By Gabe Cooper, Founder and CEO of Virtuous Software

Giving is to a charity intrinsically personal.

Donors give their money and time to nonprofits because they have a deeply personal connection to a cause. They give to cancer research because cancer has impacted their family. They give to the local food bank because they see food insecurity first-hand in their community. Donors are driven by their emotions, unique worldviews, and personal connections – and they often see their charitable giving as an extension of their personal identity.

As a result, today’s donors expect their favorite causes to deliver authentic, personalized experiences. Donors are already getting thousands of hyper-personalized touchpoints from their favorite brands, social feeds, and news outlets. And, generally speaking, traditional nonprofit appeals are no longer able to break through the noise.

Cracks in Traditional Fundraising

Historically, nonprofits have reserved meaningful personal connections for their major donors, while “everyday donors” received the same email or appeal letter every month. To be clear, this doesn’t happen because fundraisers don’t care about their “everyday” donors, but rather because they are often handcuffed to tools and processes that make it impossible to create meaningful connections at scale.

In this process, new supporters find causes through events, friends, emails, social media, volunteer opportunities, etc. When they first engage, they often have only a partial understanding of the cause and the work that the organization does. These new supporters also have vastly different giving capacities and ways that they prefer to engage. Unfortunately, after a supporter becomes a donor, most organizations rely on retention and cultivation tactics that are largely one-to-many and impersonal.

These generic campaigns are marked by “spray and pray” appeals and newsletters that rely on one-way communication based on the timing that works best for the organization, not necessarily the donor. This impersonal cultivation strategy often has led to declining donor retention rates, underwhelming gift amounts, and less engaged constituents. Within many organizations, “every day” donors are simply opting out of giving altogether, and fundraisers are becoming increasingly dependent on major gifts or grants to close the gap

Modern Donors Need a Personalized Donor Experience

Ultimately, fundraising strategies that worked twenty years ago simply don’t apply in a world where most marketing is hyper-personalized. The ways people communicate and connect have changed dramatically in the past two decades. A new digital world has emerged that is bending over backward to gain the attention of donors. This new world means donor expectations have increased. They are experiencing constant connectedness, hyper-personalized communication, and online communities inhabited by members of their own tribe.
 Donors in this new world want to know that their time and money are truly making an impact. They want to be connected, part of a movement.

The Work Starts Within Your Own Organization

The donor disconnect is often compounded by the fact that many nonprofits are internally struggling with siloes amongst their teams. Organizations often struggle with significant walls between their different internal teams and their data sources. In many nonprofits, individual teams are slowly sealed off until they become their own mini kingdoms. For a nonprofit to become responsive and effective, they must first dismantle these silos and focus on creating a culture of transparency and collaboration. Disconnected nonprofit teams are often the biggest driver of the disconnected donor experience, lagging generosity, and underwhelming impact.

A Better Way to Grow Giving

Fortunately, a better strategy for fundraising is emerging among leading nonprofits. Rather than relying on traditional fundraising tactics, responsive nonprofits are now sending dynamic campaigns based on the behaviors and preferences of each donor. Instead of getting impersonal appeals each month based on the timing of the nonprofit, donors receive personalized communication on multiple channels based on their individual journey with the cause.

In this new world, fundraising, marketing, and program teams are working collaboratively to achieve shared goals. Technology is integrated across the organization, and shared data insights allow the teams to drive consistent and personalized donor experiences.

For many organizations, this approach to responsive fundraising can feel unachievable. As I’ve shared these ideas over the past decade, the response from nonprofit leaders is often, “I’d love to move our organization to this new model, but I’m not sure where to start. It feels like we’re boiling the ocean.” I completely understand that sentiment and I get it! I’ve been there.

In order to help nonprofits overcome these barriers and provide a roadmap to becoming a more responsive organization, we’ve created the Responsive Maturity Model.

The Responsive Maturity Model

Becoming more responsive requires intentional effort, but it’s possible! The “maturity model” framework provides a structured approach to leveling up an organization’s performance.

Maturity models are often used by organizations to benchmark their current level of maturity against industry best practices, and then identify areas for improvement. The importance of a maturity model lies in its ability to provide a clear and objective assessment of an organization’s current capabilities, as well as a roadmap for improving those capabilities over time.

