Powerful Ways to Segment Donors for Your Next Appeal

My wife, Sonja, keeps getting mail from AARP. Even though she’s about four decades away from becoming a “retired person,” they keep asking her to join their association. Every couple of months a new invitation arrives, and every couple of months (after a laugh) we add another envelope to our recycling pile.

In today’s world, we have a justified expectation that the organizations that market to us know us and know us well. (Call it the Amazon effect—think of all those “customers like you that shopped for X, bought Y” emails you’ve received.) As marketers, we have a responsibility to meet those expectations with our messages.


Nonprofits and universities have close relationships with our constituents. We know a lot about them, and we’re sitting on a gold mine of data stored up in our database. In using that data to segment our appeals and touchpoints, we should act like the close friends we are, rather than the distant strangers that a one-size-fits-all message makes us seem. Our messages, unlike the ones Sonja and I keep getting from AARP, should feel relevant and personalized to each of our audience members.

Below, I’ve put together a simple list of ideas for segmentation that you can use on your next appeal or stewardship push. More than likely, you’ll be able to find all of these data points within your database and use that information to customize your outreach.

Let me know how it goes (@themikenagel—I love hearing results!) and add other ideas in the comments below.

Giving Data

We’ll start with the data we know—and probably love—best. Not to mention, it’s possibly the most accurate set of numbers in our database.

  • Gift Amount: Group donors into their historic annual donation levels, then see what you can do to drive increases.
  • Gift Date: You know you have donors that always give in December or June. So don’t ask them for money in March. Work around their schedule, and if it’s not their time of year, send them a stewardship impact story instead.
  • Gift Anniversary: Simple, but effective. Letting someone know it’s been a year since their last gift can help a donor realize that, yes, it’s been a while.
  • Response to Specific Appeal: Are you tracking which appeals are connecting with your donors? Who’s responding to giving challenges or one-day campaigns? Who’s sending in a check in response to direct mail like clockwork? Focus on what resonates with each individual donor.


Donor Interests

Give the people what they want!



How do you reach out to people you know are actively thinking about and interested in your organization?

  • Event Attendees: Advancement folks meticulously track event attendance for a reason. Leverage that info; attendance at an event might trigger a follow-up appeal in a week or two, or an email with photos from the gathering.
  • Digital Activity: Has your potential donor “liked” every science-related post on Facebook and/or read every story on a new research study in your e-newsletter? You now know where their interests may lie; track this information and do something about it! (Check out how Union College segmented their Facebook “likers” to raise an extra $5,900 during an annual campaign.)
  • Email Opens and Clicks: It’s a lower level of engagement than spending an evening at an event, but an email interaction still means something. (At Exeter, our donors are nearly twice as likely to open emails.) Use that knowledge for follow-up solicitations.
  • Online Engagement: Who’s using your alumni directory to search? Who’s watching your live stream channel? Who’s tuning in to alumni webinars? These folks are engaging with you! Don’t let that go unnoticed.


Stage of Life

For those of us in higher ed, our audience often has a view of our school that’s fixed in time. We can use that nostalgia to connect the past with the future needs of our institution.

  • Graduation Year: When developing messaging for specific graduation classes, show them the campus they know. Let them hear from beloved professors or send them headlines from the school paper while they were here.
  • Age: When asking your audience to attend an event or give in honor of their reunion, show them people they can relate to. Photos of the “old guard” don’t encourage responses from the younger crowd, and vice versa.



Tailor your outreach to the places your audience calls home.

  • Home City/State: Spur regional pride or an East Coast/West Coast challenge (think Biggie and Tupac, but way friendlier) with appeals targeted to alumni who live in certain areas. Bonus idea: Check LinkedIn for current alumni/donor location—your database may not have the most up-to-date information.
  • Residential Life: If you have strong campus or dorm affinity, use that information in your outreach. Referring to an alum’s campus home (maybe through a dorm picture “stolen” from the yearbook) can be a powerful appeal.

These are just a few ideas to help you mix it up on your next outreach. Segmenting our marketing materials takes a little extra effort, but we already have the information on hand to make it possible. It’s just a matter of using that data to its fullest.

Remember, when we’re talking with our audience, we’re not trying to reach them all at once. Rather, we’re trying to reach each one individually in a manner and with a message that fits his or her life.

Learn how Salem State University is using EverTrue’s GivingTree to segment alumni for targeted appeals (without the hassle of running reports!).

Mike Nagel is the Associate Director for Advancement Communications at Phillips Exeter Academy. He spends his time managing and creating stories for PEA’s social media, alumni website, email marketing campaigns, and other mostly-digital play spaces. Say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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