personalization and segmentation with Steven Shattuck

Episode aired March 24, 2021: The Human Touch

As the author of “Robots Make Bad Fundraisers,” Steven Shattuck of Bloomerang knows how much donors appreciate the human touch. He is an expert in how to segment your donor list and how to personalize your communications to build relationships. In this episode Steven discusses

  • 2 groups of donors you might have overlooked 
  • why automation is good but not the replacement for the human touch  
  • what donors want to know when you communicate with them
  • how to turn 1st time donors into recurring donors and
  • why digital doesn’t have to be “robotic.”.  

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a nonprofit fundraising, marketing and digital smartie, Steven Shattuck. Steven, how you doing today?

Steven: Good. How you doing? Thanks for having me.

Ephraim: An absolute pleasure to have you. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Steven Shattuck is Chief Engagement Officer of Bloomerang. A prolific writer and speaker, he curates Bloomerang’s sector leading educational content and hosts Bloomerang’s weekly webinar series, which features the top thought leaders in the nonprofit sector. Steven volunteers his time on the Project Work Group of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project and the Study Fundraising Steering Group at the Hartsook Center for Sustainable Philanthropy at Plymouth University. He is also an AFP Center for Fundraising Innovation Committee member and sits  on the faculty of the Institute for Charitable Giving. Steven is a frequent conference speaker, having spoken at AFP International, Cause Camp, ADRP, the Nonprofit Storytelling Conference and Planet Philanthropy to name a few.

He is the author of ‘Robots Make Bad Fundraisers- How nonprofits can maintain the heart in the digital age‘ published by Bold and Bright Media last year. Recipient of the David Letterman Scholarship, Steven graduated with honors from Ball State University in 2006 with a degree in telecommunications and creative writing. He resides in Indianapolis with his wife, son and daughter.


In today’s episode we’re going to discuss personalization and segmentation. Let’s dive right in. Let’s start Steven with automation. Technology has made things easier for nonprofits in terms of communicating with donors. What’s the downside to that?

Steven: Well there might not be one. It depends what you’re automating. If you’re automating a report that you need every week and your technology can get it to you and send it to your inbox and it’s there, great. If your technology is letting a Board member know that you just got a brand-new donor and saying, hey Board member you should call this new donor, here’s their phone number, great. If your technology is gonna replace you and communicate to your people for you and maybe a kind of a generic one-size-fits-all way, that might be bad. So I don’t think it’s a matter of…

I think it’s a binary choice of automation versus not automating, but what is being automated, right? Because I do think there are things that you don’t want to replace. The human touch for example. There is no replacement for calling up a donor and saying, hey, thanks so much for being a monthly donor. You’re awesome. We were just thinking about you. Probably not quite there where technology can do that. I know we’re getting kind of close with deep fake videos and AI and these things but I think at some point it’s got to be a human being reaching out, because this is a very personal discipline and work that we do.

How To Boost Retention

Ephraim: Okay. So the sector’s retention rate hovers at an abysmal 40 to 45 percent. What are the main contributing factors to that and how can a nonprofit turn the tide?

Steven: Yeah, it’s even worse for first-time donors. It’s 20 percent or less. Single digits for certain channels among first-time donors but we have research on this. People have looked at this. Adrian Sargeant has been studying this for decades, Penelope Burke is doing this every year in her donor survey, the Donor Voice has done some really interesting research. 

And basically it all comes to the same conclusion: Donors want to be thanked. They want to know where their money is going and who is being helped. So the storytelling, the impact storytelling that you can be saying to donors, hey this is a kid who went through our program and now he’s the first person to graduate from college and his family and it’s all because of you. The more you can tell people about the great work that you’re doing with their funding, that’s what gets them hooked into giving. Also not surprising them.

