The Virtuous Worldview Part 2: How Virtuous is Re-imagining Generosity

In part one of my “Virtuous Worldview” blog, I wrote about how a handful of modern nonprofits are reimagining generosity. I discussed how the best and brightest of this new breed of charity understand two key principles related to generosity:

  1. Generosity is deeply personal: we all give based on personal relationships and passions.
  2. Everyone is a giver: philanthropy isn’t about “rich people” giving to “have nots.” We all have something to give, and both the giver and receiver benefit from the act of generosity.

In part of two of my Virtuous Worldview blog post, I’m going to lay out a framework for building highly personal generosity at scale. If giving is most often driven by our communities and personal relationships, then how can we build a fundraising strategy that creates thousands of personal connections with individual donors?

When pressed on this issue, most charities say something like, “Yeah, I get it, giving is deeply personal. But we don’t have time to build 10,000 personal relationships with our donors. We’re too busy working on the cause.”

In one sense, they are right. The average Director of Donor Development can realistically only maintain relationships with 100–120 major donors. This means that only the top 5% of your donors will ever receive a high-touch, personalized experience from your charity. The remainder of your donors typically receive the exact same email, social media or direct mail contact throughout the year. Their experience with your charity is almost completely impersonal. So how do charities break this cycle of impersonal communication and begin to create personal experiences for all of their donors? How can charities truly build the type of relationships that can exponentially grow giving?

It’s helpful to think about building donor relationships in the same way you think about building relationships with new friends. Imagine that you just met a new neighbor for the first time. How does your relationship start? How does it build over time? We believe that breaking up the relationship-building process into three discrete steps can provide us with clarity for how we can begin building relational generosity.

The following steps give us a framework for building donor relationships – and once understood, they provide a framework to start building personalization at scale.

Step 1: Getting to Know You

When you first meet a new neighbor, most of your questions are designed to get to know more about the person. You look for similar interests, hobbies or experiences until you find common ground for a conversation.

You asked your new friend where they live, where they are from originally, where they work, if they have family, or if they like baseball. These questions are all designed to better know the person and to find shared interests.

For the past 10–15 years, our team has been helping nonprofits use technology to better ask this type of “getting to know” question. In the process, we’ve identified four approaches to technology that build the best personal profile of a donor to expand giving. These approaches of getting to know your donors include:

  • Learning their passions and interests using social media scraping and web/email click tracking
  • Understanding their relational network and social influence by looking at how they are connected to other donors or organizations
  • Finding out their physical location and which other donors live nearby
  • Identifying patterns in their giving and engagement history by using predictive analytics

Step 2: Personalizing Communication to Build Trust

Once you’ve found a few shared interests with your new neighbor, the remainder of your conversation will typically focus on your newfound common ground. When it comes to generosity, the same rules apply. Once you get to know your donors and your prospects, you should personalize your communication based on your shared interests and relationships.

At Virtuous, we rely on marketing automation to create this type of personalization. Marketing automation allows you to send specific messaging to specific individuals in your database based on a wide variety of personal preferences. Most traditional marketing automation software focuses exclusively on email and advertising as a way to target consumers with specific products (not donors with causes).

For example, I have four boys between the ages of 8 and 14, so I’m likely to get a lot of digital advertising and targeted emails for bulk food and detergent. For nonprofits, marketing automation (or generosity automation, as we like to call it) goes far beyond using emails to promote a product. Instead, automation helps connect donors to specific programs, events, giving opportunities or stories within your organization based on each person’s particular passions and relationships. It also uses an omni-channel automation (as opposed to email only) to ensure that your phone calls, handwritten thank-yous, and events all reinforce a high level of personalization.

To that end, we find the following tactics provide the best framework as you start to personalize your donor communications.

  • Automate personalized email drip campaigns based on preferences, location, passions or giving patterns.
  • If this process feels overwhelming, it can be helpful to create 3 key personas for donors to your charity. A persona is simply a stereotypical profile for a segment of your donors (e.g. “Ethan the millennial who loves project-based giving and is willing to share on social media”). Now create your automation for your new personas.
  • Schedule alerts and tasks based on specific user actions such as birthdays, giving milestones, email click throughs or large gifts.
  • Automate your traditional mailings, phone calls and other marketing methods to personalized the entire donor experience.
  • Leverage best-in-class templates for fundraising to create world-class personalized experiences on day one.
  • Quickly measure and optimize based on real time engagement reporting.

Step 3: Customizing the Ask Based on Your Personal Relationship

Ok, so you’re beginning to build a relationship with your new neighbor. You’ve identified a few common interests, and you know a few of the same people. You’re also beginning to personalize your communication and build trust. Over the course of your conversation you learn that your neighbor owns a ladder – but he’s scared to death of heights.

When it comes time to hang your Christmas lights, you are now equipped with a couple of relational insights that will be very valuable: 1) you’ve built trust and you know your neighbor has a ladder you can borrow, and 2) there’s NO WAY he’s helping you hang your lights.

I know it’s a silly illustration, but the same principles apply to your donors. Once you truly understand your donors and you’ve begun to build trust through personal interactions, it’s critical that your gift asks are an outflow of this personal relationship.

Again, technology can provide a huge advantage in scaling this type of personalization. Rather than tailoring your gift asks for only the top 100 donors on your file, you can now tailor your asks based on the individual preferences and capacity of each donor. In our experience, the following data-based technologies have been invaluable in generating more giving by tailoring gift asks.

  • Individualize suggested gift asks based on financial giving patterns, social potential, persona, passions, or age.
  • Allow your technology to drive relational gift asks (e.g. send out a Tweet, volunteer, host an event, etc.) instead of always driving financial gift asks.
  • Use lead scoring to identify high-potential givers, social influencers, pre-lapsed givers, and planned givers.

Hopefully our approach provides a helpful framework for building personalization at scale. We know that this type of personalization is only possible with the right technology. At Virtuous, we’re working hard to help our customers leverage technology to dramatically increase giving and build better relationships with their donors. We’re always ready to learn new and better ways to drive generosity – if you learn anything that you think would help us on our journey, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d love to hear from you.

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Virtuous is the responsive fundraising software platform proven to help nonprofit organizations increase generosity by serving all donors personally, no matter their gift size.

“Virtuous truly understands nonprofits and the importance of our mission. And their open access to data and built-in custom reports gave us access to the data we need.”
Todd Shinabarger​
Chief Information Officer