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Secret to Upgrading Nonprofit Donors? Personal, Not Personalized

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When the concept of ‘personalization’ first came into vogue, it was due to a reason: People were tired of being treated all the same.

Personalization is related to specialization. 

People tired of sameness long ago. 

In 1962 Malvina Richards wrote a song called Little Boxes. It was about social conformity and the undifferentiating experience of suburbia, has been covered many times since, and was even used as the theme song for the television series ‘Weeds.’

Today we’re seeing a flight back to the cities, with all the differentiation and choices they offer. Also, department stores selling everything, specializing in nothing, morphed into “Chairs R Us,” “Toys R Us,” “Office Depot,” “Victoria’s Secret,” “Just Desserts” and “Personal Shoppers.”  People today crave specialization. Choices. 

Of course ‘big box’ stores exist too, but the experience is not the same. Nobody knows your name. Customer service is generally poor. And people generally spend less there.

What Do You Want for Your Donor’s Experience?

Chances are you want donors to feel really good about donating to you.

Because then they’ll be more likely to give again.

Chances are you want them to know you know them and care about them for more than their wallet.

Because then they’ll be more likely to give again and even give more over time.

Chances are you want them to trust you and value you enough that they’re willing to make a passionate, not a token, gift.

Because then they’ll consider you when it comes time to make a major or legacy gift.

If this is what you want for your donor experience, you only have to remember two words:


If you take these two words to heart, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

These words should become your mantra, and should underscore everything you do. Your annual appeal writing. Your donor acknowledgements. Your special events. Your newsletters. Your blog posts. Your proposals. Your reports. Your social media.

What’s Not Special

Special is not automated.

Special requires thoughtful customization. Sometimes you can automate, by segment, after you’ve thought through the customization; not before. For example, if you automatically send all first-time donors the exact same welcome message, that’ not personal. First you must assess what makes one new donor different from another. It may be the amount of money they give. Or the campaign to which they respond. Or the purpose for which they earmark their gift. Or the fact they’re already a current volunteer or client.

Special is not cut and paste.

Special requires some knowledge of your audience so you can craft a meaningful message that will be relevant to them. For example, if you cut and paste simply to reflect the fact that your donor gave under $100 vs. $100+, you may miss out on other differentiators that are more meaningful to your donor. It could be the fact this is a big upgrade from their previous gift. Or that it’s their 10th year of consecutive giving. Or that they made the gift in memory of someone.

Special is not sending everyone the same message.

Special requires some understanding of the human being you’re addressing. In all your donor communications (especially with donors who give more than your average level gift) you should strive to create an emotional bond. If you know your donor loves inspirational quotes, why not slip one in? If you know their family just celebrated a life cycle event, why not include a congratulations? If you know they just returned from a trip, why not welcome them back and ask if you can set up a date to hear all about their travels?

Many nonprofits claim they get personal with their donors but what they really mean is their communications are “personalized” (i.e., they use their would-be donor’s name at the top of the email or mailed appeal salutation). No, no, no. Let’s face it; the ability to ‘personalize’ today is so prevalent as to have become quintessentially impersonal!

Not special at all.

Let’s Get Personal

When you get authentically personal in our digital age, it’s truly perceived as special.

You’ll know you’re getting genuinely personal if you can imagine the person on the receiving end of your message getting emotional about what they receive.

Good marketing, and good fundraising, is about helping your donor connect some positive emotion to what you’re selling.

Emotional connection is what causes donors to give more. And more.

When we feel emotion it’s special, because we don’t feel it all the time.

This feeling is an antidote to sameness… monotony… apathy… and all the negative dulling things Malvina Reynolds wrote about in her famous “Little Boxes” song.

You don’t want your nonprofit to seem like just one more anonymous little box where… they all look just the same.

It’s easy to fall into the undifferentiated nonprofit trap when you use language like “making a difference” and “creating change” and “saving lives.” And when you begin messages with “Dear Claire” and “thanks to you Claire” and similar stand-ins for a personal touch. But they’re not authentic; they don’t connect.

Getting personal can’t be 100% automated. At the least, you have to give your marketing automation a hug. In other words:

1. Care deeply about your donors. Always include donors in your mission. They need you as much as you need them, and you can play a meaningful role in bringing them purpose and joy.   

2. Listen and ask open-ended questions of your donors that show you care and help you learn more about them as human beings whose values align with yours.

    • Why did you first get involved here?
    • What legacy would you like to leave?

3. Strive to understand how your brand (vision, mission and values) plays a role in the real lives of your donors.

In Part 2 of this two-parter about secrets to upgrading nonprofit donors we’ll look at some specific examples of ways to personalize your donor interactions to make folks feel special. The more special you make folks feel, the more likely they are to continue giving. Because… who wants to ever stop feeling special?

Personal is back in fashion. Try it on for size.

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  • Rob McCreary

    Claire, I really appreciate your expertise and this information! Respectfully, Rob McCreary ED, Family Counseling Center
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