You mentioned segmentation and personalization. That’s really another answer to that, is when you’re talking to donors as if they are individual human beings and not this big conglomerate group that’s all been rolled up into one persona in your database. But when you can really reach out to people and not just say thank you in a certain way but also ask for certain things… I mean we’re asking all of our donors and our database to give in the same ways. That’s not a good way to do it because very few of those communications are going to resonate with the entire group. So the more you can look at individual groups of people, segments, kind of look alike personas and say different things to them, that’s when the retention rates really start to improve.

Donor Segmentation

Ephraim: Okay. So today’s actionable item. I have access- speaking of what you just mentioned about segmentation- I have access to my nonprofit donor database, whether that’s excel or a proper CRM. To improve and maximize my donor retention rate, could you tell us three to four segments that I should be dividing my donor list into and what communications or messages I want to use with each of those to increase retention?

Steven: I’ll give you two kind of basic ones and I’ll give you two really weird ones. The first two which probably everyone is going to have: First-time donors. Going back to that retention rate’s 20 percent or less. You need that second gift in a lot of cases to get positive ROI on your fundraising efforts. Absolutely critical and it’s not going to happen automatically. Very often a brand-new donor gets thrown into the CRM and then they just get lumped into whatever ongoing communications are already planned. But if you segment them out, welcome them, hey, thanks so much for joining the family of donors. We can’t wait to get to know them. Get to know them. Send them surveys. Have a virtual tour or an on-site tour if you can. Why do they give, right? What’s the connection to the cause? Did they have a family member who died of that disease? Did they used to visit the park that you’re trying to restore? Find that out and then you can communicate to them in that appropriate way, based on the information you glean from them, rather than just kind of bombarding them with whatever one-size-fits-all communications that everybody else is getting. They may not be ready for that. 

Another one: Peer-to-peer donors. So I’m kind of the retention guy but this is the group I would say maybe not worry about too much, because they didn’t necessarily give to you. They gave to that third party fundraiser that was raising money for you. But again we swoop right in and act like we’re their best friend. Hey, thanks so much for donating. We sent him stuff and it’s like, whoa, they may not even know who you are or what your organization does. Maybe have the fundraiser reach out to them. Maybe the thank you letter comes from the fundraiser. It’s on your letterhead or something like that but hey Steven, thanks so much for donating to my 5k. By the way, this is the nonprofit that your money is supporting. You may not have realized that. This is why I support them. This is the great work they do and I would love it if you would continue to support them. Be on the lookout for their newsletter or something like that.

Then the weird ones. One that I really like is out of town donors. If you have a very local footprint… so let’s say you’re an animal shelter in a city and you have a geographic area that you serve. Maybe you have a donor who lives across the country. That’s kind of weird. Why are they donating to you? Maybe there’s someone who used to live in that city and they have a soft spot for animals… the population of the animals there. Maybe they adopted a pet years ago and they’re just trying to give back. Looking at those donor signals and I think that’s a really good one of saying, hey there might be something going on here. There may be a deeper story. Maybe we should reach out to this person and try to figure out what is making that gift occur. That could be someone that would… they’re not directly benefiting from your services if they don’t live in your footprint. Something’s going on there. That may be someone you want to reach out and see what’s going on.

And then the last one I really like and this will sound a little morbid but surviving family members of a long-term donor that has passed away. Now there’s a couple practical things: Not sending them appeals and direct mail that’s addressed to that person that passed away. It’s gonna make them feel bad. They’re not gonna have good feelings about your charity if that’s happening. But share your condolences. Hey Steven. We’re so sorry to hear that your mother passed away. She was a long-term supporter. We’re here for you if you ever need anything. But the other thing is there’s very interesting research that’s been done by the IU School of Philanthropy to show that those surviving family members are very good donor prospects if they aren’t already giving, because they have been part of that culture in the household and the family of supporting that mission very likely. Some personalized, segmented communications to those people specifically. But as you go through this exercise of thinking, wow, there’s a lot of different types of people in our database that look very different, I think that will help you guide your communications efforts and really start to create some stories and some compelling case for cases for support that will really resonate with them.

