Transform your nonprofit’s messaging with prospect personas.

Who do you think you are talking to? If you want to increase the connective power of your messaging and campaign creative, consider investing in the the development of persona clusters for your prospect universe. 


The demographics of my audience at home—a wife, a young son, and a preteen daughter—are pretty easy to calculate. Their average age is 24.7 and the universe is 67% female. So if I need to deliver an important message to them (perhaps that we should get ribs from the Barbeque Shop for dinner), the best medium for the message is likely to go-to medium for 24 year-old females: spot cable. 

I’ll grant you my sample size is a little small, but it does illuminate the temptation we often feel in communications and fundraising: an urge to uncover the average, demographically prototypical prospect. Not only does it help us allocate marketing resources, it’s an effective way to clearly rationalize that resource allocation to our less-marketing-minded colleagues. 

That was certainly true for us… until we began working with prospect personas several years ago. 

The development of target personas is—at its simplest—the division of a larger demographically based prospect universe into smaller psychographically based segments of likeminded individuals. Segmenters look for patterns and influences and form data-driven groups. And they often give these groups names that suggest the likemindedness they’ve uncovered.

So instead of looking at the general statistical makeup of my household overall, I might instead work to uncover that the target population is 33% Texting Tweens, 33% Metro Moms, and 33% Pizzas and Pokemon. While slightly less demographically pure, this revelation is significantly more actionable. I now know I can divide my barbeque-advocacy budget among these three groups and—even more important—have a much clearer idea of what to say to each group.

Targeting prospects in behavioral groups instead of demographic slices works because that’s the way prospects group themselves. “Think of it like a holiday party,” says Reji Puthenveetil, a marketing research analyst who has worked with us on numerous national nonprofit brands, including the national American Red Cross and the national American Lung Association. “No one clusters into groups based on age or household income… you cluster into groups of people that are like you in a less quantifiable way.” 

The Basics of Market Segmentation

How do you begin? Puthenveetil suggests starting with your own internal data. “Since your ultimate goal is to drill down on high-likelihood prospects, start with the good ones you already have,” he says. “Even if you don’t have much information about them, data companies can take your list, append more information, and help you uncover segment trends.” 

Targeting prospects in behavioral groups instead of demographic slices works because that’s the way prospects group themselves. 

And when it’s time to find high-potential new segments, Puthenveetil once again stresses the importance of basing conclusions in a large sample of data, either purchased or collected in the field. “Sample size is so important,” he insists. “To get a meaningful set of actionable personas, you have to start with a pretty big universe.”

Marketing Your Marketing

One of the most powerful aspects of crafting prospect personas is less rooted in math and more in a reflection of human nature. As most communicators and development professionals have learned, colleagues often project their personal tastes and perspectives onto prospects… they are prone to presuming their reaction to a message is likely the general reaction to the message. Or that the media they consume are where the organization most needs to deploy.

Personas short-circuit this temptation. 

In a recent branding and PSA campaign development project for an international nonprofit, we uncovered several high-potential persona groups. Our target was, for example, more than 25% “Bountifully Blessed,” an affluent segment we developed whose generosity is heavily influenced by their Christian faith.  Our target was also almost 20% “Hashtag Humanitarians,” a group more prone to smaller gifts, peer-to-peer advocacy, and a motivation of “standing up for important causes.” Describing these very different segments as part of our research presentation helped all internal leaders refocus their input on how well the messaging aligns with these personas, and not their own tastes.

Segment personas change our communication because they fundamentally change the way we think about our communication. From a budgeting standpoint, they help us focus our scarce resources on the prospects we have the best chances of engaging. From a message development standpoint, our work gets far more effective and connective when we begin talking to people instead of statistics.

Today, most of our brand and campaign development work for nonprofits is founded on a set of high-potential personas. It pushes the budget further. It aligns internal stakeholders. And it makes the messaging more human, authentic, engaging, and effective.