I’d like to challenge common practice around email segmentation.

“We’re segmenting our emails by donors vs. non-donors” seems to be the go-to segmentation approach for many of the nonprofits I work with.

But should it be?

When constituents think about your organization, do they really view themselves as a “donor” or “non-donor?”You won’t hear someone say “I’m a non-donor at XYZ Food Bank.” And your donors view their relationship as more than just a financial commitment. Do they also deliver food, make phone calls, attend events or something else?

What are they passionate about?

Even more than how they’re involved with your organization, it’s why they are involved with your organization that’s truly important.  Maybe it’s to advance prostate, breast or skin cancer research. Perhaps their child received exceptional care. Or, they believe investing in the best medical equipment leads to the best patient outcomes.

The point of segmenting your emails is to deliver the right message to the right audience. So, is someone’s transactional history really the right message?

My guess is there’s something else about your organization that really resonates with them. But it seems like many nonprofits are simply segmenting emails by donors vs. non-donors in order to determine whether they should say “thank you for your past support!” or “would you make an initial gift?”

This a very transactional way to view the relationship.

How Did We Get Here?

Perhaps donor vs. non-donor email segmentation was used to make audience reporting easier. (But shouldn’t we just build better reports then?)

Or maybe it’s just replicating how nonprofits approach direct mail. You’ve likely heard “what works offline, works online.” This is often true – just think matching gift campaigns.

But email doesn’t have the expense to vary audience messaging like direct mail does. Sophisticated tools let you easily change messaging by audience and report on the results.

Interest-Based Segmentation

When your favorite retailer emails you, do they focus on whether you’ve previously purchased something? Or, do they highlight what items interest you most?

They do the latter and that’s what your constituents expect.

So how can nonprofits get started using interest-based segmentation?

1. Use what you have already

What restricted gifts have people made? What funds have they supported? Which department did they volunteer in?

Have they attended events benefiting something specific? For example, my old organization held a swimming event to benefit pediatric cancer research.

These “interests” are likely already in your database and can be used for segmentation.

2. Use modern tools

A more sophisticated tool is likely needed to better track constituent interests. Tools like Luminate Online Marketing will let you record “implied interest” click-throughs in your emails.

For example, a hospital’s Enewsletter may have stories on skin cancer research, pediatric patient care and new advanced surgical equipment. If I click on the skin cancer research story, it’ll be noted on my record that I’m interested in that topic. When you ask me for a donation next month, you can focus the email on skin cancer research funding.

Answers to surveys, profile updates and email “interest” forms are also recorded on someone’s record.

I hear this a lot: We want to better understand our constituents

Interest-based segmentation will get you there. You have to first know what’s important to your constituents – and it varies by individuals – before you can deliver more relevant email.

And if your email appeals focus on what matters most to your audiences, you can expect to raise more money.


Mike Snusz brings over 11+ years of nonprofit experience to his role as a principal strategy consultant at Blackbaud. He focuses on helping nonprofits create online fundraising, email, P2P, social media, SEO, analytics and website optimization strategies to maximize giving opportunities. Mike previously managed the turnaround of the Ride For Roswell, including the event’s growth from $330,000 to $1.2 million over a three-year period. Connect with Mike on LinkedIn and Twitter at @mikesnusz. To learn how Mike can help your organization’s next fundraising campaign, contact him at mike.snusz@blackbaud.com.

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