Segment and Test: A Scientific Method for Annual Giving Donor Analysis

Show me that you know me. And I’ll show you that I care.

From flash sales to urgent calls-to-action, our inboxes—both digital and the one with the little red flag on it—are stuffed with messages from stores, nonprofit organizations, and random corporations every day. Many of those messages end up in the trash bin before they are opened.

But some are kept, read, considered—and perhaps even acted upon.

What sets those messages apart? And how can you as a fundraiser create messages that survive the morning SPAM cull?

The answer is personalization.

In my last post, I talked about the two types of data—biographical and behavioral—that can help your annual giving team understand your donors’ interests, desires, and personal triggers. Today, I’ll discuss how to use that information to create donor segments and test out those segments using a scientific approach.

Why Should I Care About Donor Personalization?

Before I get into my methodology, let’s take a step back and look at modern marketing trends, the state of annual giving today—and the huge opportunity that lies ahead.

Corporate marketing machines are gathering data on you, your Internet browsing history, and your online purchasing habits every day. They’re constantly tweaking their information to ensure that you are seeing the right ad on Facebook or receiving the right email promotion at the right time, in the hopes that you’ll jump on that limited-time-only sale or respond to that call-to-action.


Universities, independent schools, and nonprofits typically do not have these sophisticated resources at their disposal, but the philosophy behind it doesn’t change. To compete for the attention of our donors, we need to be equally savvy and arguably more personal to inspire them to show their support.

In theory, we actually know these people. They are our alumni, parents, and friends.

So, why is Banana Republic doing a better job of communicating content and opportunities to their audience—while we continue to throw darts into the void?


In major giving, the personalized approach is old hat. Major gift cultivation is really a period of data gathering. Over a series of lunches, coffees, and phone calls, the major gift officer is learning about the donor, his/her interests, personal situation, capacity and proclivity to give, and the best manner in which to make the ask. It’s a time-intensive process, but is considered worthwhile because it creates the opportunity to secure transformational support.

Historically, annual giving hasn’t received the same sort of attention. With databases full of tens of thousands of donors, we could never hope to know each donor well enough to create this type of personalized ask—and even if we did, the potential yield would never justify the time and budget necessary to execute those personalized asks. So, why bother trying, right?

Again, I ask: If Banana Republic can do it, why not your institution?

How to Build Your Donor Segments

Today, the advent of technology makes it possible to gather, store, and manipulate the information you need to create a personalized appeal strategy for annual giving—without imploding your budget or over-taxing already-harried staff.

But where is all of this magical donor information?

You already have some! You’re probably already collecting great donor data that can help paint a portrait of your donors and inform your strategy. Refer to my last post for examples of different biographical and behavioral data points you might gather to learn about your donors’ interests and preferences.

By combining biographical and behavioral data in various ways, you can develop finely tuned donor segments and build outreach strategies that have a greater chance for success. For example, instead of doing a blanket solicitation to last year’s alumni donors, think about the potential impact of an appeal that is targeted towards a specific segment of alumni who:

Now, when you write your appeal, you can address this group’s interests, preferences, concerns, and priorities—much like you would for a major donor—without getting to know each individual separately.


While there’s no single “right” way to develop these donor archetypes for your annual giving strategy, below I’m providing my step-by-step guide for creating personalized profiles of your donor groups. I call this my “scientific method for annual giving donor analysis.”

Remember the scientific method from middle school biology? My process for testing new segments or archetypes follows the same basic principles.

My Scientific Method for Annual Giving Donor Analysis

1. Create your hypothesis.

Even without looking at the data, you probably have some idea of what your donors want and need. Start here! Form a hypothesis about a particular segment of your donors and see if your data supports the claim.

Example hypothesis: Point Park alumni who graduated after 2003 have a different impression of our institution than their predecessors due to the transition from college to university at that time. Therefore, our appeals strategy for the university graduates should differ from that for the college graduates.

2. Check your data.

Do you have information that supports or refutes your hypothesis? If not, can you acquire it?

Data we have: Anecdotal feedback from pre-university Point Park alumni acquired during events, leadership meetings, etc. Common themes emerge during those one-on-one conversations.

Data we don’t have: An alumni survey that includes questions about the institutional transition—or about campus experiences at different times in university history—could add statistical depth to our anecdotal info.

3. Develop your test.

Create your specific appeal to go along with your new archetype. Make sure there is requisite coding on your letters and/or remit vehicles to track returns, then set it free!

Example Tests: Appeals to post-2003 Point Park alumni could include language regarding the growth of the institution and the benefit of its increased academic rigor and offerings that they enjoyed.

Appeals to pre-2003 alumni could include language regarding the history of the institution and the role these alumni played in Point Park’s evolution to the university it is today.

4. Analyze results.

Monitor the responses, both metric and anecdotal. Common annual giving metrics that you are probably already tracking (donor acquisition, retention, reactivation) are going to paint a great picture of how this newly personalized approach is working (or not working) for your donors. In addition, make sure to pay attention to personal feedback.

5. Let it simmer!

One set of test results is just that—one set of results. It’s not a trend! Unless you experience catastrophic blowback from a certain grouping (unlikely), let the test ride for a bit. Give it a chance to gain some traction before discarding and trying a different approach.

6. Tweak, refine, and retest.

All tests will yield some results—good, bad, or indifferent. Utilize that information to continue to refine the archetypes or the strategies as you move forward.

In the next post, I’ll share examples of real-life consumer and donor archetype structures that for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations have used to better engage their constituencies.

Watch this video to learn how to build donor segments with EverTrue for Annual Giving.  

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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