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February 27

Donor-Centric Marketing: Ditch “We” for “You”


Donor-centric marketing can be a sticky business.

Many advancement departments often get caught up in a tangled web of capital campaign committees and case statements that send mixed signals to prospective donors. Even worse, they may never bring in the marketing department to help clarify the school’s message.

In 2016, Amy Eisenstein posted a short interview with Tom Ahern, a fellow fundraising expert and author of Keep Your Donors:

Amy and Tom discuss some common corners colleges and universities back themselves into with their fundraising efforts. Throughout, Tom hammers home the most critical donor-centric theme of all — schools have to put the donor’s motivations first:

“A lot of the work is communications, and it is storytelling, and it is making the donor part of this story that you are formulating.” — Tom Ahern, fundraising expert and author

I completely agree. Too often, I’ve seen schools shout from the rooftops how incredible they are and why they deserve philanthropic gestures while completely neglecting the donor’s inclinations.

A well-crafted donor-centric marketing strategy is critical to helping your institution build and, more importantly, retain donor relationships. That begins with making your donors the heroes of your school’s story. But first, you have to find them.

Attracting Your Target Audience

Data is all well and good for convincing your right-brain friends to help pay for that new lab. For the most part, though, humans are compelled by storytelling.

Stories allow your advancement office to create an emotional connection with your donors through an engaging narrative, and it starts with telling their stories.

For example, in early 2021, Kenyon College announced a donor gift of $100 million for their school’s student housing development. I later spoke with Kenyon’s VP for Advancement, Colleen Garland, and VP of Communications, Janet Marsden, on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast.

While they respected the donor’s wish to remain anonymous, Janet had this to say about inviting other donors to hear these kinds of stories:

“You want to be able to acknowledge the role other donors play in this. So in our communications, we had the opportunity to bring in other voices.

[We had] alumni reflect on their own experience on campus and how this gift was going towards something that every alum could speak to [concerning] their experience on Kenyon’s campus.” — Janet Marsden, VP of Communications, Kenyon College

By crafting a story around experiences that directly impacted their alumni, the folks at Kenyon College made those prospective donors the heroes of the story. 


That’s why storytelling is critical to the core of your school’s donor-centric marketing strategy. Speaking to your donors’ hearts is the first step to building a relationship that should pay dividends in your fundraising efforts.

Donor-Centric Means Putting Donor Motivations First

Appealing to your donors’ reasons for giving to your school is also vital to your advancement efforts.

Many of your donors and alumni aren’t going to be inclined to donate to your school “just because.” So you need to play to their motivations.

If you’re fuzzy on what those motivations might be, partner with your marketing team to conduct research using these tools:

  • Surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Social media polls
  • Web traffic data

Once you have an understanding of where your donors want to see their donations go, ask yourself and your advancement team these questions before directly engaging with them:

  • Does your school have a problem to solve? — Clearly define why you are appealing to your audience for a donation.
  • What is your call to action? — Give your donor well-defined parameters on what (how much) they can give to help meet your goal.
  • Does your case statement speak to your donor’s emotions? — Be it concern, duty, or school pride, your fundraising appeal should evoke an emotional response.

By gaining a clear picture of what drives your donors to give, you can craft your donor-centric strategy so that their collective vision aligns with your own.

Donor-Centric Messaging

Whether it’s through a social media post or a letter in a mailbox, your advancement team needs to get personal in donor communications.

Personalized messaging isn’t a one-trick enrollment marketing pony. Through alumni database segmentation, you can craft messages that speak to different donor groups and personas.

Want to build a much-needed extension for your athletic training facility? Reach out to former athletes with a personalized letter that recalls their days in your gym or on the field! Better yet, ask your coaches to send personalized videos to their old athletes, asking if they’d be willing to help the next generation of your school’s competitors.

Be it email, direct mail, social media, or other channels, you will significantly increase your donor engagement by tailoring personalized messaging to your intended audience.

Engage With Your Donors

No matter the situation, people like to feel appreciated. The same is true for your donors.

Ensure your advancement team is putting in the effort to maintain regular contact with your school’s donors and keeping them updated on relevant developments.

Of course, the go-to for many schools in long-term engagement is a classic alumni newsletter. However, in keeping with your personalized messaging strategy, you can go above and beyond with your communication — even when your efforts might feel in vain.

For instance, on another episode of our podcast, Amanda Nicol, Director Of Annual Giving at the University of Findlay, gave this advice on donor relationships:

“When you are having a bad day, and all you’re getting are ‘Nos,’ call the best donor that you have and just have a conversation with them because they are the donor that is going to pick you up and make you feel good, and you’re going to be able to have things to talk about, and it will turn your day around.

And I will tell you that I have done that on more than one occasion… It is a hard place to be sometimes, and there are days and periods of time when you get a lot of ‘Nos’ and projects don’t go the way you want them to. But there are those donors that are always a spotlight in your life.” — Amanda Nicol, Director of Annual Giving at the University of Findlay

By engaging with your donors and building those enduring relationships, you’ll create even more opportunities to invite them to expand on their philanthropic story.

After all, they’re the heroes, and they need to be acknowledged as such!

Donor-Centric Marketing Should Inspire

Like Tom Ahern said in his interview, donor-centric marketing should be focused on extending your donor’s purpose in life.

Throw out the sanitized jargon and give your donors a reason to care by telling the stories that matter to them. Remember, you need an audience to hear them, so consistent, transparent communication is vital.

If you need a hand with putting the “donor-centric” back in your fundraising efforts, we’d love to help you. Reach out to us today!

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