How can you use donor personas to guide your communications?
How can you use donor personas to guide your communications? At Big Duck, we define personas as tools that define a segment of your audience, who they are in connection to your work, what they care about, how to best reach them, where to find them, and more. Farra Trompeter chats with Mica Bevington, US director of communications and development at Humanity and Inclusion about how their team defines personas.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, chief growth officer and partner here at Big Duck. Today we’re going to talk all about how you can use donor personas to guide your communications. I am happy to be joined by Mica Bevington, who I met originally through NTEN at the Nonprofit Technology Conference. And a few years ago, we did a presentation together with some other folks all-around changing your name and the joy of branding. And more recently, Mica and I presented this very topic, all about donor personas, at the Association of Fundraising Professionals ICON Conference in June of 2021. We thought it was such an interesting topic, we should bring it to you all and keep the conversation going. So before we get started, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Mica.
Farra Trompeter: Mica is the US director of communications and development at Humanity and Inclusion, where she’s worked for the past decade. She and her team worked together to reach the hearts, minds, and philanthropy of key American audiences through earned media, digital marketing, congressional advocacy, advertising, and VIP outreach. She was a member of the organization’s global brand working group, which resulted in a full rebrand in January 2018. She also manages the US team, and is a long time ago, a graduate of the George Washington University, GW. I went to American University, you know, keeping it real in DC. She’s also spent time here in New York City, working for Business Week and later in London, where she worked for the London Business School. These days, she’s in Washington, DC with her husband, three children, and their COVID puppy. Mica, welcome to the show.
Mica Bevington: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
Farra Trompeter: Let us start off by talking about where personas are, and are not. At Big Duck, we have defined personas as tools that define a segment of your audience, who they are in connection to your work, what they care about, how to best reach them, where to find them, and more. Now, Mica, we have discussed that personas are not a substitute for research, or are they summaries that are set in stone, but I’m curious when you think about personas or talk about them with your team, how do you define them?
Mica Bevington: We think of our personas as our friends in the first case. So these are people who take time out of their days to lean into our work. They are committed to helping individuals. They’re almost certainly never going to meet the individuals that they help. They’re helping them stand tall after an injury, they’re helping them graduate out of poverty through attending school or learning a trade. Some of them host annual fundraisers for HI through their churches, their organizing races to send money to people injured and explosions that watched or they’ve heard about TV. They would all be super interesting to have on this podcast. I’m sorry, they’re not with us, but a more formal definition of persona is a way to help us group our donors. And also importantly, our future donors, right? Because, we love our friends, but we want more friends and to create a profile that helps us understand their habits and their interests and also their concerns. And so that we can do a better job of meeting them where they are and anticipating their questions.
Mica Bevington: We’ll talk later. But we know our donors like to know about how their money is spent, right? And they want to see that there’s progress. So this comes to wave in a few ways, a lot of organizations might have a profile of a first-time donor at what’s motivating them, their behaviors, their communication preferences. Those can differ a little bit when you look at our monthly donors and they certainly differ from the people that we met originally. Globally, we’re about 39 years old, but we are only 15 years old in the US, and the people who came to us originally learned about us through direct mail acquisition marketing. We have these wonderful groups of people. So it just helps us to group them and to do our best to meet them where they are and give them what they’re looking for. And also we know there are more people out there who want to lean in, so helping us find them.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. And I forgot to mention at the beginning of this episode, that Big Duck had the joy of also working with you and your team to think about personas, to take the personas you had and evolve them and think differently about those. And as we did that work together and you and I worked on our session for the AFP conference, I know we’ve talked a lot over the years about the pros and cons of personas. I think it’s fair to say, both of us have evolved our thinking about personas over the years. Let’s start on the pro side. Let’s talk about what works. What are some of the ways you at HI have benefited from using personas and maybe other places you’ve worked?
Mica Bevington: The thing in the US is that we’re such a small team, we’re three people. We’re focusing our efforts on outreach into a country with, how many people in America? 300 million? 320 million? With all the people out there, we cannot with our time and certainly not with our budget, reach them all. And we’re pretty sure that not everybody in America wants to hear from us. This is like the core piece of the good thing. We use personas to help us examine the stories and the newsletters and the social media posts that we’re going to be putting out there and imagining them from our community’s perspective. What are they looking for? What do they want to hear? And I kind of think of it as we want to bump into them in the coffee shop. By knowing some of their habits it helps us to work really hard to place our content and our experts in their path. So not a coffee shop, but like in a paper they’re reading or on a website that they’re scanning, looking at which channels we choose to communicate in, changing the content that we might put on those channels.
