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Donor Personas: Creating Donor Profiles With Empathy Mapping


(This blog had been originally published in Advancing Philanthropy by AFP Global Jan 2021)


The coronavirus pandemic did not just throw nonprofits off the track, it has changed everyone’s way of life at an unprecedented speed. For non-profits, this means that instead of an evolution over time, donors’ perceptions, motivations, feelings, behaviors and experiences, including with the charitable organization, have changed drastically overnight. How can non-profits find the compass to guide them through this crisis and possibly meet new ones in the future?


One thing is certain, the traditional top-down and less data-driven planning that nonprofit organizations often employ ignores the complex environment involving internal and external stakeholders. Internally, the stakeholders often have conflicting priorities and work in silos. The data collection method can be flawed or non-existent. Externally, donor diversity, sophistication, and their relationships with the organization become more complex and change faster, reflecting the general eco-political environment. And importantly, these data-driven techniques don’t generate fresh ideas or provide sustainable solutions for a longer shelf life.


An empathy-based methodology like design thinking focuses on the user experiences of donors and other stakeholders in the nonprofit rather than on nonhuman objectives like budgets, key performance indicators (KPIs), brand recognition and other factors. By implementing a more inclusive process for all internal and external stakeholders that is action-based and has a “feed-forward” orientation, the organization can identify the factors that underlie the business problem. Instead of relying on past feedback, leaders use a process that could help them imagine the future.


Empathy mapping is a technique borrowed from user experience (UX) design that serves as the first step in an empathy-based and data-driven process to understand your stakeholder’s environment, experience and deeper needs.


What Is Donor Empathy Mapping?

Donor Empathy Mapping is a process that captures our knowledge of donors through a professionally facilitated brainstorming session with a cross-functional team. During the session, we diverge and ideate based on knowledge from our work, existing research and donor surveys. We then come together with our colleagues, who bring in their perspectives and knowledge, to co-create one or more donor personas unique to the organization.

But this is never a one-time process. The organization benefits from regular sessions and accommodates for the donor base changing and diversifying.


The mapping process could identify more than one donor persona. These personas can vary according to type (individual, corporate, etc.), demographic (age, profession, etc.), and gift amount (major, annual, etc.). Fundraisers and the team can further prioritize these personas and create strategies according to the unmet needs, barriers to giving, and other information generated from the process.


For example, during one such mapping process, a municipal innovation center client identified their top two donor personas in the major individual philanthropist category: family offices (motivation focus on keeping their children in the city) and community builders (motivation focus on achieving collaboration). Instead of a one-size-fits-all brochure that talks about the building, this distinction would allow the organization to customize its proposals with unique value propositions for these potential major donors.


For organizations without prospect research or data analytics, or sometimes even a database, this exercise (combined with an in-depth donor interview) could be done with minimum efforts and would be the only evidence-based methodology needed to capture data points about your donors. Figure 1 provides an example of a Donor Empathy Map developed specifically for nonprofits and incorporates aspects of prospect research practice.

Figure 1: Donor Empathy Map



Collaboration Is Key

One of the most essential prerequisites of the Donor Empathy Mapping process is the participation of a diverse team. Collaboration is a key mindset for any empathy-based methodology. Ideally, the workshop requires perspectives from every touchpoint with donors. In reality, most organizations cannot assemble a team with staff from every department. However, they see the benefits even when only two or three perspectives are represented because there is often a knowledge gap between fundraisers and other departments on who their donors are.


Last year, I worked with a senior center in Canada that previously focused on raising money from their community members via their marketing material and annual campaign. They also recruited members through marketing efforts with the assumption that members would give too. They used the same materials for recruitment and fundraising. This made sense from a cost perspective, but after going through the empathy mapping process with the development and marketing teams and volunteer staff, they made some key discoveries. Everyone realized that their donors were not members but rather nonmembers in a specific demographic segment: women in their 50-60s whose concern was to age well and maintain family connections.


This revelation was not new to the development team, but it was surprising for the marketing staff and volunteers. Fundraisers tried to communicate this several times but were unable to change the “members first” mindset. With this knowledge, they broadened their direct-mail campaign to nonmembers and changed their appeal message from the fear of isolation to the desire to age well and maintain family connections—a shift to values held by the donor demographic rather than through assumptions from data collected.


Indeed, many of my clients enjoy the process as much as the result. When a workshop with a design thinking mindset is properly moderated, everyone’s ideas will be heard (most of the time, anonymously), and the group is encouraged to listen with empathy. The mindset of collaboration provides a safe and inclusive space and draws the team closer. Who would have known that whiteboards and sticky notes could be so powerful in breaking down established and long-standing silos and hierarchies! The result is that the team takes ownership of the co-created persona, and other departments can finally be on the same page as the fundraisers.


Since the start of the pandemic, organizations are adapting to an online environment as fast as they can. Instead of a whiteboard and post-it notes for an in-person session, online sessions require a little more facilitation and the use of online tools. On the plus side, staff are more likely to be available and feel more comfortable in their home with a higher level of anonymity.


Why Is This Needed Now?

It’s great to see the shift in the industry toward a donor-centric approach. I often wonder what else do we need to know about donors to be donor-centric? Data analytics and data modeling are reliable starting points for answering that question, but not all organizations have a robust database to conduct this study. Many of our organizational strategies and approaches are untested, one-size-fits-all assumptions about donors.

For example, fundraisers in North America still overwhelmingly assume that their biggest gifts come from white male baby-boomers, but statistics show that African American/Canadian, Asian and Hispanic donors are proven to be equally—or more—philanthropic.


This is why nonprofits need to invest in ways to get to know their donors better. Empathy mapping represents a missing link that connects data analytics and prospect research to the development of the organization’s value statement, the case for support and strategies. This method is designed to inspire the opportunity for strategies to be “feed-forward” and help the organization anticipate what future donors may respond to. The process innately evolves and re-iterates based on changes in the environment.

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