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How to Engage the Right Person, at the Right Time, In the Right Way: A Framework

Finding the time, money, and staff bandwidth to achieve your organizational mission is a dilemma nonprofit organizations are forced to work with. Operational dollars, and therefore staff resources, are at the mercy of benefactors who support your cause, which can often cause anxiety and conflict about where and how to spend your resources. Do you focus solely on those philanthropic relationships? Or do you spend your time with the recipients of your services? The answer is, you strike a balance between the two, and you enable yourself to do so by creating structures to support effective and resilient fundraising and relationship building strategies. 

Part of the challenge behind relationship building is that people with means are often faced with multiple asks, coming from direct mail, online appeals, phone calls, and other solicitations. As a result, nonprofits have to work hard to differentiate themselves in the endless sea of worthy charitable causes. “Getting in the door” for the mere opportunity to communicate with a prospective donor is highly labor intensive and half the battle for those raising money. In response to this effort, research shows people respond better to differentiated, personalized, and unique interaction. Compelling communication means meeting your constituents and prospective donors where they are. While this might seem like common sense, imagine scaling personal communication to a constituency of 20,000 people. Alternatively, try deciding which of the 300 donors in your prospect pool to ask for money first.

Creating a Structure

Fortunately, there are strategies that narrow our approach and streamline our actions. As nearly the entire philanthropic sector has been thrust into the virtual world, we’ve been able to witness the strategic use of technology and how it enables us to execute and track our progress on both a detailed and massive scale. Segmentation is the process of identifying unique attributes of an individual then grouping people by their similarities. This donor management strategy identifies core demographics within your constituency and tailors your efforts to speak directly to specific groups through all types of communication, from email blasts to one-on-one solicitations.  

So how do you identify the “core demographics” of thousands of possible donors? By creating personas, which is a semi-fictional representation of a cross-section of people who represent key groups of organizational influencers. The attributes of a persona direct how you work with and communicate with each group.

Using my snapshot as an example, you see that information broken down in this way highlights a few indicators about who I am as it relates to my passions, and how I process information. Some relevant takeaways are as follows: I donate, I volunteer, I need a personal reason to feel connected, and communicating with me via social media, email or face to face about my identified interests is the best way to engage me. These indicators may place me in a persona group with other like-minded and philanthropically engaged “Moving Millennial(s).” Other examples of personas could be “Corporate Empty Nester”, “ To-Busy Gen X’er” or “Career Volunteers”. The critical thing to remember is these groups of influencers are unique to your organization. 

The process of creating personas and assigning them to the key influencers in your organization allows you to communicate personally with large groups of people. The next step in the process is answering the questions: who do I communicate with first? Or, how do I prioritize my staff time with 20,000 people to engage? This secondary and complementary process is called prioritization. The process of prioritization allows you to evaluate each person in your constituency and the probability of their willingness to engage with you. Therefore, you can strategically assign your staff time to people who will engage first, and use other methods to cultivate those who need more time and relationship building before they commit to your organization.

Setting Your Priorities 

To identify high probability constituents, whether it be donors, volunteers or advocates, you evaluate them based on what you know about their financial capacity, their affinity for your organization and their inclination to give resources such as time or money.

The formula for prioritization is simple: Capacity x Affinity x Inclination = Prospect Priority

  • Capacity: How much time or money can a prospect reasonably give?
  • Affinity: How much do they know about/appreciate the mission of our organization?
  • Inclination: Generally, how willing are they to give in time, connections, or money?​
  • Prospect Priority: A ranking on a scale of high to low which indicates to your staff who to engage first​

Capacity and Affinity Grid

The grid above is a visual of this formula, and it should help you quickly prioritize a constituent based on your goal for their engagement.

       Start your outreach here...

Box A: High Financial Capacity x High Affinity x High Inclination = High Priority Major Gift Prospect 

       Then move to these folks...

Box B: High Capacity x Low Affinity  x High Inclination = Medium Priority Prospect

       Don’t worry too much about…

Box D: Low Financial Capacity x Low Affinity x Low Inclination = Low priority...probably not worth too much effort 

       But don’t forget about… 

Box C: Low Capacity x High Affinity x High Inclination (to give their time) = Low priority Major gift prospect but High priority volunteer prospect

* Box C is where I would categorize myself (not a major gift prospect, yet!)*

Capturing The information 

Defining this information is important but don’t forget to create a system within your CRM to capture it. Capturing this data in individual indicators allows you to pull lists for communications or engagement based on any cross-section of these defined attributes by creating profile indicators. The image below shows my personal Capacity ($1k-$5K) x Affinity 2 x Inclination 2 = Medium Priority Annual Gift Prospect, however this information combined with the information included in my persona indicates that you could target me as a High Priority Volunteer. Each of these individual tags are for sorting and filtering me into strategic lists tailored toward who I am as a person. 

Profile Type

Once you have segmented and prioritized your donor database, you give yourself the power to do two things: a) identify who you engage, and in what order b) communicate with them in a way that is direct and meaningful. High priority philanthropic prospects are the fewest in number but should receive the highest level of personal effort from your organization because they have the highest probability of a successful relationship. 

You should still focus on lower priority prospects but do so through more time efficient communication methods tailored to their area of interest and delivered via their preferred vehicle for consuming information. These types of communications reach a large number of people, with relatively low effort from your staff. 

This wider-cast net both reaches your entire constituency and increases the probability of finding a miscategorized person. Periodic review of your methods and recategorization of individuals within your new system is imperative for making sure your information is fresh, relevant, and evolving with your constituents. Loyally following this framework as an organization means more positive returns for your staff’s investment of time and the reinforcement of a resilient, durable process. It also protects against staff turnover, because there is a common language and framework for approaching your constituency.

Time Spent

Scaling for Your Organization

While it may seem like a large organizational undertaking, you are most likely practicing some level of both segmentation and prioritization already. The next step is to standardize this process and apply it to your top constituents. Once you find a system that works for your staff, you can undertake the project of scaling and applying the system to all constituents you work with over a period of months. 

The practice of segmenting and prioritizing your donor database allows your organization to create priority based prospect portfolios, and specialized marketing and communications plans to accompany them. This initial effort targets and streamlines staff efficiency and increases overall outcomes through finding the right relationships faster and deepening the affiliation through competent communication. This process is an organizational undertaking and commitment, however, given the right resources of staff time, finances and executive support, solidifying this system has the possibility to increase the outcomes of your engagement efforts exponentially.


About the Author

Margaret is Foundant's Manager of Client Services, Strategic Advancement. Before joining Foundant, she spent much of her career on the road as a Major Gifts Officer. Most recently she was the Director of Development for George Washington University’s (GWU) School of Business where she managed a team of four frontline Major Gift Officers, in addition to contributing to a recently closed $1B Campaign, Making History, through her portfolio of principal and major gift level donors. Before GWU, Margaret worked at Georgetown University on the Major Gifts Team and with Grassroot Soccer Inc. in Cape Town, South Africa working on their grant writing and fundraising efforts. Margaret has a graduate certificate in Nonprofit Management from George Washington University and a B.A. in Religion from Middlebury College. She is actively involved with her alma matter serving as the D.C. Chair for the Alumni Interview Volunteer program for Seven Years before moving back to Montana and continuing her role as an alumni volunteer.

Profile Photo of Margaret Owen Spiak