Mica Bevington: We’ve learned a lot, even since we worked with you about how people link a good story on Instagram, they like a story that kind of creeps in on them a little bit and that they can explore and dig deeper on. We’ll get on that. That’s great. Also, the tone and the style, like they’re not afraid to go deep, so it can’t be too thin at the top. And then it also helps us to say no, and that’s really important when you’re a small team because it’s tempting to look at all the shiny things out there and say, oh, let’s go do Tik-Tok and let’s go do whatever the next new thing is.
Mica Bevington: We don’t have the time for it, we don’t have the budget for it. And until we know that our donors are there, we have to be careful about putting our time into things like that. And believe me, my personality type, saying no is really hard. But when I’m thinking about a story that was on a call yesterday, we’ve got a new app that’s coming out and Vietnam, it’s gonna be really cool. And thinking about which outlets would, I want to actually tell that story too, because I think that’s going to be a more interesting story for you’d think I’d first of all go to a tech outfit. Well, no, that’s not where our donors are. So I’ve got to find a way to get that story into the right pages.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So when they’re working their best, personas are really helping us make decisions about where we’re spending our time and think about our communication so we can, to your point, meet our community where they are. But they can also be problematic. I remember first learning about and working on personas about 20 years ago when I was working on website marketing and content development, and user personas were really kind of the standard part of developing a website. And for many years, those processes encouraged us to name a person, put a picture on the page, talk about their individual characteristics, like their racial identity, their gender identity, their religion, their location, their age, et cetera. And when we highlight those demographics or lead with those demographics, I think what we have really come to realize is that that assumes a one-size-fits-all and can also reinforce the bias and stereotypes that we or folks on our team can have connected to some of those demographics. So I’m just curious for you if there have been other challenges or issues you’ve seen when we start talking about applying these personas?
Mica Bevington: Yeah. Well, I would agree first with everything you just said. And I think from our perspective, our organization, we worked so much in disability rights. We worked so hard, the things we do to look for the people who aren’t forgotten by other actors. And let me tell you that when you look at the personas of the past, you don’t necessarily see a lot of donors of color or donors with disabilities or donors among the diaspora. And there are really awesome individuals out there who share values and they are a beautiful array. It’s really important that we don’t just silo ourselves into thinking that everyone is a woman in her sixties attending church every Sunday. That’s not true. There will be women in their sixties who attend church every Sunday, but then we’re missing this great important group of people.
Mica Bevington: The other thing I think is about making sure that people know across your team about the kinds of people that you’re targeting and about the things that are interesting to them, because you will have colleagues come and say, oh, I’ve got this really cool technical blog, and we’re going to run it in this little journal and it’s going to go online and it’s going to be great. And you’re like, yeah, it’s going to be great for the people reading that journal. And I know you want some of my team’s time, but I can only really give you so much. But it’s taking the time to explain why we have to balance our time and who are the people we’re going for can kind of help them too. We want them to all be thinking in kind of a holistic way. And also because people who are leaning into HI, we love them. And they’re also the friends of people that work for us, and the family members of people who work for us, and helping them to understand what they’re looking for can help them to tell a better story about what we do.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. I want to just quickly come back to say that if you are listening to this and you’ve got personas that you use at your organization, I would encourage you to take a fresh look at them. If they do have a name, I would encourage you to take it off. Or if you have a name, use one that is not gendered. Even better, just give it a category name, remove your pictures, really question if there’s any demographic data there, how important that is to be there, and really go back and look to add what we call psychographics. Things that speak to the values, the motivations, the beliefs of these audiences, and really focus more on personas or audience summaries, which is what I’ve been moving to calling them, that are really connected to people’s actions and behaviors and not necessarily their identity characteristics. So hot tip. Be sure to do that.
Mica Bevington: Listen, when we came to your door a few years ago, we had photos and we had these images of people. And actually, they were real people. They were real donors who have been engaged with HI for years, but it limited us. And what we came up with, with Big Duck, is something that is much more usable.
