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Building Strong Bonds: Using Data to Communicate with Major Donors

Relationships are critical in fundraising. Whether you’re working to connect with foundations, donors, or sponsors, building meaningful and mutually-beneficial relationships with outside stakeholders allows nonprofits to grow sustainably over time.

For your organization’s development team, relationship-building might be focused primarily on major donors. Finding and continually engaging these key donors can drive outsized impacts on your mission. One-on-one communication is essential for fostering these relationships. However, it’s also incredibly time-consuming.

How can your development work and major donor communication be streamlined? Look to your data.

Using your donor data in savvy ways takes the guesswork out of your stewardship and communication processes. This allows you to lay the foundation for stronger relationships, implement more effective qualification strategies, and give your team more time for their most impactful work—staying in touch with donors.

Types of Data to Collect and Use

What donor data can improve your communication strategies? There are three key categories to keep in mind:

  • Basic personal information includes data points like donors’ ages, mailing addresses, employment or retirement status, employer information, family members’ names, and more.
  • Engagement data is generated each time a donor engages with your nonprofit. Data points include donors’ gift amounts, event attendance, and communication histories.
  • Anecdotal information includes details you learn about donors and prospects through one-on-one conversations. Life changes, career developments, personal interests, and philanthropic motivations are common examples.

There can be a bit of overlap between these categories. For instance, you can directly ask about and gather communication preferences as anecdotal information, or infer this information over time through engagement data as donors interact with your messages.

You likely already have a good deal of this information on your donors, but the key is to be thoughtful about how you’re collecting and organizing it. For example, you won’t be able to easily infer communication preferences if you can’t match incoming donations or responses to the specific communications they’re responding to. And if your database makes it difficult to view individual donor profiles or set up custom views and filters, you may struggle to tap into your data’s usefulness.

If development and communication are priorities for your nonprofit, take the time to consider whether your donor database enables you to collect, organize, and maintain your data in optimal ways.

3 Key Data-Driven Communication Use Cases

Let’s take a look at three foundational ways to put your donor data to use in your major donor communication strategies:

1. Segmentation

Through segmentation you can leverage your data to divide donors into discrete groups, allowing you to efficiently target them with tailored strategies and relevant messages. It’s the fundamental communication and fundraising tactic that puts your data into practice in support of your mission.

For major donor communication, you must first establish the criteria that define a “major donor.” They’ll vary from one organization to another, but you’ll likely use characteristics like average giving amounts above a particular threshold (or among the top 10% or so of donors by average giving amount) and active involvement (i.e., has actively engaged with or donated to your nonprofit within a specific timeframe).

Within this set of major donors, you can use your data to drill down further. Use more specific criteria to split your major donors into segments you can communicate with in different ways and for different purposes. Example criteria include:

Imagine why and how you may need to send different messages to donors who fit into one or more of these groups.

For example, a major donor with a history of attending your events and volunteering would appreciate an invite to your next in-person gathering and might even be willing to lend a hand or make an in-kind donation of event supplies. A currently-employed donor who gave recently might be eligible to have their gift matched by their employer. A donor who is a strong planned giving prospect has perhaps never been asked about the possibility of creating a bequest before.

Maintaining a segment of lapsed major donors can also be valuable. If your donor database enables you to track this information, you can pull reports on LYBUNT (Last Year But Unfortunately Not This Year) and SYBUNT (Same Year But Unfortunately Not This Year) donors. An invitation could be the perfect way to re-engage a lapsed donor who loved your past events but hasn’t engaged with or heard from your organization in a few years.

2. Personalization

Your data makes it easier to personalize your communication with major donors.

If you already have a solid segmentation strategy, you can immediately tailor your messaging based on which segments you’re contacting and why. For example, if you send handwritten event invites to your next gala, you may want to create separate templates for active major donors, lapsed donors, infrequent event attendees, etc.

This broad strategy can help you save time while ensuring donors receive messages relevant to the experience with your organization. But when communicating with your most impactful donors, the extra time needed for personal outreach is well spent. Data can help when going the extra mile with personalization, too.

