How to Get Personal With Annual Giving Segmentation

For most operations, annual giving is the black hole of fundraising: a generic ask to a mass audience without much in the way of personalization.

Case in point: I recently received an appeal letter from a medical foundation that I have supported in the past, addressed to “Dear Friend.” They could manage to personalize the freebie address labels, but not the letter. Insert forehead slap here.

Today, all nonprofit organizations and academic institutions are seeking out ways to stand out in the noisy charity marketplace. In my previous posts, I described how thoughtful, donor-centric content can showcase the mission of your organization, demonstrate credibility, build a case for support, and engage donors in a personal manner.

In order to create content that is truly donor centric, however, you need to know your donors. Who are they? What do they want? Where do they get their information? What interests them? Inspires them? Motivates them?


In my experience in annual giving, a comprehensive understanding of your constituency is more easily described than achieved. The knowledge that we gather about our donors—and then use to drive fundraising strategy—captures only a fraction of the overall picture, as we are only looking at the wants and needs of our donors through an institutional lens. More often than not, our attempts to be donor centric are entirely self-serving.

For example, I doubt any donor would classify him or herself as a LYBUNT or SYBUNT—yet many annual fundraising strategies stem from the type of donor information that only means something to the fundraiser. This isn’t to suggest that annual giving segmentation based on past giving behavior isn’t valid, useful, or important. Rather, I encourage you to think a bit bigger when it comes to the information you use to engage and inspire your donors.

So, how can you use big data to “know your donors?”

It boils down to gathering and manipulating pertinent donor information that can drive personalized messaging. While past giving is certainly an important data point, consider other factors that could influence an individual’s propensity to give. Then, think about how to layer that new information into your existing donor segments. (Note: This information varies from place to place, so take the time to think about what is relevant for your organization and your donors.)


What sort of data should you be gathering? Lately, I’ve been breaking the data into two categories: biographical versus behavioral.

Biographical information tells you something about the demographics of your donors. Criteria for this group could include age, geographic location, profession/industry, family information, relationships/connections, class year, degree/major, affinities, and affiliations. Wealth information is also valuable biographical data that can influence your segmentation or targeted appeals.

These pieces of biographical information can lead to a better understanding your donors. What stage of life are they in? Newlyweds with a young family? Nearing retirement? Mid-career, climbing the corporate ladder? It can tell you about the capacity and manner in which they could make an impact, as well as the projects, programs, and fundraising priorities that match their interests.

Behavioral information, on the other hand, reflects philanthropic inclination and how the donor has engaged with your organization in the past. This is where giving history comes into play. Have they given before? When? How much? Are they consistent? Do they give to specific areas within your organization?

It’s important to remember, however, that behavioral data is not limited to giving. Engagement data can be especially useful for upgrading donors or identifying new donors. Consistent volunteers, event attendees, readers of your newsletter, and social media fans are prime candidates for fundraising. If you are not capturing this information and storing it alongside giving records, consider incorporating it in order to move your most engaged prospects through the donor pipeline.

Learn how Union College used social engagement data to raise more during an annual campaign! 

As you might expect, the real magic happens when you layer behavioral data on top of biographical information. Although both categories tell you important things about your donors, when used alone, you only have half the story.

For instance, you may know that an individual graduated in 1966 with a degree in business, but without the critical information that he served on the alumni board in the early 2000s and attended three alumni events last year, you run the risk of missing out on a bigger opportunity to leverage his involvement for an increased contribution. Adding in the engagement/behavioral data gives you a complete picture of his inclination and capacity to make an impact on your annual campaign.

Now that you’ve mastered this concept, check out my next post to learn about my scientific method for annual giving segmentation and how to apply the principals of major gift cultivation to your annual fundraising campaigns.

Greta Daniels is the director of annual giving at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, and formerly served as director of alumni relations for Sewickley Academy, a PK-12 independent school in Western PA. Greta is fascinated with how cultural consumer trends and big data can drive authentic and sustainable growth in the nonprofit arena. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about annual giving trends and women’s cycling initiatives or to see her latest kitchen adventure.

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