10 Tips to Help You Get Personal with Donors

Getting personal with your donors is essential to your success as a nonprofit marketer and the tools to personalize digital communications are more available than ever. Read on for ten tips to maximize engagement with your donors through personalized email, forms and experiences through technology. You can provide a deep and meaningful experience to your site visitors, email recipients and most importantly, donors by thinking through the process of engagement and using the tools in your eCRM. Let’s get started…

Hi Joe! Thanks for stopping by to read more about fixing old cars.

That didn’t feel right did it? Unless you’re Joe and in the totally wrong place (this is a blog about the importance of personalizing donor communications, in case you skipped the opener). It certainly would have been better if I knew your name.

As digital communications have advanced so have expectations and donors don’t want to receive an email that just says, ‘Hi friend’, anymore. In fact, they expect much more than just the correct name in their email.

We began to see the transition of expectations with millennials. I remember attending a summit in 2014 and watching a presentation on millennial purchasing behaviors and expectations (for the life of me I can’t recall the speaker’s name). My takeaways were that they ‘wanted more’. More transparency. More experience. More brand interaction. More authenticity.

The world in 2020 presents new generations for evaluation, new technology and let’s face it – a deeply digital world. In a 2020 study commissioned by WP Engine on Generation Z, the results were telling.

66% of Gen Z surveyed believed that all websites “talk” to each other, so every site/app/appliance will present a personalized experience
70% of Gen Z surveyed believe websites will know what they are looking for automatically

While there are hold-outs from previous generations that may think personalization is creepy, they’re becoming the minority. It’s time for donor outreach to evolve. In the end, even those of the creepy mindset will appreciate feeling special (they just don’t know it yet).

As a caveat, the ten tips covered here are indeed important. They are also indeed available in the Engaging Networks toolset. If you see something you need, give us a shout. Also, personalization isn’t just about knowing someone’s correct name.

Personalization is about establishing a connection, anticipating a donor’s desires and mirroring their emotions.

When I was at Ocean Conservancy, I drafted the most amazing campaign. President Trump had just been elected and there were many other things to sort out so sadly we never used it. But, essentially, it was an experiential campaign (digital) built on our connections to the coast and driven by the vast technology options in Engaging Networks. It started with a simple form asking for some personal information including geography, your favorite beach, and why that beach was special to you. From there, the data fed forms, built profiles for email targeting, triggered email marketing automations and so much more. All focused on your personal connection to the ocean and the coast – and how you could make a difference. To give you a feel for it, I’ll add an idea or example for execution at the end of each section – to help you visualize the possibilities.

One last thought before you read further. As you read each tip, don’t think of your donor as kathy@engagingnetworks.net but rather as Kathy Powers from Portsmouth, Virginia who grew up on the coast and loves the ocean, who is now a Marketing Director… a person with a story. If you need help creating a persona for your donors and supporters you can get started with our persona worksheet.

Personalize with names and more

The easiest way to relate to your donors is through the simple addition of their name. The majority of eCRMS out there today do this. Here are five excellent places to add your donor’s name, making their experience personal from beginning to end.

  • Subject line: Kathy, can you help us protect the Outer Banks?
  • Email greeting: Hi Kathy,
  • Email ask (not enough people do this): The Outer Banks is in trouble, Kathy, and we could use your support with a gift of XX today.
  • Landing page (donation form): We’re so glad to see you Kathy. Here’s how you can help.
  • Thank you page: Kathy, thank you for your gift. Your donation will make such a difference for shorebirds and other sea life on the Outer Banks.

Using a person’s name (even in a redundant fashion) tells them that you know who they are. You’re connected – at least in a basic way – and this strengthens the bond and establishes connection and trust.

Personalization Tip

The ‘Outer Banks’ is my response to the beach form I mentioned. You’re speaking about something – a place – I dearly love. Of course I’m going to donate! However, if you sent me to that page and forgot my name or showed a picture of a rocky seashore (not at all the Outer Banks) you lost the authenticity of that moment and broke trust.

Some eCRMS, like Engaging Networks, allow deep customization of emails and landing pages. You can choose from nearly any database field to populate content making it truly personal. You can even create a fallback in case the field is blank for some reason. Imagine the possibilities…

Know your donors based on the data

Even if you never collect donor information along the way, you probably still know something about them based on the data. Have they signed a petition, completed an action or donated on a specific page? If you do have detailed information like form responses, use that too.

Use what data you have to build relevant audiences (we call them profiles) based on donor interests and behaviors. The more detailed you get the more effective it will be.

