Improve Performance with Personalization: Not for Profit Transformation Series

This is the first article in our eight-part series dedicated to helping NFPs develop data-driven marketing and advertising strategies to drive sustained donation growth.

December 1, 2021

Learn why personalization across direct mail, email and all digital channels is the key to donation growth.

As the inaugural chapter in our NFP-centric series, this article has one singular goal: to make a case for personalization as the key to improving direct mail and email performance. 

We recognize that NFPs must lean on digital to attract net-new donors, such as Millennials, who will donate on a recurring monthly basis. However, we also strongly believe that an omnichannel approach to marketing and advertising that encompasses direct mail, email and all forms of digital advertising, where all channels communicate with donors consistently and at a personal level, will deliver a higher donation volume. 

The Case for Personalization in Marketing and Advertising

At DELVE we work with many NFPs, including UNICEF USA and Partners in Health. We also commission our own primary research with independent research partners such as Aspen Finn.

DELVE’s latest proprietary NFP research focused on Millennials, validates that personalized messaging matters, including accentuating more positive/optimistic narratives and providing more transparency as to how/where the donation will be used to make an impact:

“I feel like a lot of ‘child org’ messaging is really generic, kind of sad, heartstring-tugging, and I think I’d be less put off by it and more likely to give if it were more focused on ‘here’s the program, here’s the impact, here’s the data, here’s what will happen with this kid’s future that’s great because of you.’” (female donor, age 30-35)

In their report entitled The Data-Backed Guide to Nonprofit Marketing, Campaign Monitor and Qliv identified several disconnects between nonprofit marketers and donors. The research revealed these key takeaways:

1. People can be motivated to give to nonprofits when there’s a compelling need.

2. Not all channels are equal. Email drives the most donation dollars, but the content of the emails needs to evolve from organization-led narratives to recipient-led stories. 

3. Nonprofits may be placing too much emphasis on events as donors don’t cite events as a primary driver of donation behavior.

4. Over half of donors will respond after receiving a specific plea, even if they have already established a donation cadence. This places further emphasis on the need to segment donors and tailor donation requests to their specific interests

5. The use of emotive visuals (images, video) and stories give donors a compelling reason to donate right now. 

Donors identify with real people—and they want to hear from them. Hearing (or experiencing) the impact a donation is making in the lives of real people has a major impact within the context of a story.

These research findings point to the need for nonprofit marketers to not only evolve their marketing tactics (channels, messages, timing), but also how they engage donors by personalizing powerful stories about the causes that individual donors, and donor segments, are passionate about supporting. 

The lack of personalized messagingespecially in direct mail or email—is one of the reasons, we believe, why audiences aren’t responding to those channels. It’s not that DM or EM (or digital) cannot work. It’s just that when your DM or EM files don’t align with the emotional needs of groups such as Millennials because they are not personalized, your messages don’t resonate. 

What are some common blockers to NFPs personalizing their direct mail and email?

Common Challenge 1: Direct Mail is Often Not Segmented (or Personalized) To Donors’ Emotional Triggers

The cost of message personalization at scale in DM is quite complex when considering a dozen or more different message/audience pairings. For instance—putting aside the fact that DM as a channel is expensive—if sending a DM piece costs $0.5, that means that DM has a $500 CPM. But the expense of DM is not what impacts its effectiveness. The problem is the data in the lists that power direct mail.

The way data is often structured in direct mail lists doesn’t allow for granular segmentation to align personalized messages and creative to causes that donors are most passionate about—which results in lower conversion rates. And as we learned above, a generic call to action isn’t how younger, digital-first donors want to interact as they want personalized experiences. 

Direct mail can continue to perform when done right—but it must be both (a) personalized and (b) integrated with other media channels to maximize its impact. We talk more about how to enable personalization of direct mail (as well as email and your digital channels) in the second and third articles in this series, Enrich Core Donor Files with Data Flags, and Use Segmentation to Target Donor Interests, including how to add to your core file flags for each donor that point to their “emotional triggers.”

Common Challenge 2: Email Must Be Used Carefully

Turning our attention to email, it is still a highly effective medium. However, overreliance on email has its downsides—including donor email fatigue that can lead to lower open rates, clickthrough rates and conversions as well as increases in unsubscriptions. 

Nonprofit marketers need to reimagine their email design to feature more storytelling and use of visuals to engage readers. Linking from the email to specific landing pages or other destinations to learn more about how donations are changing lives (including video stories by donation recipients) can be a powerful way to engage donors. This might include a use-of-funds breakdown of each dollar donated, illustrating the impact that each donor’s total donation made.

However, just like direct mail files, email core files can suffer from first-party data problems. Email lists are typically limited in terms of the number fields (hence, the amount of collected information) in the data schema. This results in overlooking important psychographic and behavioral data, or flags, that can inform campaign segmentation, targeting and messaging, and ultimately personalization. 

For instance, insights that a donor cares more about “women’s rights” versus “clean water” or “education” might be missing, and that leads to missed opportunities to appeal to that donor based on their motivational drivers—thus, resulting in lower response rates due to a lack of message relevancy. 

If donor records cannot be segmented with sufficient granularity to understand motivational drivers, the creative for emails, newsletters, digital ads, social media posts, landing pages, and other digital mediums will likewise fail to appeal to the donor in a deeply personal way—and therefore fail to drive clickthrough and conversion. The result can be low conversion rates and lower returns on marketing and advertising investments.

In Summary

Decreased effectiveness in DM or EM is less about the channels, and more about the lack of “cause-centric” data flags (which enable messaging personalization) in the files that power DM and EM. The inability to segment by what the donor cares most about results in DM and EM not resonating with the donor. Again, this is a first-party data problem—and lack of proper data strategy limits the effectiveness of not just DM and EM, but also all of your digital channels.

In our next article, Enrich Core Donor Files with Data Flags, we’ll discuss how NFPs can add flags to DM and EM files that will allow you to personalize those channels. We also encourage you to read our NFP Manifesto as well as our latest research on reaching Millennial Donors.

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Reaching Millennial Donors

Want to gain a deeper understanding of how and why Millennial donors 25-35 years of age give to social causes? Start with our 2021 Research Report, created in partnership with Aspen Finn.