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5 Essential Segmentation Strategies for Nonprofits to Connect with the Perfect Audience

Wooden dolls grouped in different circles with teal overlay and blog title.

One of the more fascinating—and often truly baffling—aspects of the donor experience is what happens to our data after we make a gift. I’ve lost count of the number of alumni mailing lists to which I’ve been added, despite having never enrolled in a single class nor, in many cases, spent even a minute on your campus. Not to mention the many nonprofit galas to which I’m invited that are happening 1,000 miles away (spoiler alert: even if it's 5 minutes away, I probably don’t want to attend your gala).

What are we doing? In a world where Instagram is showing me eyewear ads moments after mentioning at happy hour that I’m in the market for new glasses, and Amazon seems to know what want before I do, our ability to target the right audience in nonprofit engagement efforts is downright amateurish. And the overall impact to our future fundraising success is often bigger—and longer-lasting—than we might imagine. After all, it takes much less time to hit an unsubscribe button than to sort through 17 different stories in an alumni newsletter looking for something relevant.

Fundraising is supposed to be a relationship-oriented enterprise. But how can we have a relationship when it feels like the organization doesn’t know us, nor has any interest in learning? Rather than automatically adding donors to that alumni newsletter (and the obligatory annual giving solicitation that follows), how about a welcome email that invites donors to share more about their preferences—how and how often they prefer to receive communications, whether they’re interested in attending events, what program areas interest them beyond the one they just supported. This is an effective way to signal to new donors that we noticed them, we care that they gave, and we see this as more than a transaction.

Once we’ve gathered and stored this information, the next step is putting it into action. And by combining this intelligence with what we already know about donors (what’s in the database), we are well positioned to engage in savvier audience segmentation.

For the unfamiliar, audience segmentation is a marketing strategy based on identifying subgroups of the overall audience in order to deliver more tailored messaging and promote stronger connections. In other words, smart segmentation can enhance the relevance of our nonprofit communications and events to the donors we are seeking to engage–and who doesn’t want to do that?

The biggest obstacles to effective audience segmentation that we often hear from nonprofit teams are lack of time, inexperience with database tools, and fear of getting it wrong. Or as marketing expert Seth Godin once said, “We worry about disappointing, missing, offending, or otherwise leaving behind someone who might become our customer.” Trying to be all things to all audiences at once results in communications that are overwhelming and uninteresting, and expensive events that fall flat with the wrong audience in attendance (if any).

But effective segmentation doesn’t have to be an unattainable goal. It simply requires a different approach and, sometimes, some creative problem solving to yield the results we seek. Start by considering different audience attributes that might lead to more focused communications and relevant event experiences. Here are five potential ways to segment a donor audience based on information you already know (or can easily find out):

1. The Classic: Demographic Segmentation

  • Age: Tailor engagement to different age groups, such as young professionals, middle-aged donors, or retirees.

  • Location: Organize an invitation list or a communication by geographic proximity to keep it accessible for the audience.

2. Donation History (think Behavior-Based Donor Relations)

  • Frequency of Donations: Segment by loyal donors, occasional donors, monthly donors, and first-time donors.

  • Recurring vs. First-Time Donations: Develop specific messages for recurring donors to reinforce their commitment and for first-time donors to encourage repeat donations. Consider a separate communications journey for your first-time donors that helps lead them to their next gift without overwhelming them.

  • Recency: Identify and target recent donors differently than those who haven’t donated in a while to re-engage them.

3. Engagement Level

  • Event Attendance: Track who has attended past events and invite them to similar future events. Just as important: notice who has NEVER attended an event (or even responded to an invitation), and consider removing them from your list.

  • Volunteer Activity: Recognize and communicate with donors who also volunteer, highlighting opportunities for them to get involved further.

  • Communication Interaction: Identify donors who regularly open and interact with your emails and newsletters.

4. Interest and Causes

  • Program or Cause: Segment donors by the specific programs or causes they have supported or shown interest in. This is an especially effective approach to strengthening connections through event experiences, as the common interests of attendees provides a springboard for deeper engagement.

  • Campaign Participation: Tailor messages to those who have supported specific campaigns–from comprehensive to crowdsourcing–in the past.

5. Giving Channels

  • Online vs. Offline: Customize communication strategies for donors who give online versus those who give through mail or at events.

These are just a few ways to help ensure the powerful stories your nonprofit must tell—in writing, on video, and through live events—reach the right donor audiences. And as you get more comfortable segmenting and streamlining your efforts, consider using two-factor segmentation by layering one segmentation strategy on top of another. For example, building an audience through demographics PLUS engagement level. It’s fun to discover new attributes of our audience and it helps bolster our return on investment–that’s a win-win in our book!


What are some of your favorite segmentation strategies? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Matthew S. Helmer, the DRG Unicorn, loves finding new ways to ensure the right audience receives the right message—every time. And despite all those Instagram ads, he’s still in the hunt for just the right pair of frames. The paradox of choice—that’s a blog for another day.


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