Four Steps to Donor Personas

Vol. 14 No. 5

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Buyer personas are useful marketing tools for businesses, as they break down a typical customer's likes, dislikes, attitudes, and habits. Similarly, "donor personas" help the Development Office better identify and appeal to potential donors—but you have to craft them first. Take these four steps to write donor personas that help you craft effective, poignant communication with those who want to help your school grow.

1. Talk with your current donors.

There’s no better place to start developing your donor personas than with those who have already given to support your school’s mission. Go through your current database of donors, and see if you can identify some distinguishing demographics that you can use to “group” prospects. Some ideas for common variables that might hold true in your school are:

  • age;
  • method of donation;
  • how they are connected to your school;
  • one-time versus recurring donations; or
  • profession.

Once you’ve identified what you believe are some common “groups” within your donors, you can ask your donors for a few minutes of their time to have a chat with you, as you ask them more about their general interests and philanthropic activities.

(Of course, if you’d rather have someone else gather this information—and possibly find more “complete” answers, as they’d be interacting with a third party as opposed to talking to you directly—ISM’s Survey Department can design a survey specifically to find this information about your current donors.)

2. Differentiate “general” characteristics from those of more “targeted” subgroups.

As you look over the information gathered in Step #1, you’ll find that each group of donors you’ve identified give for very different reasons. One group of donors may give only when their children are actively enrolled in your program. Others may give for purely religious or academic reasons. Still others may give as part of a special event.

This is where the power of a donor persona really begins to take shape, as you’ll be able to discover both what the “typical donor” to your school looks like, as well as specifics about various subgroups within the larger donor population.

For example, let’s say that 45% of all donors to your school prefer electronic contact over phone calls. But, as you dig into your subgroups, you may discover that general 45% is mostly made up of the group you’ve called “Millennial Parents,” while another subgroup you’ve identified as “Local Business Owners” prefer scheduled phone meetings.

You’ll still want to appeal to both groups for donations, but you shouldn’t apply the findings for the “average” to each subgroup—hence, the separate donor personas. This brings us to our third step in the donor-creation process.

3. Understand that “average” and “typical” will not describe all donors.

Donor personas are often collections of “average” impressions. That is, a donor whose demographics, habits, and interests categorize him or her into a particular subgroup will tend to prefer certain methods and outreach efforts over others, but it’s in no way guaranteed.

It’s a bit like trying to forecast the weather. Let’s pretend that there’s a higher-than-usual chance that it might rain next week, based on the current atmosphere and previous weather patterns. However, this is by no means a sure thing. You’ll look at the weather channel and bring an umbrella as a just-in-case precaution, but you won’t be surprised if you don’t need it.

In the same way, while you can use your donor personas to form an overall strategy and properly allocate of resources, don’t fall into the trap of expecting every donor to fall into one of these new donor persona boxes you’ve created. In spite of projected habits and trends, you must treat every prospective donor as an individual.

4. Use your “negative personas.”

In a recent blog post by marketing automation software Hubspot, David DeMambro discusses why organizations should pay attention not only to what actual donors are like, but what they’re not like. These characteristics make up a "negative persona," identifying the characteristics of people to who tend not to donate to your organization. He explains:

"It’s critical that you identify these ‘negative personas’ early. They’re a waste of energy, time, and money for your organization to chase: if you’re actively marketing to these negative personas, you’re likely facing some severe opportunity costs. [...] Make sure that you’re investing your efforts in the areas with the highest ROI [Return On Investment]."

So even if some of your previous donors came to you through, say, paid social media advertisements, maybe a larger percentage of donors give through some other means—perhaps directly on the school’s website without going through an ad. Therefore, when deciding on budgets, let your “negative personas” nix ineffective strategies, thereby uncovering the best areas in which to invest your (limited) time and resources.

The Development Office's folio of communications must—technically and emotionally—tug the right strings with donors for your fund to set itself apart from its philanthropic competitors, exceed funding goals, and ultimately make your school the best it can be. Take ISM's two-day Writing Clinic: Marketing Your Annual Fund, from June 22-24 during our Summer Institute, and receive hands-on guidance to take your annual fund marketing materials from average to excellent.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Private School News Vol. 14 No. 9 LinkedIn for Administrators, Part Four: Genuine Connections
The Source for Development Directors Vol. 13 No. 7 Cleaning Up Your Donor Database

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 40 No. 2 Planning the Comprehensive Campaign: Guiding Principles for Success
I&P Vol. 35 No. 7 ISM's Two Development Stability Markers: How Do You Score?

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