This post won’t provide all the details for each step of the model. If you want to dig in more you can click here to download a free e-book: The Responsive Maturity Model. The remainder of this article is designed to provide you with a high-level overview of the Responsive Maturity Model and, hopefully, inspire you to dive deeper to discover how the model can help drive more responsive donor experiences and increase generosity.

Step 1: Data Health and Reporting

Creating more personalized donor experiences is virtually impossible if a nonprofit doesn’t trust its data. Clean, complete, and easily accessible data is at the very core of a Responsive Team. Among other things, clean data health helps:

  • Create confidence in communication
  • Avoid embarrassing communication mistakes
  • Allow for team-wide visibility into (trusted) metrics
  • Create increased data coverage (contact info, attribution, project impact/funding, etc.)

At this stage, nonprofits should be focused on removing duplicates, ensuring complete contact information, and refining gift attribution. If you don’t have a clear picture of your donor base, and future responsive efforts aren’t going to be as successful as they could be.

Once the data is clean and trusted, the organization should focus its efforts on driving a set of shared reports that are easily accessible to the entire organization. These reports should clearly communicate progress against core generosity metrics such as:

  • Donor Retention
  • Mid/Major/Small Donor Growth
  • Donor Acquisition
  • Recurring Giving

This suite of reports on donor behavior and the overall status of your fundraising programs will act as your north star as your organization moves through the rest of the maturity model.

Step 2: Integrated Technology & Teams

For a nonprofit to succeed in the long run, it’s essential that it can unify the teams and integrate data. One of the biggest barriers to breaking down silos within a nonprofit is the lack of centralized data. The fundraising, marketing, volunteer, and program teams often use different systems to track their metrics—and nonprofit leaders struggle to gain a clear view of what’s actually happening across the organization.

When data and software systems are not integrated, nonprofit departments can’t see how their work impacts other teams. This lack of visibility leads to missed insights, reduced team effectiveness, and a disconnected donor experience. Becoming a more responsive, integrated team requires intentional cross-functional collaboration—but it also requires integrating data and software systems, rather than succumbing to the weight of multi-system chaos and spreadsheet hell.

Focus areas in this stage include – 

  • A team person/team to facilitate collaboration and data sharing (often called a “Generosity Operations Team”).
  • A single 360-degree view of donor data that is easily accessible and understood on a user-friendly donor profile. These donor profiles should include data from your CRM, email tracking statistics, mail received, SMS received, volunteer hours, memberships, website visits, wealth/demographic data, survey responses, etc.
  • Shared quarterly cross-team goals with monthly cross-functional meetings to align on key activities to accomplish goals.
  • Ongoing discipline in removing friction through routines such as quarterly progress meetings to identify and eliminate redundant processes as well as share data insights.
Step 3: Dynamic Segmentation & Personas

Now that we have clean data and aligned teams, we can start leaning toward a more personalized approach with donors. True personalization will require better donor segmentation into buckets based on their passions, capacity, and stage in the donor journey. Building segments is simply the process of dividing donors into subgroups so that a nonprofit can more effectively personalize outreach.

Segmentation certainly isn’t a new concept in fundraising, but historically nonprofits have primarily limited their segmentation to recency, size, or frequency (RFM) of donations in order to vary their mailings and avoid unnecessary direct mail spend. For modern nonprofits, segmentation is a way to group donors by a range of themes and personas based on giving patterns, interests/affinity, stage in their donor journey, digital behavior, volunteer behavior, etc.

Focus areas in this stage include:

  • Working with teams to identify a key set of donor behaviors and personas that impact giving. Bonus points for creating donor personas based on these segments that can help inform your personalization efforts.
  • Integrating those 360-degree donor data views into your fundraising tools so that you have access to the data points that define your segments and personas.
  • Quickly identifying each person’s particular preferences, behaviors, and superpowers. Again, incorporating this data into donor personas can help!
  • Dynamically tagging each person with their segments and persona using responsive marketing automation tools to drive persona-based segmentation in future campaigns (e.g. gave their first gift, volunteered, clicked our “urgent relief” email, etc.).
  • Map out your organizational donor journeys. To do this, you will want to map all constituent touchpoints for your individual donors and various donor segments. Also, be sure you have a way to track key metrics like giving, engagement, volunteerism, and key behaviors across the entire journey.

If you aren’t quite sure where to start with donor journeys, check out this free e-book that will walk you through the steps of building a powerful, responsive donor journey: Donor Journey E-Book.