The Segmentation Generator

Need a hand getting started with segmentation? Check out our segmentation generator!

Every organization has its limitations of course so keep that in mind – you can’t do everything. But you can likely do some customization so find a place to get started that fits your organizational capacity.

Now that you’ve built those profiles and you’re planning your email copy, pause and consider your landing pages too. You can conditionalize content in both email and landing pages in Engaging Networks based on the profiles you have set up.

Translation: When you build an email or page, you can build it to show different content to different people based on their profile.

Personalization Tip

Use these tools to build deeper experiences and also to save you time. When I received the Outer Banks appeal, my friends in Maryland may have received the same message but about Ocean City, MD. When we went to the same form – we saw different content AND different images. All based on what was known about us.

Sending email to the right people

My boss used to say,

the right message to the right person

I also like this one, an adage from a college communications professor,

communications are irreversible

Try that one on your kids sometime. The takeaway is get it right, as once it’s out there you can’t take it back.

Segmentation is key. That said, this is something unique to every organization. Some organizations segment emails simply by donor group. Some dive deep into levels of engagement using our Engagement Scoring tools. Some have dozens of unique segments and variants for every email. Find a level of segmentation that is comfortable for your organization. Then, message with relevance and authenticity.

Personalization Tip

If you can’t get too granular don’t worry. Consider mapping it out simply and you can use our segmentation generator to give you some ideas. Here’s an example:

All donors > Who gave in the last year > Who gave >25 > Who participated in the beach form > Who are in the XX region

You don’t have to be that specific, you can stop at ‘who participated in the beach form’ or sooner.

Sending the right email content

I touched on this above but authenticity is more important than ever. It establishes trust. Lack of authenticity tells donors you don’t know what you’re talking about – or worse – you don’t care.

  • Write copy and source images that are relevant to your message, donation ask and donor’s interests
  • Take the time to fact check your copy and images

Generic asks will certainly raise money but speaking to people about issues they are concerned about or things they have a connection with will raise more. If you’re not sure, test it.

Personalization Tip

This pulls several elements together. The email I received had a picture of an iconic Outer Banks lighthouse in it. You have my interest, I clicked. On the landing page, you told a story about trash washing up on Cape Hatteras National Seashore (perhaps citing a source). I was curious and searched the news and indeed did find an article about how recent storms were littering the beaches of NC with trash. I trust you. I donated.

Anticipate donors’ wants and desires

Let’s be real. We’re only human (until you read the last section of this article) but you can still anticipate SOME of your donors’ wants and desires – based on the data. You’ve read in previous sections how to message about donor interests. But from the sales angle what’s the ask? You’ll also recall this metric:

70% of Gen Z surveyed believe websites will know what you are looking for automatically

On a very basic level, you can estimate your donation ask based on general donor groups. For example, if your segment is donors who have given 10 – 100 in the past, you could open with 25 and give them some options.

But… what if you could use their highest previous contribution and calculate a specific ask relevant to each individual donor? You can do this in Engaging Networks using our Next Suggested Gift tool. That’s a decent prediction of what they want.

Personalization Tip

I donated 10 a few months ago and you’re hoping to upgrade me in your beach campaign. Your goal is to move donors to give an additional 25%. You calculate this in the Next Suggested Gift tool and tell the system to round up to the nearest whole number. When I see 13 in the email and click on the donation page I think, ‘I can do 3 more’.

Tapping into emotions

Good copywriting and imagery. You can deepen a donor’s experience using some of the other personalization techniques in this article but none of those will help you tap into emotions like copywriting and imagery. You can find some good tips on copywriting for fundraising emails here. Give these consideration when writing:

  • Empathy – If you were the recipient of this appeal, what would you want to see in order to give?
  • Storytelling – Based on what you know about the donor(s), what story can you tell to connect them to your cause? Give them a sense of place, attachment and purpose?
  • Connections to the senses – Talking about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch connects the reader to your story in a deep and meaningful way.

Think about how to not just inflame your recipient with moving calls to action – connect them to your story in a physical and emotional way.

Personalization Tip

In the beach campaign I had plans to send messages to each group about regional foods. This was to engage the senses and evoke memories.

“Food memories are more sensory than other memories in that they involve really all five senses, so when you’re that thoroughly engaged with the stimulus it has a more powerful effect,” explains Susan Whitborne, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts

Think of a great trip you had and a moment you enjoyed a meal, or something unique you tried that’s specific to a location. I still crave salty, tangy vinegar covered Delaware boardwalk fries when I think of beach trips with my cousins. That memory stirs me and awakens a connection to that beach.