If you’re actively collecting and organizing engagement and anecdotal data from major donors, check your donor records before reaching out with a personal email, one-on-one call, or letter. What you find there can help improve your outreach in several ways. For instance, this donor data can help shape your:

  • Content and talking points. Ask about a donor’s recent vacation or thoughts on the newest trend in their industry. Or, ask about their experience at the last event they attended, and use that to segue into a discussion of your next campaign.
  • Tone. Alter your approach based on what you know about this individual’s giving motivations and personal life.
  • Asks. Research and prospect qualification are critical before making an ask of a major donor. Review your data to find relevant information that may shape your conversation, for instance, if they expressed dissatisfaction or turned down your last solicitation.

Personalizing your outreach to major donors in this way is naturally more time-intensive than general communications to your broader donor segments. But by ensuring you’re collecting the right data, gathering the information you need to create these personalized stewardship and solicitation experiences doesn’t have to eat up inordinate amounts of time.

3. Stewardship Cadences

How can you use your data to streamline major donor outreach even further? By using it to develop more effective stewardship cadences.

These are the series of regular, planned points of contact with donors that you can implement to keep your organization on their minds. Although personalization is key when communicating with major donors, you don’t need to create every message from scratch. Use stewardship cadences to establish a baseline of regular touchpoints, which you can then supplement with one-on-one outreach.

Stewardship cadences for major donors typically include things like newsletters, organizational updates from leadership, messages of gratitude, virtual event invites, and more. These can be delivered via email, phone call, text, or direct mail.

To ensure that your stewardship cadences deliver maximum value and keep donors engaged, assess your data. There are many ways data can help improve your cadences:

  • Adjust the amount of personal, one-on-one outreach a donor receives based on their giving histories/amounts or if you plan to solicit them soon.
  • Use donor communication preferences to funnel donors into different versions of your main stewardship cadence, for instance, one that emphasizes direct mail and phone calls and one that’s more digital-first.
  • Fine-tune the content and types of messages a donor receives based on which giving programs they’ve engaged with or that you want to ask them to join. Planned donors, grateful patients, and donor-advised fund (DAF) donors are common examples.
  • Use engagement data over time to adjust the types of outreach and frequency of touchpoints based on the results you see for each cadence.
  • As you learn more about donors, their lives, and their philanthropic interests, actively sort them into new cadences as needed.

Creating more touchpoints (even automated or very gentle ones) leads to more conversations.
Striking the right balance of well-timed one-on-one and pre-planned communications with your major donors can bring significant benefits, including keeping more of them actively engaged, deepening relationships, and increasing giving over time.

Use data to both shape the content and delivery of your cadences and improve them over time. Just make sure you’re using digital communication tools that give you insights into metrics like email open rates and clickthroughs and keep records of who receives which messages and when.

Tips to Keep Improving Over Time

These three key use cases can significantly strengthen your communications with major donors. And when data is automatically collected and used to preconfigure segments and standard outreach cadences, it’s easier than ever to stay focused and actively build relationships without requiring continuous manual data analysis.

To sustain your efforts, keep these best practices in mind:

  • Use multiple communication channels. This will drive more engagement across the board and show you which channels are the most effective for different segments and purposes over time.
  • Pay close attention to how you’re collecting and organizing data. Are you collecting the information you need? Are fundraisers trained to store new insights and notes in the right places? Does your data need a clean-up to be truly useful?
  • Regularly analyze your communication trends. Take the time to regularly review the effectiveness of your strategies and how your target audience engages with your outreach. Which cadences result in the most successful solicitations, for instance? Which channels see the greatest engagement?

Major donor stewardship and relationship-building are all about one-on-one contact. Data serves to streamline that contact, help your team prioritize its donor outreach, and establish a continuous baseline of engagement that can adapt and improve over time.

With data providing the direction and covering the bases, you can focus on what matters most—cultivating lasting, meaningful relationships with the donors who play such impactful roles in your mission.

This blog is an original work of the attributed author and is shared with permission via Foundant Technologies' website for informative purposes only as part of our educational content in the philanthropic sector. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect Foundant's stance on this topic. If you have questions or comments, please reach out to our team.

About the Author

Chelsey is a senior consultant at Graham-Pelton. An analytical problem solver, Chelsey uses a data-driven approach fostered by her engineering background to conduct multipronged annual giving campaigns, manage leadership-level prospects and volunteers, and enhance cross-departmental relationships.

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