more important as donor fatigue grows.

Penelope Burk, a consultant and president of Cygnus Applied Research in Toronto, says one large nonprofit discovered through a recent survey that its donors were being solicited eight times a year, but that they were giving less than twice during the same period.

“Donors feel over-solicited, bombarded by requests by an increasing volume of not-for-profits,” Burk says. “We have crossed the line somewhere in the middle of the night over an acceptable pattern of soliciting to something that seems to be swamping donors.”


Williams recommends that nonprofits seeking to employ targeted messaging to engage donors begin by tossing the boilerplate mailer and personalizing communications, even if that means stretching the length of fundraising campaigns.

“Know your donor and personalize everything,” she says.

As an example, Williams recalls a letter one of her university students sent to potential donors on behalf of a private high school.

The recipients of the letter were in their 20s, so the student asked them to consider giving as much as they spend at Starbucks.

“She understood that in order to have her letter read by her audience, she had to be right on,” Williams says.

Williams recalls a campaign launched by the Omaha Children’s Museum to raise $1,000 each from 1,000 Gen Xers identified as frequent visitors to the museum.

Instead of requesting $1,000 immediately, the museum asked them to pay over a three-year period, understanding that the budgets of most Gen Xers with young children are stretched thin.

“One thousand dollars is very affordable over three years,” Williams says. “But you would not use that pitch to women over 65, who tend not to want to make long-term commitments.”


Nonprofits also target specific ethnic groups, and during pledge campaigns at Houston PBS, volunteers from specific ethnic groups come to the studio as on-air talent, says Katy McFall, director of membership at Houston PBS.

The television station also targets donors based on age and gender, using different strategies to target different groups, McFall says.

Finally, Williams recommends finding specific examples of what each donor likes about the work the nonprofit is doing as a way to engage.

“The donor is your partner, not a bag of money,” she says.

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