Could Giving History Be the Best Way to Segment Donors?

Who are your constituents? How do you speak to them? What stories should you tell?

Are you sure?

Each summer, annual fund teams sit down and plan out the year—what they’ll send, who will get it, and how they’ll receive it. And each year (if you’re like me), you think about who your constituents really are and how they connect to your institution.

The typical breakdown tends to be class based (reunion, GOLD, year after Reunion, etc.). We often assume that the shared experience and “remember when” stories are the most compelling method of outreach.

But we wanted to try something different at Hobart and William Smith (HWS).


Think about your time in school, about your classmates. Each of you had a different experience, background, interests, and opportunities. Just because you inhabited the same plot of land, classrooms, and dorms doesn’t mean you experienced college the same way. This isn’t to say that there isn’t value in age-based groupings—but they should play the role of the E Street Band, not Bruce Springsteen.

What I believe, and have begun to find, is that giving history is a more effective way to segment donors. Why? It allows us to better speak to our constituency since donors’ actions are more consistent and homogeneous. Ever since we started using this method, we’ve been able to estimate each class’s year-end donor total at the beginning of the year to within ~10 donors.

Below are the seven different groups we segment our constituents into. They’re based primarily on donors’ five-year giving history, plus a few other key pieces of information.

1. “Consistent” donors

These are folks who have made our institution a philanthropic priority for at least four of the past five years. This group is the backbone of our work as annual giving professionals. Although they come from many different walks of life, these donors have built-in affinity for our institution. They care deeply (or shallowly… but they do care!) about the institution’s mission and want to find ways to help.

2. “Scattered” donors

These are individuals who have given two or three times out of the past five years. This group has an obvious affinity to the institution, but something is keeping them from giving every year.

This is where we see the biggest opportunity for growth. Our data shows that every extra year a donor gives over a five-year cycle, the likelihood that they make a gift the sixth year increases by over 20 percent. If we get them to make five out of five gifts, this means they’re at nearly 95 percent likelihood of making a gift the sixth year. So when we craft messages for “scattered” donors, we focus on why each year is important and why it’s worth their time and energy to make a gift.

3. “Lapsed” donors

This group consists of those who have given one or zero times in the past five years. (The “zeros” must have given at some point in their lifetime—but for whatever reason they’ve fallen off in the last five years.)

The focus for this group is what I like to call “Will it stick?” Something about your institution matters to them, and your job is to figure out what it is and make it stick.

4. “Never” donors

Not only have these constituents not made a gift in the last five years, but they also haven’t made a gift period. Our data shows that this group converts in the sixth year at just over three percent.

My advice: Share stories, do some market research on the roadblocks to giving, but don’t spend too much of your personal capital trying to acquire them. They’re important, but they’ll never be a huge growth area.

5. “Not yet” donors

This group is similar to our “nevers.” These are alumni who graduated four to nine years ago and have yet to donate.

Since it’s been several years since they graduated, “not yet” donors are exponentially more difficult to draw in. We treat them like “lapsed” donors in that we experiment with different messages to see what sticks.

6. Recent alumni

We place alumni of our last three graduating classes into this cohort. We don’t know much about this group—nor do they know enough about the value of their degree—but we’re here to support them and show why HWS matters even after they are physically gone.

7. “Leadership” donors

This group trumps all of the others. These are the people we’ll ask for leadership-level support during this fiscal year. The outreach to this group is much more personal, and if possible, it comes from a staff member through a variety of touches over the course of the year.

Of course, reunions, age, affinity, and other categorizations all have their place in our follow-up messaging to these seven groups, but giving patterns make up the core of what we are crafting at HWS.

That said, every institution is different—and I encourage you to uncover the lines of demarcation for your constituents and proceed accordingly.

In a field where we tell people an awful lot, an awful lot of the time, try letting those people tell you a little something, too.

Josh Foladare is the director of annual giving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When he is not helping raise money to make the colleges great, you can find him brainstorming new ways to explain what he does at work to his friends and playing with his two rescue dogs. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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