Let’s Stop Putting Donors Into A Bucket


One of the most popular metaphors for the donor retention issue is a leaky bucket. And with good reason.

We spend a lot of time and effort acquiring new donors, only for 40% or more on average to never give again. We’re caught in an endless cycle of refilling the bucket, with sustainability always just out of reach.

The more I got to thinking about this ubiquitous metaphor, the more I realized how ironic and self-fulling it truly is.

The primary reason we have a leaky bucket is because we are putting donors into a bucket.

Regardless of who they are, why they gave, how often they give and what they give, they all go into the same bucket (whether it’s a donor database, Excel spreadsheet or filing cabinet).

Once they’re in the bucket, we are sending:

  • the same newsletter to everyone
  • the same appeal to everyone
  • the same thank you letter to everyone
  • the same event invite to everyone

Why do we wonder why the bucket starts to leak?

To make things worse, all those un-engaged donors who haven’t given in a few years because we don’t listen to them, they move away or they pass away get pushed further and further towards the bottom of the bucket. Even if we wanted to hear them we wouldn’t be able to.

When the bucket fails

I recently donated to a zoo in a city that I do not live in (we visited and I felt obliged because we had such a good time).

What did the zoo do? They put me in their one bucket.

How do I know? I received this email from them:


I do not live in this city nor employee anyone in the city. There is absolutely no way I would be interested in hosting an event at their facility. They know my physical address, and yet I was not filtered out of this email campaign.

This kind of thing happens all time.

With one bucket, we send out an appeal to someone who passed away last year (only for a surviving relative to receive it).

With one bucket, we send a physically-demanding volunteer appeal to someone with mobility issues.

With one bucket, we send an email newsletter that covers every imaginable topic but fails to resonate with any one recipient.

So the recipients feel disengaged, ignore your communications and eventually leak out.

Segmenting is the answer

What we need is an infinite amount of buckets, custom-tailored to the type of constituent we are trying to communicate to. When that happens, the communications themselves can be tailored for maximum impact.

Here are just a few of the many buckets (segments) you can create:

  • first-time donors
  • monthly recurring donors
  • out of town donors
  • donors who give above average
  • donors who give below average
  • donors who haven’t given in 2 years
  • volunteers who have not yet donated
  • donors with high engagement rates
  • donors with low engagement rates
  • donors who have downgraded in the past year
  • donors who have upgraded in the past year
  • donors who have active on social media
  • former employees and board members
  • donors who have shared negative feedback
  • donors with pets
  • donors with children
  • peer-to-peer donors
  • memorial donors
  • event attendees who have never donated
  • donors who give through a donor-advised fund

Each of those examples can be further drilled down into.

Of course, your segments are only as good as the data you proactively collect and regularly cleanse.

We need a new metaphor

No one wants to be put in a bucket. They’re gross, made of cheap plastic or rusty iron, and diminish donors down into a storable commodity.

So stop putting your donors into a bucket. Make it a throne, a white horse, whatever, but make sure there’s more than one.

What types of segments do you utilize? Let me know in the comments below!

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Steven Shattuck

Steven Shattuck

Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang
Steven Shattuck is Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang. A prolific writer and speaker, Steven is a contributor to "Fundraising Principles and Practice: Second Edition" and volunteers his time on the Project Work Group of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, is an AFP Center for Fundraising Innovation (CFI) committee member, and sits on the faculty of the Institute for Charitable Giving.
Steven Shattuck
By |2017-06-10T18:11:26-04:00November 4th, 2016|Data, Data Management, Donor Engagement, Donor Retention, Reporting|


  1. Carl Silverberg November 4, 2016 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    You are so right. A lot of this goes to the heart of the matter which is that many of us are mentally lazy and forget that the “one size fits all” mentality is a road to failure. Love your examples.

  2. Gee November 4, 2016 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    This is eye opener to many in the profession of fundraising, people are different in many ways but unique. So if ever they understand person centred approach would help and reduce donor retention.Thank you for not putting the donors in one bucket, otherwise they faint and run for fresh air.

  3. Mallory Mitchell November 5, 2016 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    I love your list of potential segments. I am the development team so I’ve been thinking through how best to do segmentation. This is immensely helpful!

  4. claire axelrad November 5, 2016 at 7:30 pm - Reply

    I use the bucket metaphor a lot, but maybe I need to stop! Great article Steven. We definitely need to put donors in something that has less propensity for leaking. And tend to it, and them, well.

  5. Doug Lippert November 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm - Reply

    Steven of course, is right on target with this article. But here is the thing: how many nfp development managers will take this advice and do the hard work necessary to segment and target market? As consumers, we demand this; we should give our constituents nothing less.

  6. Michael J. Rosen December 1, 2016 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    I really don’t care so much about what metaphor we use. My fear is that the whole discussion of metaphors will be a distraction much like the discussion around whether we should use the term planned giving, gift planning, philanthropic planning, etc. when all the terms are inappropriate. Nevertheless, I completely agree with the underlying point Steven is making. We need to treat donors as individuals, a core component of being donor centered. As a sector, we don’t need a consensus on which metaphor to use. Instead, we need a sector-wide commitment to the hard work necessary to treat donors properly. Steven’s suggestion regarding segmentation is an excellent start.

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