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How to segment nonprofit donors: identity vs. identification

By Claire Axelrad
October 16, 2020

Claire Axelrad
The author, who asks, “Appearances can be deceiving. Can you guess how I identify? Maybe. Maybe too little?”

Reprinted from Clairification.

There are lots of aspects to a donor’s identity; not all are equally important to them.

Well, duh, you may say.

But this matters more than you may know. Because if you don’t really understand the difference between identity and identification you may be wasting a lot of time heading in the wrong directions.

Let me explain further.

If you loosely segment donors by aspects of their identity that are relatively meaningless as far as they’re concerned, you won’t improve your fundraising results. You’ll certainly be busy doing all this segmentation—and you’ll be able to report back to your boss on all the great, ‘scientific’ work you did—but it will end up being a lot of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.

Perhaps you’re an organization that develops personas or avatars for your constituents. This is something marketers do to know who they’re selling to, and what that person may value. Sell sweaters? It helps to know if you’re creating messaging for “Chilly Charlie” (who wants warm sweaters), “Stylin’ Stella” (who wants fashionable, trendy sweaters), or “Frugal Freda” (who wants discount priced sweaters).

So too it helps when you write to “Suzy Soccer Mom” vs. “Funky Grandpa.” You assume they’re interested in different things, and they generally are. So you tailor your appeal differently to different target market segments.

But wait …

Get even smarter about donor identity

Ask yourself if the way you’re segmenting your donors is too generic. As helpful as it is to group prospective supporters by persona, it’s important not to go overboard with this strategy.

Why? Because it’s non-specific and based on the most obvious common denominator. If you don’t drill down a bit, you may miss the forest for the trees.

For example, I may fall into the general “Suzy Soccer Mom” category by virtue of having a kid who plays soccer. But that may be just a teensy part of my identity. The tip of my iceberg. One teeny tree in my forest. Something I do, not someone I am.

Perhaps I identify much more with the “Mom” part of the persona, and maybe something else. Like being a working mom. Or a gardening mom. Or a creative mom. Or an activist mom. The “Soccer Mom” persona misses key parts of the attributes with which I truly identify. If that’s all you’ve got about me, you may be unrewarded by what you get from me.

GIGO: generic in/generic out. When it comes to using donor identity, be careful and thoughtful.

This is the premise of a recent article, The “Donor” Identity is Lame, reporting on a study by the behavioral scientists at DonorVoice. They separated identity into two types:

  1. Organizational Identity (i.e., they are a generic “donor” to your organization).
  2. Innate Individual Identity (i.e., they self-identify with an individual attribute that relates to your cause—e.g., “I am a … theater lover; conservationist; social activist; environmentalist; education advocate; religious; vegan,” etc.).

Two key findings from the study should help you segment more effectively and build more meaningful personas—using less generic information—moving forward. By so doing, you will be able to move donors from generic, habitual gifts to more thoughtful, passionate gifts.

1. Innate identity is more predictive of giving than organizational identity

Sure it’s simpler to merely segment your mailing list between donors and non-donors. Or by other organization-centric monikers like “repeat donor,” “monthly donor,” “legacy donor,” “major donor,” and so forth. But you won’t raise as much money from these donors as you would if you further segmented them by important aspects of their innate identity.

As a fundraiser, your goal is to find the supporter identity that matters most in driving giving to your organization.
—Kiki Koutmeridou, Chief Behavioral Scientist, DonorVoice

2. Some aspects of innate identity are more predictive than others

DonorVoice ran an experiment involving donors to an environmental organization. Some self-identified innately as “conservationists,” others as “environmentalists.” It turned out both identities boosted giving, but the “conservationist” identity was more predictive of future giving than “environmentalist.” They only found this out through digging deep, probing, and testing.

Dig deep, probe, and test

Don’t assume you know what matters most to your constituents. Even if you’ve been working where you work a very long time. You may think your supporter gives to you because they identify as a music lover, but it’s possible their stronger innate identity is as a long-time Chicagoan. And they think their city should have a first-class symphony. At one point in my career I worked at a large community center that had both an active gym membership program and a prestigious performing arts program. Board and staff assumed major donors identified most as arts lovers, and fundraised accordingly. Until we did a survey! That’s when we found out many more of our major donors identified themselves as health and sports enthusiasts.

