How to Segment and Engage Your Donor Population: A Q&A

How to Segment and Engage Your Donor Population: A Q&A

Your nonprofit relies on its supporter community for almost all aspects of your mission—these supporters include your donors, event attendees, volunteers, and advocates. Finding and engaging these individuals in your nonprofit’s activities is crucial for the ongoing success of your fundraising campaigns and projects.

But this is a task easier said than done. Just as your nonprofit is unique, so too are your supporters. Therefore, they each require different strategies for outreach and engagement.

Before you kick off your outreach, communication, and engagement strategies, ensure that your whole nonprofit staff is on the same page regarding these strategies. In order to help your team move forward together, we’ve laid out some basic questions that everyone involved may have:

  1. How should I define engagement?
  2. What is donor segmentation?
  3. How should I segment my donors?
  4. What do I need to know about my donors?
  5. How should I communicate with my donors?
  6. What is a good engagement rate?
  7. How do I improve engagement going forward?

Your engagement strategy will look different from every other nonprofit’s because of your unique mission and organizational culture, but the techniques underlying your organization’s strategy should be based on some tried and true nonprofit concepts.

Let’s start answering some of these burning questions.

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1. How should I define engagement?

Engagement is the pattern of interaction that a supporter in your community has with your nonprofit. Any time that a supporter comes into contact with your nonprofit, whether that be online, through the mail, over the phone, or in person, they are engaging with you and your mission.

This is a very broad definition, however, and might not necessarily be the most helpful one for your organization. Instead, you should take this definition and view it through the lens of your nonprofit organization’s actual activities.

Ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • How do my supporters interact with our organization’s online presence?
  • How do my supporters interact with our email campaigns?
  • How do my supporters interact with our events?

Think about all the opportunities that your organization has to connect with your community, and then try to quantify them. It will be important for you to be able to measure your engagement levels accurately, so that you can make data-driven decisions for the future.

Your supporters may engage with your organization through:

  • Volunteer opportunities.
  • Event attendance.
  • Donations, either monetary or in-kind.
  • Advocacy actions.

If you don’t host in-person events, then event attendance won’t be a useful metric for measuring engagement. Measuring engagement will depend on how your organization opens its doors to the community. For example, look back at your past annual fund campaigns. Did you raise the most money through event registrations, or a direct mail campaign, or neither?

Once you know how your own supporters have interacted with your organization in the past, you can determine how you should define engagement for your nonprofit.

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2. What is donor segmentation?

Donor segmentation is a process in which your nonprofit splits up your entire community into smaller groups according to their similarities. These similarities can be anything: age ranges, engagement history, donation level, or gender.

No matter how you segment your supporters (and we’ll cover how with the next question), it will be a useful tactic for a lot of strategies. You can use donor segmentation to make all of the following activities more fruitful:

When you segment your donors, your nonprofit will be able to more successfully reach and communicate with your donors, increasing your engagement rate and the success of your fundraising campaign or event.

General outreach, aimed at your entire donor population, will be less effective than targeted outreach for specific groups of people.

When you try to make your asks or newsletters applicable to your whole population, they end up becoming applicable to none because they’re too vague to be moving or inspiring. However, creating more specified content will better resonate with individuals because they better relate.

Next, let’s discuss how an organization can determine how best to segment its own supporter population.

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3. How should I segment my donors?

This question gets into the nitty-gritty of segmentation. Segmentation as a concept isn’t difficult to grasp, but it can be more difficult to put into practice. In order to make your organization’s segmentation strategy as effective as possible, start by looking at the supporters that you know belong to your community.

For example, you wouldn’t want to base your segmentation strategy on age groups if you know that the majority of your supporters are all part of the same generational group. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to create a direct mail campaign if your supporters are more comfortable with online or over-the-phone asks.

Look at the data that you already have in your CRM and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Where do my supporters live?
  • What ages are my supporters?
  • What campaigns do my supporters give to?
  • What communication strategies have been most effective?

Once you have the answers to these questions, you can break your population down into segments. Your segmentation efforts should allow you to create marketing or communication materials for each segment that specifically target some aspect of their interests. Some common segments include:

Event attendance history Preferred method of communication Geographic region Level of giving

You can use these segments to draw some conclusions about your donors that can help you reach out to them more effectively.

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4. What do I need to know about my donors?

In order to create the best outreach plan possible and improve your engagement rates, you have to know what inspires your donors to get involved. Newton’s first law of motion also applies to people in your community: an object (or supporter) at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force.

Your communication methods should be the force that inspires your supporters to move. It is easier for a person to do nothing than to do something, so you should keep in mind that you have to overcome that inertia to inspire your donors to act.

When you create segments, you’re actually trying to create a compelling reason for your supporters to move, to act, to donate to your cause. Creating segments allows you to get closer to a personal call to action, by analyzing what has caused someone to contribute or engage in the past.