Providing an engaging experience

Your supporters have clicked on your very personalized email and come to your landing page. You could send them straight to a donation form from the email. Or… you could continue to immerse them in that experience. In Engaging Networks (not sure about other tools), you can do this using Redirect and Filter.

Based on how the user responds to form fields on the first page, they can be redirected or filtered into a specific experience. Here’s an idea of how this can work:

Someone comes to your beach campaign donation form from an unknown source – you know nothing about them.

  1. Page one simply asks for their name, email and state. Based on their entry in the state box they’re sent to one of six regional coastal pages.
  2. Let’s say they entered NC so they go to the Southeastern US page.
  3. On that page, you summarize some of the beautiful beaches in the Southeast and ask (similar to the form) what their favorite is as part of the donation ask.
  4. Then, of course, they finish on a personalized thank you page.

Personalization Tip

I had planned to build an experience just like this for the beach campaign where based on a response on page 1 they went to a unique and relevant page 2. Filter and redirect is very helpful for advocacy and campaigning as well.

Relating to people geographically

You know when you run into someone and you start talking about where you went to university? Then – amazingly – you happened to go to the same school! Did you know so-and-so? No. Remember that great bagel place?

Another way to relate to people is geographically. Like any other personalization, this can start basic and get much more granular.

What you typically know about your supporters’ geography

I always suggest that at a minimum that you collect zip/postal codes on your forms. You can backfill information later if needed to get geography. If you’re doing that, you generally know what state/region/province your supporter lives in. You can include information related to that for personalization.

Deep dive geographic personalization

In Engaging Networks, you can use our Geotargeting tool to include anyone within a specific radius. This can be used for local events, emergencies, political rallies. But, for the purposes of personalization think of the message and how it relates to the donor experience.

Personalization Tip

Geotargeting is new since I drafted the beach campaign but if it had been around I could have used it to simply take a poll. Vote for your favorite beach. I’d target everyone within the radius of 3 popular beaches. The landing page would have a simple picture and voting option and we could go from there. Or I could have used it to specifically message everyone in the vicinity of an event such as an oil spill.

Ask, listen and mirror

Communications theory varies depending on the discipline and the goals but three basics of communicating with an individual that work well for creating a personal experience are:

  • Ask – Ask donors what they think and feel. People love to tell their story and it connects them to yours.
  • Listen – Don’t ask and forget. If you ask for information in a survey, form or through one of the processes I’ve outlined above use that information or at the very least acknowledge that you received it and explain how you plan to use it. This is a listening exercise – tell them you hear them.
  • Mirror – Mirroring shows empathy and builds trust. It’s the process of reflecting back to the supporter what you’ve heard. Yes, I hear you and this is what you’ve said. If you can add more information, even better… this is what you’ve said and this is what we’re doing.

Personalization Tip

Use the survey or form tools in your eCRM! You can record responses in the database that can be used for personalization and to develop custom messaging. This was the beginning of the beach campaign and likely would have been the end as well. Collecting survey data to see how we can continue to build on the passions, emotional connections and experiences of our supporters.

Machine Learning and Personalization

Imagine a tool that can do much of this for you automatically.


A tool that can recommend your segments based on relevant data, tell you the most effective messages to send those segments, make recommendations on content that will resonate with these supporters, suggest the giving level and more. All you have to do is follow the instructions and work with the team to get it set up.

This tool exists – in Engaging Networks and nowhere else. It was conceived by our founder, Graham Covington, and runs through our sister company, Accessible Intelligence. In late 2020, we’ll release the results of our first AI client and they are beyond impressive.

Watch this quick video to learn more about how machine learning can change your online marketing.

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Chloe Green is a copywriter and digital campaigner with almost a decade of experience in the charity and political sectors. She’s delivered campaigns, copy and consultancy for a raft of good eggs including Anthony Nolan, the National Union of Students, St Mungo’s, and Hillary for America. She was Social Media Manager at the Labour Party between 2016–2019 and now she’s Head of Creative with the lovely team at Forward Action. She leads on fundraising emails, UX copy, and all creative facilitation. She’s an expert in email list growth, digital strategy, organic and paid-for social media, and digital mobilisation.

Rachel founded the specialist charity web agency, Rechord, in 1999. Between 1999 and 2012 they created hundreds of different web applications for organisations in the UK and internationally.
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