Step 4: Dynamic Campaigns

Traditionally, nonprofits have used direct response fundraising tactics to send the same email or mail piece to every donor at the same time. While direct mail and email newsletters can be incredibly effective, they lack personalization based on the donor’s timing. Also, the generic nature of these communications tends to create generic relationships, not the personal relationships with your supporters that you want. As a result, traditional one-to-many campaigns often suffer from low response rates and mediocre average gift amounts.

On the other hand, dynamic campaigns are based on each individual’s behavior and timing. Instead of receiving an email or letter at exactly the same time as everyone else—donors receive individualized communications at a customized cadence all based on their own behavior, persona, or intent. Not surprisingly, this personalized approach consistently leads to higher retention, engagement, and average donation amounts.

Focus areas for this stage:

  • Adoption of a responsive multi-channel marketing automation platform.
  • Move from manual list creation to automated & dynamic lists based on the segments and personas from Step 3.
  • Use automation to move donors through their journey automatically. Automate personalized messages on multiple channels (email, SMS, mail) based on key actions and behaviors. For example, if you have a tagged segment of potential donors who attend an event, that action should trigger an automated workflow designed to encourage them to move from potential donor to current donor.
  • Automate tasks for your major donor team and donor services team for more personal follow-up. You can automatically add or remove tags based on donor behavior, so your team isn’t doing that manual work. You can also automate task creation for things like handwritten notes. That allows your team to spend more time working on those personalized touches and less time combing through lists and creating tasks.
  • A/B test and optimize your various donor journeys. You can do this at any cadence you would like, but we recommend starting off with at least a quarterly review of how your donor journeys are performing and making adjustments based on the results.
Step 5: AI-Driven Personalization

We’ve made it to the final step! More and more leading nonprofits are now leveraging AI as a way to accelerate fundraising. While there are plenty of risks and unknowns associated with AI, there are several areas where it can have an immediate positive impact.

While we’re still learning a lot about the power of AI, we see the following two areas as clear wins for generosity growth in the nonprofit space.

  1. Use AI to accelerate task completion with GPT. ChatGPT and other similar tools like Jasper are designed to model human language. The most forward-thinking nonprofits are already using GPT to accelerate copywriting, test new messages, and improve internal communication in a fraction of the time. Keep in mind that GPT is far from perfect, make sure to proof and modify GPT-generated text before sending it, particularly for letters and long-form emails. GPT cannot replace your human staff, but it can help them move faster.
  2. Predict Constituent Behavior.  AI can be particularly useful for creating models that predict human behavior. Some of the best nonprofit-related AI is being used to successfully predict major gifts, identify volunteers, segment donors by persona, predict lapse donors, etc. Predictive models can leverage both internal data (donations, digital engagement, volunteerism, etc.) and external data (wealth, demographic, location, etc.) to dramatically improve predictions about which people are most likely to give.

While AI is an exciting new tool that will help fundraising teams move faster and have a greater impact, the unknowns are causing many organizations to hesitate. If you want to learn more about how AI will impact the world of fundraising, check out the great work being done over at FundraisingAI.

Next Steps for More Personalized Donor Experiences with the Responsive Maturity Model

Becoming a responsive nonprofit is hard work. But, creating better donor experiences, increasing giving, and unifying nonprofit teams is worth the effort. Without responsive donor engagement and donation processes, nonprofit growth is inevitably going to be limited.

Hopefully, the Responsive Maturity Model can help provide a roadmap for success. If you want to continue to dig into this maturity model more, remember that you can always download this free e-book.

No matter where a nonprofit is in the responsive journey, it should be bold in pushing its team to the next stage of growth!


Gabe Cooper is the Founder and CEO of Virtuous Software, a CRM and Marketing platform helping charities increase their impact. He is also the founder of Brushfire Interactive and co-founder of Shotzoom Software. Gabe has a true passion for creating market-defining software and helping charities re-imagine generosity. After serving in a leadership role at a large nonprofit in the early 2000’s, Gabe went on to help build a series of successful products in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Gabe has worked on products that received Apple’s App Design of the Year, 3 Apple Hall of Fame Inductions, and a NY Times Top 10 App. His team’s work has also been featured on CNN, Mashable, Forbes, USA Today, and Wired Magazine. Gabe, his wife Farrah, and their five kids live in Gilbert, AZ.