For years, a common piece of advice in the fundraising world to help organizations understand their donors better has revolved around defining who your “typical donor” is and building a persona or avatar to help you in your work. The idea is that you do some research to understand who they are (where they work, how they spend their time, what their household makeup looks like, how and where they consume news & media, etc) and use what you find as “educated guesses” to build your communications, events, and fundraising asks toward that (imaginary) person.
In some ways, this can be a useful tool to help you better understand your current audience. But it also comes with a significant downside – it builds in presumptions to our work that may in fact end up hindering our success. Focusing in too much on who we currently speak to, and the surface-level understanding of who they are and how they like to connect with us can cause us to inadvertently leave other potential supporters out of the conversation entirely.
Today, I want to offer an alternative to building out donor personas or avatars that still helps you to better understand who your current and potential audience is and how to effectively connect with them.
How do we do this?
This is not only helpful for you to understand why your donor is connected to your work, but it can be an impactful moment for the donor to better understand themselves, too. Any chance you get to have an authentic conversation with your past donors (and your general audience!) about their motivations for supporting or following your work — take it. Whether it’s in person, via social media, or somewhere in between, your goal as a fundraiser is to connect with the people who support your work in a way that is authentic and helps you to understand them better. And asking them why they give will always be more insightful than who they are or how they prefer to donate.
Questions that dig into the heart of why a person gives can look like:
As you gain an understanding of the why behind your donors’ support, you will be able to start to formulate what I call the “pillars of connection” for your cause. These are the major reasons your donors find you and choose to support you. These aren’t the superficial reasons (i.e., a tax credit, a sponsorship benefit, or even something like “my friend asked me too and I wanted to support them). True pillars of connection are the deeply ingrained, values-based reasons that your donors support you. These pillars will be different for every organization, and you’ll likely continually find new pillars throughout your time in your role.
A common pillar of connection you’ll see in almost every nonprofit out there will be lived experience and/or the organization’s impact on an individual’s life. Beyond this, you’ll see different pillars in different settings. An education nonprofit will of course have the alumni (lived experience) pillar of connection, but they may also find a group of donors who support the school because of their professional experience working with kids who need the support the organization provides. An animal welfare organization will certainly see support from past adoptive families (lived experience), but I’ll bet they also get support from people who just think the adoptable pets deserve a loving home, but they aren’t in a place to take one in themselves.
As you continue to have these “why” conversations with your donors and better understand your pillars of connection, take some time to think about this more deeply. Are there any potential pillars of connection that you would expect to see from your mission, but aren’t showing up in your current donor conversations/responses? These are areas (and audiences) that haven’t yet been tapped for their potential by your organization. Consider how you might find this subset of your audience and how you could better connect with them.
Another helpful avenue for identifying what is missing is assessing your failures as intentionally as your successes. By having deep “why” conversations with your donors, you are analyzing your successes. So how do you do this with your failures? You think back to the conversations you have had that did not lead to a donation or partnership.
Take time to figure out lessons learned from every conversation you have with a potential donor or partner that was not interested in supporting your work. What did they say that made you think? Was there any nugget of wisdom that you hadn’t been considering? Was there a specific hurdle you need to address before the individual would be interested? Finally, make sure to capture what did go well in the conversation. After each conversation, write it all down and keep this doc handy. Not only is it useful for better understanding what does and does not resonate with potential supporters, but it can also be helpful in crafting responses to questions you get in the future that you may not have been prepared for at the time.
Donor personas and/or avatars can be helpful when trying to figure out how best to connect with your audience in a surface-level way (i.e. – Do they use Twitter or Facebook?, Do they watch the evening news or subscribe to the paper?, etc). But when you want to ensure that you are reaching all possible audiences who have a value-driven connection to your cause, you must dig deeper.
Taking time to define the different pillars of WHY people give and mining your own experiences and understanding to identify “whys” where you may be falling short is essential if you want to reach your whole audience and ultimately understand your donors better. By taking opportunities to ask the why behind your donor’s support, you’ll put yourself in a position to not only understand that person’s motive or desire individually but the messages that resonate with your audience as a whole. And once you know these “whys”, they will help you more effectively craft messages than any “who” or “what” characteristics you could define.
PS. If you need more help defining your nonprofit’s voice, you can download my free Communicating Your Message to Different Audiences guide here.
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