TIP: Think about yourself. Think of five to seven things with which you strongly identify. These may or may not include demographic identifiers such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, education, geographic location, and religion. But what about the more psychographic identifiers? The things you believe in? The activities in which you’re actively engaged? The hobbies you’ve put aside for a while, but which still mean a lot to you. How many nonprofits with which you’re engaged or invested know those things about you? [I asked a close friend to do this exercise, and aside from the obvious “woman,” “democrat,” and “religious skeptic,” I got ‘“vegetarian,” “feminist,” and “social activist.”] The fact my friend identifies as vegetarian may be important if you’re an animal rights organization. The fact they identify as feminist may be important if your organization fights for equal rights. In the latter case, it’s possible the fact they identify as a social activist may be even more important and predictive of future, and increased, giving.

The innate identities you want to probe for should be relevant to your organization’s cause. Depending on what you do, there may be one or two such identities (e.g., cat vs. dog person) or a whole panoply of them. Some will be more important to individual donors than others and, therefore, more useful to you in terms of segmenting your fundraising and marketing messages.

TIP: Gather together a sampling of your supporters (you could even do this virtually via a platform like Zoom) and ask them to brainstorm identities that come to mind for them. For example, the ACLU might generate a list like “activist,” “pro-choice,” “civil libertarian,” “human rights proponent,” and so forth. The ASPCA might generate a list like “animal rights,” “anti-cruelty, “proponent of human-animal bonds,” “species preservation,” etcetera. Consider sending a survey to your constituents asking them which of the attributes you’ve unearthed are ones with which they identify. Don’t stop by merely probing for PRESENCE of these identifiers. Probe for IMPORTANCE by asking folks to rank order them. Then test the two strongest identities against each other in an appeal to determine which generates a higher rate of renewal and/or rate of upgraded giving:

As someone who believes in a woman’s right to control her own body…” vs. “As someone who is a staunch defender of the First Amendment

As someone who cares about preventing the extinction of animal species” vs. “As a compassionate person who stands firmly against cruel treatment of animals

Donors will give more when you connect your cause to something about themselves with which they strongly identify

Being a donor is not something most people strongly identify with as a core part of who they are. Even for those who do strongly identify as a “philanthropist,” they don’t have to give to your cause to be one. Don’t misunderstand. Calling out the fact they’ve given to you in the past, as a volunteer or donor, is still worthwhile. So don’t shy away from segmenting donors based on past support.

TIP: One of Robert Cialdini’s six principles of influence holds folks will tend to behave as they’ve done in the past in order to demonstrate commitment and consistency. So it’s great to remind donors they’ve given to you in the past. It acts as a decision-making shortcut, inclining them to give again. But if you want to really seal the deal, or encourage them to give a larger gift, you’ll be better positioned to do so if you go beyond this type of generic segmentation.

Donors will give more if you call out internal, innate beliefs which they and your organization have in common

At the heart of effective fundraising is a value-for-value exchange. The more you can base your appeal on something the donor truly values—something that matches the values your organization enacts—the more money you will raise.

It is these values, and how essential they are to your donor’s core identity, that influence future giving. In a way, this is an even stronger way to put the principle of commitment and consistency into play. Because if someone stops giving to you (as a manifestation of their commitment to being philanthropic) they can still view themselves as a “consistent donor” if they transfer their giving to another charity. However, if they stop giving to your cause (as a demonstration of their identity as an ardent environmentalist or civil rights advocate), they can no longer view themselves as truly committed to the expression of those values. So … they have to stick with you!

BOTTOM LINE: Reach out to tease out more information about what’s important to your donors. Survey them. Ask them probing questions when you talk with them. Record this information in your database so you can draw upon it later. Think carefully about the ways your donors self-identify; then use this to increase donor retention and inspire increased giving.