Building Ideal Donor Personas

fundraising Feb 19, 2021

I find it interesting that many of the development directors I have worked with never developed an ideal donor persona. I admit, there are a lot of activities consultants tend to promote that are not helpful and only take up time – i.e. worksheets that stay in a binder forever. However, donor personas are not useless. I would say donor personas are one of the essential elements of fundraising success.

Three reasons donor personas are really important:

  1. The main reason donor personas are so important is that it’s not just a “fundraising” tool – it’s a “communications” tool. I'd go as far as to say that all successful fundraising ultimately comes from successful communications. Communications lead to relationships. Relationships lead to donations. All organizations, regardless of their missions, need to communicate their vision in order to compel people to give - that could be in words, images, video, etc. Donor personas, in particular, help us form communications that compel, drive action, and bring people into our communities. Communications intentionally crafted to an ideal donor have a certain degree of clarity and punctuality that you would otherwise miss. Clarity to the organization – of the thousands of things you could be communicating, what’s most important? Clarity to the donors and prospective donors – feeling like every communication is written directly to them.

  2. In addition to their fundraising use, they are also instrumental in fundsaving. Knowing who your target audience is can help us focus our time and resources. When we have a well-crafted persona, it can for example, save thousands of dollars on digital ads, set priorities to the in-person meetings a development director has, improve conversation rates from initial interest to donating, etc.

  3. Finally, a reason I always recommend organizations create donor-personas is that it gets rid of “founder’s syndrome.” Founder’s syndrome is a term I coined for something I typically run into when helping organizations that still have a founder in the mix. Founders and individuals who have been with an organization for a long time tend to think, “why wouldn’t someone want to support our cause?” The mission is so vital to these individuals that they literally cannot believe someone wouldn’t support it. “Why wouldn’t” is the totally wrong approach to fundraising, where we want to show/demonstrate why they should want to support the mission. More on that in a future post. If you suffer from founder's syndrome, this exercise will help you quite a bit.

How to Get Started

An ideal donor persona done by a professional would take a serious amount of research, in-person meetings/interviews, surveys, market research, etc. It is my experience that most organizations, well-intentioned as they are, have some amount of bias. Employees and volunteers are around the mission countless hours, it's no wonder. To help avoid biases, including an outsider is best practice. Many organizations cannot afford hiring someone for help, so I will outline a basic process and you will be well on your way.


I recommend that organizations choose two or three personas. If you have only one, it’s limiting. If you decide you need three you can, but any more will be overwhelming to balance a communication piece to that broad of an audience. Staying focused is the same process that businesses go through when they are niching down. The first persona will be based upon your current donors, and the second can be another segment of your donors or a direction you believe you want to go, and you will see what I do with the third.


Donor Persona 1: Current Donor

If you have already been in business for more than a year or two, you have some data. So you will want to make sure you thoroughly comb through your top donor list. I don’t just mean top donors according to amount – I also mean top donors in terms of engagement, consistency of giving, passion for your cause, time/volunteer hours, etc. (Remember the parable of the widow’s mite.)


If you do not have donors yet, you will need to use your imagination for this persona. One trick is to look at yourself and your board and ask why your mission is so important to you. If you are willing to give and sacrifice your time and talent for this mission, what is it about you that compels you to do that?


Donor Persona 2: Second Segment

If you have distinct donor segments already, you can use your secondary segment here. For example, many organizations have a lot of smaller annual or monthly recurring donors but lack major donors. If that’s the case, your current donors should create a persona for the smaller gifts, and the second one could be for a major donor segment – even if you do not have many examples. If you are a Catholic school, your second one could be less religious donors or more religious donors (depending on your current base), Christian (but non-Catholic) donors, Catholic business owners, members of the Knights of Columbus, Parishioners at your closest parish, etc.


Donor Persona 3: Younger Donors, Volunteers, Alumni, etc.

If you are going to have a third persona, I think focusing on a younger segment or a different type of gift will produce good fruits for your organization. Younger people, millennial age right now, are not the biggest givers. Getting married, having kids, being relatively young in a career all generally mean less disposable income. But most organizations look past them. Building a strategy to get on their radar, even if it is not producing revenue now, will pay off in the future. Alumni, for example, do not give much when they leave a university and have $100,000 in student loan debt. However, 30 years later, many alumni are capable of giving six+ figure gifts. Volunteers can be compelled to give also, spending time and working in your mission is compelling. For many organizations, having a volunteer persona is necessary because a lot of effort goes into recruiting them to achieve your goals or achieve your mission.


For each segment, you will make a story about them. You will want to get as detailed as possible. Here are some examples: Demographics, Occupation, Interests, Hobbies, what they do on the weekdays and weekends, their spouse or significant other (if they have one) and what they do, how they communicate, what technology they have/use (text, email, Facebook vs. Instagram…), what offends them, other organizations they support, etc.


Pro Tip: I find it helpful, when I am stuck or do not have a vivid enough image, to clear my creative block by imagining what they are NOT. Eliminating options. What occupations would they not have, what part of town would they never live in, etc.


When you have a full picture of your two personas, name them and google search until you have a picture of them. Then, the next time you write an email, work on your website copy, wire your appeal… take a picture of them and read it out loud as if it were to them. I guarantee you will catch things, make changes, and ultimately have a much better outcome. I have one client who printed large pop-up banners with the donor persona’s names and pictures. They keep them in their conference room and run this exercise regularly. They even names then after the donors they most resemble.


The right way to go about this is to gather this information from 20+ current donors, map it out, see what overlaps and what is similar, figure out what each of these groups has in common, etc. I do want you to commit to doing that someday. However, having something will be much better than nothing, and it’s a step in the right direction.

For one client, when we worked through this, we were made one of the personas an older gentleman who was a retired executive who golfed. The following year we were thinking of new fundraising even to replace one that was failing three years in a row. We chose a golf outing, and it’s now their most successful fundraiser!

Good luck building your own donor personas. Leave me a message with success stories or questions. I’ll get together templates and samples and post them here soon.