Andrew Olsen, CFRE is President of Altus Marketing, a Moore company, a best-selling author, and host of a top-rated nonprofit podcast.

As a nonprofit marketer, your most important role is to create meaningful connections with supporters to increase commitment, reduce friction and grow revenue. It’s about creating relevance around what your constituents already care about; what they already want, hope and desire for themselves and their interactions with your brand.

Looking at the consumer landscape, today’s buyers (hint: they’re also your donors) interact with their favorite brands across multiple channels and devices, sharing personal information and preference data in exchange for an optimized, delightful shopping experience.

Consumers expect their favorite brands to know them — to anticipate their next want or need (based on data both observed and freely shared) and to present them with new opportunities that are relevant and timely. And they want to be able to act on those opportunities in a single click.

Consumers expect the same ease of use from the nonprofits they support. The challenge we face is how to keep pace with consumer expectations and demands in a sector that traditionally lags behind the consumer marketplace. How do we create more meaningful experiences for supporters that translate to increased retention, higher levels of activation, improved revenue and reduced cost over time?

In short, how do we compete with every other way a donor can spend their dollar?

Thankfully, constituents are giving us all the cues and data we need to build rich profiles of them that we can use to create meaningful journeys and personalized experiences.

There are four key levels of data you should track and build strategies around:

Transaction data: Consider elements like first gift date, largest gift amount, average gift amount, etc. This data is largely used for appeal segmentation purposes and to drive ask strategy decisions. But this is where data should begin, not end.

Offer and campaign response data: Some are collecting and tracking this data and using it quite successfully to plan future campaigns and offers and target the most effective offers to constituents who are most likely to respond.

Behavioral data: Clicks on a site seem like anonymous waste data. But not when you can match the person who read your advocacy pages with gusto to a name and a mailing address for your next petition.

Consumer data: Might the person who buys fair-trade coffee be interested in your environmental organization? Is the dog food buyer a more likely candidate to support your animal shelter?

With the vast amount of data available, there’s no excuse for not using it to create experiences that are relevant to our supporters and timely based on their actions and preferences. You need the ability to refresh this data in real time to seize opportunities with constituents when you are fresh in their minds and hearts. Real-time updates enable you to act quickly and deliver experiences that are relevant in time and context to your supporters, increasing your likelihood for success.

Don’t neglect the technology either. It’s impossible to achieve one-to-one marketing without the technical capability to deliver varied messaging, offers and creative seamlessly and in real time across multiple channels and platforms. When you combine vast amounts of data within a sophisticated technology environment to target constituents on a personal level, you’ll create meaningful interactions that build loyalty and maximize revenue.

But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s easy. Many of us have spent more time and investment dollars than we care to admit trying to bring all of this disparate data together by hand (or by horse-drawn pivot tables) to create personally relevant marketing experiences for supporters. We know that trying to bootstrap something as vast and complicated as this is challenging.

In our sector-wide race to the bottom on marketing expenditures, many organizations forego relevant, personalized experiences for templated, cookie-cutter marketing that is cheap but more financially efficient in the short-term.

The trade-off, however, is abysmally low donor retention rates and constituents who lament that they are disappointed by the lack of personalization and humanity in their interactions with the nonprofits they support. Conversely, when you get this right, it increases the level of trust that constituents have in your brand.

In the commercial world, relevance leads to trust and trust leads to sales. The same is true for you, except you’re selling mission impact — and that’s incredibly more valuable than toothpaste or hair products.

Here’s a quick hit list to help you get started:

1. Secure executive buy-in. Large and complex initiatives like this only succeed with significant executive buy-in. Your executive sponsors need to embrace the idea, believe in the potential of the change and be willing to invest the time, relational capital and hard dollars to bring it to fruition.

2. Commit to creating a data-driven culture. Teach people to step back and observe, orient, decide, then act. Data-driven organizations take a more rigorous approach to observation and analysis before acting.

3. Define the goal. What is it that you want this initiative to achieve? If you don’t define the goal ahead of kicking off the initiative, you’ll never know whether you’re successful or not.

4. Understand the data you need to capture and track. Conduct a detailed inventory of your current data reality. Identify the key gaps and build a plan to fill those holes to ensure future success.

5. Select great partners and tools. Bootstrapping something like this is risky. This is where great data, agency and technology partners are essential. Ask the hard questions. People will tell you they’re data-driven, have the best tech stack and are great at developing donor journeys, but few have the results to back up their claims.

6. Test. Mitigate your risk and maximize opportunities for success by starting with small tests. The faster you can learn and refine your approach, the quicker you’ll identify wins and begin to scale for growth.

Nonprofit organizations that focus on increasing relevance today are driving growth in retention and value per donor, which, in turn, allows them to deliver greater mission impact.


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