Ephraim: Excellent. I really like that last one because I think a lot of nonprofits… once the donor passes away, they kind of okay, it’s over, we’re done and it’s really… there’s an opportunity there as opposed to being finished.

Steven: Absolutely. 

Advantages Of Personalization

Ephraim: That’s an excellent one. So now we’ll get into personalization for a second. What are the advantages of using a person’s name when sending them email or mail? Why is personalization so critical to retention?  

Steven: Well I think people give to people and I think the inverse is, who’s sending the letter? Is it also being sent by a person, so if you can kind of bookend it or sandwich it or whatever the metaphor is with a name and a name, it’s going to be more powerful. I think another thing that could be really useful is you can personalize and then the rest of the letter really misses the mark. I think one thing I would add into the name is the kind of donor they are. Dear Steven, as a monthly donor you’re keeping the lights on. Dear Sally, as someone who’s been giving to us for many years, you know the value of the services we provide. Dear David, thanks so much for joining the family of donors. We saw that it was your first gift. It was recently made. Thank you. That’s really when it may even be more powerful than perhaps the name in some cases.

If you do the name, you got to be rock solid on the data, right? If you don’t have the… if you got the dirty data and use the wrong name, something weird happens and you know we’ve all seen those horror stories where it’s the merge field tag and not the name. Just make sure you’re rock solid on the personalization and if you do a little handwritten note on the printed letter before you send that out, you can catch those things, right? Because you’re holding it in your hand and you’re seeing it. But also it just kind of shows the donor, hey, they spent a couple extra seconds on this before just cramming it into an envelope and sending it off.

Ephraim: Well you mentioned Dr.  Adrian Sargeant I believe earlier. He mentioned that the most important piece of communications the donor gets is that thank you, that’s what they recall the most, as opposed to the campaign, the fundraising campaign itself. So everything you just said is extremely critical to retention.

Steven: He’s my hero, so I’m glad he said that.

Robots Make Bad Fundraisers

Ephraim: Your book is titled ‘Robots Make Bad Fundraisers’ but it’s the subtitle that I want to concentrate on, ‘how nonprofits can maintain the heart in the digital age’. Please tell us three ways nonprofits can add emotion, warmth and those fuzzy good vibes to their digital communications with supporters.  

Steven: I mean digital doesn’t have to be robotic, right? It’s not an anti-digital book. It actually can be even more powerful than some analog formats, a handwritten note and a phone call always going to be good but what about recording a little video? Grabbing your cellphone or opening up Zoom with just yourself on the meeting and recording something and firing that off. They can see your face, hear your voice.  

The lost art of the personal email. Not every email has to come out of a mass email provider. It doesn’t just have to be an email blast from Mailchimp or Bloomerang or Constant Contact or whatever you’re using. You can open up Gmail or Outlook and type in one person’s email address and write them an email. I think that’s probably gonna have higher open rates than maybe a mass email. It’s plain text, it’s to come from a person, it’s going to have their name on it, hey Steven, thanks so much for being a donor. Just want to let you know that something new is going on, wanted to give you an update, wanted to invite you to this event personally and you can layer those things. You can send that email blast. Nothing wrong with that. Then maybe a couple days later or the next day follow up with that one-to-one email. But technology can be your friend and again, it’s kind of like automation, how is it being applied, how is it being deployed. It’s not the channel or the medium in itself that’s a problem. I think it’s how it’s being used and if you make a personal connection your goal, I don’t think you’ll be led astray if you kind of let that be your north star.

Let’s Learn More About Steven

Ephraim: Perfect. Let’s go to the lightning round and learn more about you. What got started on your nonprofit career path?

Steven: I really annoyed my wife because she wanted to work in the nonprofit sector and I fell backwards into it by getting a job out of school at a marketing agency that made fundraising videos. So I spent the first five or six years of my career making gala videos, those four-minute tear-jerker videos that you show at a gala before the Board member gets up and asks for the check from the table captains. That’s where I got my chops, doing capital campaign videos. We were sending DVDs in the mail back then. It’s kind of hard to believe but yeah, video I love it. So I got a soft spot for gala videos particularly. So if you send them to me, if you’re watching this or reading it or listening, I want to see them. Send it to me. 

