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Donor Personas & Strategic Nonprofit Communications

8 min read
March 24, 2021
Melissa Russom headshot
Melissa Russom
Communications Strategist, Melissa Russom Strategic Communications
Donor Personas: People Talking

Know your audience. Know your audience. Know your audience.

You may be tired of hearing it from your communications team, but deep down you know they have a point…right? Donor personas matter.

Your audiences are the groups of people who are going to help you achieve your strategic goals in the near and long-term future – by donating, advocating, partnering, volunteering or forming another relationship with your organization. They are as important as they are varied.

A proper communications plan will outline the tactics and messages you will use to reach unique audiences and drive them to action. But, how do you know what those tactics and messages are in order to create your plan in the first place?

What are Donor Personas

A persona is a fictional person who represents the human characteristics of a particular segment of your audience. For example:

  • Helen is a 75-year-old woman who gives to the annual fund via check each year, is most interested in early childhood education because she is a retired teacher and prefers her thank you to be a handwritten card from a child at the center. Your goal this year is to convert Helen to a monthly donor.  
  • Jake is a 27-year-old accountant who is active in the young professionals networking scene. He started following your organization on social media after his company volunteered to paint the playground. He likes your posts and occasionally shares your videos. He is most likely to share stories about children finding permanent homes through foster care. You hope to encourage Jake to hold a Facebook fundraiser to benefit your organization this year.
  • Julie is a business owner with several stores throughout the region. She is facing serious threats to her business from larger chain stores and always looking for a competitive edge. You hope to develop a partnership with Julie where students of all abilities from your vocational training program are placed as interns.   

The personas become part of your team. They represent your existing and hopeful audience and play just as active a role in crafting communications as the writer does herself. After all, your communications aren’t about you. If you’re truly audience-centric, your communications (and authentic motivation) are about your audience.  

Before launching a campaign around Facebook fundraisers, you’re going to ask yourself: Does this appeal to Jake? When introducing your internship program you’ll find yourself wondering: How can we make this less about us and more about Julie?

Amazon is famous for bringing their audience into every meeting in a creative way. Fitting with Jeff Bezos’ motto of “start with the consumer and work backward,” every meeting held at the retail giant has one empty chair. It’s where the persona of the consumer is imagined to sit.  

On the flipside, Gap made a notorious blunder in 2010 by pushing a trendy fashion-forward line to their core audience who trusted the brand as a supplier of quality basic staples for their wardrobe. Oops. They quickly pivoted back to appeal to their customers, but not after tossing millions of dollars out the window on a flawed rebranding campaign.

Think of your Giving Tuesday campaign, social media, annual appeal, or marketing for your premier event. Are you investing time, dollars and energy into an idea without first knowing what resonates with your audience?

Let’s all avoid the Gap gaffe.

How to Create Donor Personas

An effective persona is built on characteristics that include both preferences and behaviors. Qualitative and quantitative. Data and personality. It’s not enough to know how someone acts – you need to know why, too.  

So, how do you discover these donor persona characteristics?

In short, you track and you ask.


With powerful CRM, Google analytics, social media reports, and a curious mind, you can know a lot about your audience. What topics do they read? Are they more likely to dive into a video or a written story? Are they a volunteer? How much do they give and how?…

Tim Sarrantonio, director of strategic partnerships at Neon One divides behavioral data into three categories: giving levels (Donor personas), channels of engagement (Channel persona) and recurring support for the organization (Retention persona). Looking at these reports alongside one another, you can find patterns, correlations and outliers.

If you’re looking for more grassroots activists, your data may point you toward particular zip codes in your service area where your advocates tend to be clustered. Or, maybe you’ll find that 75% of your major donors are married; Facebook followers are twice as likely to attend an event than those absent from social media; volunteers are most likely to forward your emails…

You’re starting with your end goal (more donations, petition signatures, etc.) and drawing correlations from your data will illuminate who is most likely to help you achieve that goal.

If you’re looking to launch a new program, expand your donor base or otherwise appeal to a new audience, you still have loads of data at your fingertips – it just isn’t based on interactions with your organization. Big Data Made Simple gives you a great place to start with a list of six free and robust data-sources. If you’re using a CRM solution, your database should also be able to run reports for you.   

Now it’s time for the more subjective (but equally important) aspect of your research: the why.


Have conversations with your supporters. Ask them about themselves – what they value, what they like to read, etc. Listen to what excites them in general and what they like most about your organization. Build a relationship.

Keep in mind what people say and what they do aren’t always in perfect alignment. This is where taking time to get to know people and having a conversation is the most effective means to discovering who they are. Listen to their stories rather than peppering them with questions.

You can set up calls with a sample of your audience, steal time at an event, or take them out for a coffee. After six to ten conversations, you’ll start to see trends emerging.

Do this with the various groups who are important to driving your mission forward: first-time donors, major donors, volunteers and others that fit into your goals.  


Every development officer would love to have the time for one-on-one conversations with everyone in their database. It just isn’t possible.

Surveys are a great tool for researching your whole database as well as your specific donor personas. You don’t need anything fancy – Survey MonkeySurveyGizmo and similar platforms make it easy for you.

Ask questions like:

  • Which three programs (of your programs you list) do you see as the most critical for our community?
  • Do you understand the ways you can become involved with our organization?
  • Are you involved with other organizations in our community?
  • What can we improve?

Keep your questions (and the survey) short and simple. Here are some helpful guidelines for creating an effective survey.  

Donor Personas in Action

Personas enable you to communicate with donors from their perspective, instead of your own. When you’re writing to Helen, you’re speaking her language and sharing the level of detail she appreciates. You’re proving to her that her donations result in the impact that matters most to her.

What do you think is more likely to hook her:

“As someone who has dedicated her life to equipping kids with the tools they need to succeed…”


“Your continued support is so critical to the success of our early childhood program…”

The more someone feels you’re talking to them personally and about something they value, the more likely your message is to resonate.

Another benefit to developing personas is how the process enables you to identify shortcomings. You may determine that people hosting social media fundraisers are also your most likely grassroots activists. You’re then able to develop an advocacy training plan for that targeted group. Or, maybe you’ll find that volunteers are more likely to engage with you on social media than event attendees are, so you build in steps to introduce volunteer opportunities to event attendees before trying to recruit them to your social platforms. It’s an interim step to help deepen your engagement.  

Personas, and your ongoing research to keep them relevant, take much of the guesswork out of your communications. It’s not a one-and-done project. It’s a process that keeps you tuned into your supporter’s needs and wants, so you can keep them engaged in yours.

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