The things that you need to know about your donor are:

  • The aspects of your cause that are closest to your donors’ hearts. Pay attention to which campaigns a donor gives to over the course of the year. Are their preferred campaigns education-based? Are they consistently responsive to your annual fund appeals? Analyze their giving history to make an educated guess at what drives them to give.

  • The ways that they prefer to give. Some people like giving in-kind donations over cash, because they feel like it’s more personal. Others will prefer to give online via a credit or debit card, because it’s easier than attending an event or giving in cash. And still more are more willing to pay for event registration than make an outright donation!

  • How your donors like to be communicated with. Many professionals aren’t willing or able to spend a long time giving an over-the-phone donation. Others prefer phone calls to email or texting. And even more will enjoy the thoughtfulness that a direct mail campaign provides.

In order to make your outreach campaigns effective, you need to know these three things about your supporters. When you reach out through their preferred communication method about a cause that they’re passionate about, and then offer their preferred way to give, you’ll be far more successful in your outreach.

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5. How should I communicate with my donors?

In order to determine how your donors like to be reached out to, you have to take into account their previous behaviors. On a large scale, you can look at some donor analytics like:

  • Open and click-through rates for different email campaigns.
  • Response rates for direct mail campaigns.
  • Answer and donation rates for phone call solicitations.
  • Donation rates for social media fundraising campaigns.

These metrics indicate how your campaigns perform through the different media, and even allow you to determine which supporters prefer which method of communication.

Once you’ve analyzed your existing data, use your findings to segment your donors by communication method. If you find that you have data that provides inconclusive results about your supporters, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask how they want to be contacted!

In addition to knowing what method your supporters like to be communicated through, ask yourself this question again with a different answer in mind.

Q: “How should I communicate with my donors?” A: “In a way that is personal, donor-based, enthusiastic, and respectful.”

The words that you use in your asks are just as important as the method that you use to deliver them. Center your communications around what the donor does for your nonprofit, instead of what your nonprofit does for the community. By keeping your outreach donor-centric, you’ll inspire them more easily.

“We can’t do this without you!” or “We miss you; attend our event!” are both ways to make the donor the center of attention while still reminding them of your mission. Use language like this to convince them to donate, attend events, or volunteer.

For more help writing better letters and emails, take a look at these templates from Fundraising Letters. These examples can help you craft better supporter-focused messages.

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6. What is a good engagement rate?

Now that you’re a pro at reaching out in ways that inspire your supporters to get involved, it’s time to establish your goals for your engagement rate.

We can’t give you a magic number to use for your engagement rate that indicates that your nonprofit is doing well. Every nonprofit is different. Your engagement rate will vary wildly from others’ based on your supporter population size, fundraising capacity, mission, and more. Instead, you should establish engagement rate goals based on your own history.

The only organization that you need to compete with is yourself! Therefore, use your engagement rate baseline to determine where you need to go from here.

Some examples of this approach are:

  • If 25% of the supporters in your CRM attended your last fundraising event, try to increase that number to 30% for your next event.
  • Aim to increase your fundraising goal to 15% more than your previous goal.
  • Try to increase the click-through rate of your emails by focusing on creating more effective segments and improving your emails overall.

Creating measurable and achievable goals is a great way to push your nonprofit organization to new heights while still focusing on your mission and community.

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7. How do I improve engagement going forward?

We’ve covered a lot of ground here. Between measuring your current engagement levels, implementing a supporter segmentation strategy, and learning how to use the data you have to find actionable insights, you’ve learned a lot about how to measure engagement.

But just including a new strategy in your outreach techniques isn’t enough to power real, sustainable change through the future. Your nonprofit team has to be committed to improving your engagement rate across the board.

To continue to grow and learn, your team has to use the data that you collect at every opportunity to get to know your community better and use that knowledge to create more enticing marketing campaigns, events, and volunteer opportunities.

Every time you send an email or host an event, you can learn about your supporters’ motives, passions, and interests. Improving your engagement rate in the future is as simple as continuing to listen and change as your supporters engage with your nonprofit.


Segmenting and engaging your donor population may seem like a daunting task. It’s difficult to reach out to a large group of people when you’re not sure how to inspire them! But when your nonprofit staff is armed with data-based decisions and new ideas for engagement, you’re sure to create a community of active and engaged supporters.

If you need more help analyzing your fundraising data before your next campaign, check out this guide to fundraising feasibility studies from Averill Fundraising Solutions. With a dedicated effort to understand your community before you start fundraising, you’ll be able to set better engagement benchmarks and reach your fundraising goals.


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Special thanks to Bob Happy from Averill Solutions for sharing his expert advice on fundraising planning and feasibility.

Bob Happy brings nearly 35 years of experience providing expert leadership and direction to clients across the not-for-profit sector to his current role as President of Averill Solutions. Before forming Averill Solutions, Bob served as the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the nation’s largest fundraising firm. He has mentored hundreds of professional fundraising practitioners and many have joined him at Averill Fundraising Solutions.

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