Farra Trompeter: Well, let’s talk about that. I know there were several personas or audience categories we came up with together. Can you share briefly what one of those was, or is, and how you’ve applied it?
Mica Bevington: We kept it two, again, just going back to that point of like, we think of these personas shape-shifters and ever-evolving. So we know that we don’t just have two, but the two that were kind of really spoke out from your research, our research, with a group of “empowering world travelers” and also another group of “social justice millennials”. But for the sake of time, I’ll just talk about the “empowering world travelers”. They do tend to be older. They are very motivated by personal experiences internationally. These people with backpacks, these people have worked overseas. These people have done really important work themselves. And maybe in the international development space, they are reading the news every morning, we heard over and over. These people are listening to NPR. They’re reading the New York Times As much as they’re reading the BBC. They see social proof in those sites, so if we have a hit there and that’s going to mean something to them.
Mica Bevington: And they liked the stories of real people. They want to hear about the communities we’re working with. They want to hear about the grittiness of the work we’re doing. Also, it’s really important for them about the impact they’re making. So we always try to make the effort to say where the dollars are being spent, right? And how the dollars are being spent? How does it compare year-over-year? The team this week is working on the annual report, and people think annual reports are dead, but I gotta tell ya, our “empowering world travelers,” they’re reading it. So it’s a document I can’t graduate into the archives. This group has been wonderful to HI over the years. I got a donor on the phone the other day, and I was talking with her and I kept thinking, when is she gonna tell me she lived overseas? When is she going to tell me? And then right at the end, as she said, you know, I first met you guys when you were working in Cambodia. I was a social worker and I was working in Japan and I went to Cambodia and I saw what you were doing. And I went, oh my gosh, of course, of course, you did. It’s amazing to see these kinds of characteristics come to life.
Farra Trompeter: And I think we’ve said the motivation for this group are folks who are striving for peace and justice. They want to respond to and prevent crises. Much of that because of the experiences they’ve had and how you being a trustworthy organization and a transparent organization is important to them.
Mica Bevington: I think so. And they will ask us those questions. I had a conversation with a gentleman recently who said, “I like the fact that if I give you money compared to a much larger organization that has millions in the bank, I feel like it’s going to make this difference because you keep telling me how it’s making a difference.” The proof is in the conversations we’re having and the gifts that come through the door.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. That’s great.
Mica Bevington: Following up and saying, “Hey, just want to let you know this great thing has happened. We’ve got a new innovation fund. These are the things we’re developing. Future is bright, your efforts and your dollars are making a difference.”
Sponsored by Bloomerang: Hey, there, Steven from Bloomerang here. One of the reasons why we’re so excited to sponsor this episode is because we also love helping nonprofits improve their donor communications. So if you’re looking for a donor database that makes things like segmentation and engagement tracking easy, check out Bloomerang, you can watch a short video demo at Bloomerang.com/demo. And now back to Farra and Mica.
Farra Trompeter: The heart of the topic and the conversation we’re having is really how can folks use these audience summaries to influence their organization’s approach to communication? So I was wondering if you could speak to just a few other ways that you think you can apply audience summaries to making decisions about communications?
Mica Bevington: First, I would say just with these summaries that we like to think of them as having a bit of a heartbeat. And so we use them for stewardship too. So making sure we’re talking to people regularly. People call all the time. I need to change my donation, or did you get my donation? And using that moment to ask them what brought them in is really important. It helps us to deepen their engagement in our relationships and to challenge what we think we know about them, which I think is important too. What was helpful when we worked with you was taking the time to actually reach out and survey these individuals. Because we were having these one-on-one conversations, which gives us a lot of great qualitative data, but the quantitative data really mattered too. So when we worked with you and we got these little one-pagers on each different persona about like, what are they interested in? Who else are they giving to? They’ve got really strong roots with environmental causes. The “social justice millennials,” they are giving to social justice organizations. The competition is fierce out there.
Farra Trompeter: Just to your last one, we’ll come back to the other question about competition. Only thing we’ve been trying to really challenge is kind of the scarcity versus abundance mindset. There are definitely, I don’t want to deny that there are lots of amazing organizations out there asking for folks to support them, but really there is also plenty of the pie to go around. So how can we look to think about other nonprofits we’re working with as an ecosystem and as partners and less as folks we’re competing with. So that’s just another thing, you know, we’re talking about over here at Big Duck to think about.