Ephraim: Excellent. So with all your years now in the sector, if there’s one thing you could shake up in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Steven: Moratorium on 1920s or Gatsby themed galas. Let’s just… can we stop folks? Let’s just not do it. We had a good run. Let’s do something else, alright?

Ephraim: Stay tuned. Steven’s going to write a blog post about other ideas for gala events. Hardest part of writing a book?

Steven: All the stuff that hits the cutting room floor. I came up with like three other book ideas in the course of it but it was like, this probably shouldn’t go in this book. Let’s save it. But it’s hard you know? It’s your baby and you want to be in there but it’s just not a good fit for this book, so save it. That’s hard.

Ephraim: I guess that means that there’s more to come from the library of Steven Shattuck.  

Steven: Perhaps.

Ephraim: Fantastic. Excellent. You’re the CEO of Bloomerang Tech. I will clarify by adding that CEO stands for Chief Engagement Officer. What does the Chief Engagement Officer do?  

Steven: Mostly goof off and do things like this. I’m kind of the middle child. I just want everybody to be happy. So if I can do something and help a customer, a fellow employee, a consultant, people on Twitter, I’m here for you. I just want everybody to be happy.

Ephraim: That’s good. So you’re the typical nonprofit employee who wears all the hats.

Steven: Yes yes and I’m married to one too.

Ephraim: Perfect. Why Indianapolis?

Steven: It’s more fun to be a New England sports team fan here because we just kick their butts all the time and it’s fun.

Ephraim: Is there something specific about the city that you love?

Steven: Yeah. It’s bike friendly, people are really nice, great restaurants. You get all the perks of a real big city culturally in a little kind of condensed area and great airport. The best airport and when we can go and fly places, I’ll really take advantage of it. But if you’ve ever flown through Indianapolis, you’re in for a treat.

Ephraim: That’s awesome. Okay. Lastly, let’s turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no idea what’s coming. I might even be a little bit scared here. Go ahead.

Steven: We’re recording this on Purim.

Ephraim: Yes we are.

Steven: Where’s your costume?

Ephraim: Aha, here’s the deal. I am not a costume person per se. However, for the last three years, I have been threatening to dress as Cyndi Lauper circa 1985.

Steven: Come on!

Ephraim: I have not. So for the last two years I have bookmarked sites, Amazon and other sites where I can buy all the paraphernalia and there’s quite a lot bless it. It just didn’t happen this year. I’m sitting here now committing… 

Steven: We’re recording this.

Ephraim: To post to Twitter and Instagram a picture of myself dressed as Cyndi Lauper circa 1985. You have my word Steven.

Steven: Okay. This is being recorded. So I forgot we were fellow 1980s music with Ginger Jim and yeah, we got to get that going again.  

Ephraim: That’s why I have always wanted to… I have the image. I know what I need. I just got to go out and get it.

Steven: So Cyndi Lauper. I’m more of a Bangles fan than Cyndi Lauper.  

Ephraim: That works.

Steven: That’s basically the same fashion.

Ephraim: Yes. As long as you’ve got the hair and the bracelets and…

Steven: The janglies and hoop earrings.

Ephraim: I’ve got everything bookmarked. I just got to go out and buy it. So yeah.

Steven: Let’s do it.

Ephraim: You’ve all heard it here. I’ve made a commitment next year to dressing like that and posting a picture of it.

Steven: In 364 days.

Ephraim: I have no shame.

Steven, thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast. I encourage everyone to connect with Steven on LinkedIn and on Twitter, @StevenShattuck. His book ‘Robots Make Bad Fundraisers‘ can be bought online on Amazon. Kindle and paperback versions available. Was a pleasure having you here as a guest sir.

 Steven: Thanks for having me. This is fun.

Ephraim: My pleasure. Have a good one.