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Terri Harel
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A Detailed Guide to Crafting Valuable Donor Personas

Taylor Corrado is the Head of Nonprofit Marketing at HubSpot, a leading marketing software provider. She has worked in the nonprofit space for several years, starting as a marketer (and HubSpot customer) at the online fundraising company, FirstGiving, where she educated nonprofits on the benefits of peer-to-peer fundraising online. 

What is a persona?

persona is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal constituent(s), including, fundraisers, event participants, volunteers, members and advocates, based on market research and real data you collect about existing and potential supporters. Personas describe attributes of people your organization expects to interface with, and can serve different verticals within your organization.

The value of thinking through donor personas

Personas provide tremendous insight for your organization. Personas help you determine where to focus your time, marketing resources, outreach efforts, and align practices across your organization. If you develop several accurate personas, you will be able to attract qualified site visitors, who have a real interest in becoming supporters of your cause. Essentially, personas guide your marketing and communication strategies, so both your fundraising and engagement efforts are as effective as possible.

Personas also add a human element when strategizing your engagement. As a profile of your target audience, these semi-fictitious characters give a face and personality to the people you want to communicate with. They provide a mode of “conversation”, between you and potential supporters that help you think through potential objections and overcome challenges to engagement.

Sounds great! So, where to start?

Personas are created through research, survey and interviews (in person or over the phone) with your current supporters and target individuals. In the research stage, you should include people that you do and don’t want to engage with, since this will help you narrow down your definition of idea prospective supporters. Also take a look outside the obvious audience to get a complete and unbiased picture of your supporter base. You will collect an array of data that helps you paint a picture of who your ideal constituents are.

When developing your personas make sure you include these broad categories. Note that the specific questions will vary based on your organization’s scope of work and for what you are looking to use that particular set of personas.

1) What are their basic demographics?

  • Are they married?
  • What’s their annual household income?
  • Where do they live?
  • What is their sex?
  • What is their age (or generation)?
  • Do they have children?
  • Where do they live? In a city or suburbs?

Collecting demographic information is a great place to begin drafting your personas because it’s easy to obtain and creates a clear sketch of a person.

2) What’s their job or occupation?

This gives you a better idea of where your audience works or studies, where in the occupational hierarchy they sit (e.g interns, managers, or executives), and what responsibilities they have at work. In business to business (b2b) or business to customer (b2c) environments, this persona characteristic is used to determine who is ultimately making purchasing decisions, on behalf of a business, household or individual. In nonprofit organizations, the characteristic can be used to identify income level and tailor suggested giving levels or to tailor asks for corporate giving or matching programs. For example, if you have a lot of executives following your organization, then you may want to expand your major donor nurturing programs. If you have a lot of younger supporters, you may want to up your online presence and build an aggressive social media strategy to connect with them.

3) What does a day in their life look like?

  • Are they spending more time at work, or at home?
  • Where would they rather be?
  • What do they like to do for fun?
  • Who do they interact with regularly?
  • Who are the people in their life that matter most?
  • What kind of car do they drive?
  • What TV shows do they watch?
  • Are they active? If yes, what activities do they do?

This type of information provides great insight when your organization is developing a fundraising event.  For example, if you have a very active audience, endurance events are probably a great idea. If they are very family-oriented individuals, then a fair or carnival might be a better idea.

4) Where do they go for information?

  • Do they do their research online? Or do they prefer face-to-face interactions?
  • Do they use social media?
  • What are their most trusted sources of information: their family, friends and co-workers or online resources, peer review sites, and news outlets?
  • How did they find the organizations they currently support?
  • How do they prefer to consume information from these organizations (e-mail, print, social media)?

These characteristics determine content and prospecting strategy – e.g. how are you going find, engage with, compel, and thank your constituents?

5) What are their most common objections to supporting an organization?

  • How do you prefer to give or fundraise?
  • What bothers you about the organizations you currently follow or support?
  • How do you prefer to be communicated with (email vs. social media)?

Make sure you understand why someone my have objections to your organization and plan how to deal with and respond to these concerns. If someone is concerned about your organization’s transparency, then maybe considering adding a dedicated section of your site to financial and operational insight.

6) What organizations have they supported and how?

  • Have they ever fundraised for a nonprofit?
  • Have they donated to an organization before?
  • Have they ever been a recurring donor?
  • Have they ever fundraised in lieu of a life event, like a birthday?

This gets at two things: what type of organizations this person is likely to support, and how they are willing to support them. This is important to know so you can offer similar options or determine whether they are ripe to up their commitment to your cause.

7) How do I identify whom I’m speaking with?

Now that you have a lot of information about your audience and target persona(s), you have to be able to identify them. Once they are engaging with your organization, you will have to know which donor persona they represent so you can tailor your communications, like asks and e-mails to attract them to particular campaigns or engagement opportunities. How will you know when you’re talking to this persona? Is it their job title? Something about the way they talk or carry a conversation? The organizations they’ve previously supported? How they found your organization, either through word-of-mouth or a Google search?

Once you’ve established who your personas are and how you to identify them, your staff will be able to maintain a consistent voice that is customized to each person. Make sure to name your persona, so that everyone can refer to “Volunteer Vicky” or “Fundraiser Fred” when planning campaigns or talking strategy for reaching major donors. These should become “household” names at your organization.

I think I have a lot of personas…what should I do?

It’s important to avoid drowning in personas. Having too many personas will dilute your message and probably means you aren’t speaking to enough people. If you feel like you have too many personas (7+) try broadening your definitions or creating separate verticals for clusters of them. The latter would apply if your organization happens to be engaged in a lot of different programs and activities. Try creating 2-4 personas for each program.

Educating your staff on new personas:

If your development, fundraising and communication teams don’t understand whom they’re speaking to and seeking out, it’s hard to craft messages are consistent and resonating with site visitors. So, how do you communicate the characteristics of your new personas with your entire organization?

Create a document that outlines all the information you’ve collected and share it with your entire staff. You should also have a kick-off meeting to present the personas and get feedback. Everyone should become well-versed in these personas, so make sure they’re easily accessible; include the information on your intranet, bulletin boards, or wherever your organization accesses its documents.

Important: Don’t Forget to Develop a Millennial Persona!

One of the most important personas to develop for any organization is the Millennial persona. You want to focus on how you can engage and inspire the younger, blooming generation. They embody a slew of characteristics that make them an important group to connect with, including a desire to actively initiate change and leverage their online networks. Most Millenials find technology intuitive, especially since this generation was essentially brought up on browsing the Internet and interacting regularly with web technology. This can make promoting online fundraising and social networking with this group particularly rewarding. Since they could be the future voice of your organization, it’s important to engage with them in a directed manner.

How does your organization use personas to target constituents? Comment below and let us know!


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Image Credit: Sam Howzit

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