Mica Bevington: I think that’s super important. And I think a lot of the organizations that you would look at on paper and say, these are competitors to Humanity and Inclusion. They’re our partners, they’re our friends. We’re working with them shoulder-to-shoulder all over the world. Because, listen, in the US we do not have a huge brand recognition, right? People do not know us very well. So being able to say that we work alongside the biggest players gives us a little bit of that social proof and that’s okay.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah. So going back to that last question. I’m going to tee you up for one more thing, and then we’re going to wrap it up. Which is just, if you could share maybe just a few questions that when you have these summaries in front of you, what can they help you answer? What are some questions that you’re able to use with these audience summaries, or you can train your team to use and apply them?
Mica Bevington: So, good example, looking at our donor newsletter that goes out, taking a step back and saying, we usually start out with a really rough outline and saying, are we telling them something they want to know? Are we telling them something that’s going to make them feel confident about continuing their giving? Often that’s maybe making sure there’s an infographic in there. One of the components we always have in the donor newsletter is this sort of before and now story. A lot of the people we have the privilege of working with, we’ve been working with for years. So in our last donor newsletter, we featured a girl that we started working with about six years ago. And she’s a Syrian refugee. She was very badly injured. She left her family back in Syria. She’s in Jordan. Our donors have been providing her with physical therapy, psychosocial support, and also prosthetic limbs as she grows since that point, right? So they like to see that we’re still by their side. So showing them okay, we’re committed. They like that we’re close to the people we work with. They liked that we stand by them as long as we can, as long as it takes. And we’re not just a kind of organization that may arrive, respond to something, and then take off. We’re there for the long haul. And often we use an emergency as a kind of a gateway to development. So we make sure we use that.
Mica Bevington: I had it the other day with a journalist that I reached out to. I won’t say which one. They asked us to comment on a story that was a little too political. We’re an impartial organization. We do not cross lines. And this was in a very, very touchy country, but the outlet itself, I knew. My donors weren’t there. Had that been the New York Times or National Public Radio, I probably would have found a way to craft an answer, I would have taken that time to find a nice neutral ground where we could deliver a message.But then I had to say, you know, I can’t comment.
Mica Bevington: And also it’s about ad spends sometimes. Oh, hey, we got a call, we can spend this money. There’s a new website launching, and it’s going to be great. And they want us to put our content there. They’re going to give us great coverage. You know you can look at the audience, it doesn’t look like our audience. So sometimes it’s just about saying no. Sometimes it’s about seeing what’s missing, and also thinking ahead to what’s next. I have a colleague who’s just looking at the strategy for the end-of-the-year with donors and, okay, what have we not shared with them yet? So these are people who we have already kind of gotten to know and who know us, like, what do they need to hear? What is the touchpoint that’s going to resonate for them? Whereas her counterpart is working on a new set of ads for the New York Times because we know our donors there. And we know that other people like them probably deep in the pages.
Farra Trompeter: Anytime we’re thinking more strategically about communications,.the top questions I think that we often say are, “What are some new approaches or actions we should start? What should we test? And, what should we stop?” And I think these audience summaries can give you one more input to consider when you’re asking those questions.
Mica Bevington: I think so. And also always the summaries, but certainly the donors. And everything we always say “Reach out to us, we’re real people.” We’ll have it at the bottom of our emails. We’ll have it at the bottom of our donor reply slips. Tell us what you’re thinking of? What are you worried about? If you’ve got concerns, reach out. And they do.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, that’s great. Mica, there is so much to think about on this topic. I know there’s more we can discuss. We’re going to wrap it up for now. If you’re out there listening, and you’re looking for strategies to avoid bias when defining your nonprofit’s audiences or how to create an inclusive and equitable research process. Guess what? We’ve got posts about that for you on those very topics at BigDuck.com/insights, we will link to the specific posts in this transcript. And of course, if you would like to learn more about the excellent work of Humanity and Inclusion, be sure to visit their website at hi-us.org. Mica, thank you so much for joining us.
Mica Bevington: Thank you for having me. I really had a good time.
This podcast has been sponsored by Bloomerang