[Interview] Julia Reich On Identifying Ideal Donor Personas & Why They Matter

[Interview] On identifying ideal donor personas and why they matter

The following is a transcription of an interview I did with Noah Barnett of Causevox. In this episode we talked about how a nonprofit can identify and craft their ideal supporter personas and how these profiles then influence your fundraising messages. Here‘s the recording if you’d prefer to listen to the interview.

Noah: Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Rally and Engage presented by Causevox. Causevox is an online fundraising platform for nonprofits and social good projects and you can learn more and start your free trial at Causevox.com. I’m Noah Barnett, the Growth Marketing Lead here at Causevox and today we have the opportunity to talk with Julia Reich. She’s a founder of Stone Soup Creative, which is a branding consultancy that works with nonprofits in higher ed to help them develop and communicate their brand in order to really maximize missional impact. During our conversation, we talked about how a nonprofit can identify and craft their ideal supporter personas and then how those will then influence how you write your fundraising messages. Let’s dive into our conversation with Julia.

Noah: So lets start off by having you share who you are and what you do.

Julia: Well I consult with mostly nonprofits to develop their brand positioning and then I communicate and market their brand all in the service of maximizing mission impact. So it’s a combination of strategy and tactics.

Noah: So you’ve been working with nonprofits for quite some time now, but before we dive into your expertise and even into kind of what we really just want to talk about today is this idea of building ideal supporter personas. I’d love to know why you even chose to help nonprofits. What sparked that in your story?

Julia: Yes, sure. So I guess we all have sort of these places that we come into the nonprofit world. I was an undergrad. I went to Hampshire College. I studied environmental education and what I do now is completely unrelated to what I studied and I worked for nonprofits doing environmental education after I graduated and then when I was in my late 20s, I decided to go back to school to study graphic design. I graduated from art school and then I was faced with a choice. How did I want to apply my new graphic design skills and I think on some level I just knew that I didn’t want to design crap that gets thrown away. To support an industry that I didn’t really feel passionate about and because I already knew the nonprofit world from my time spent in education, it was a natural fit to work with organizations that were mission focused. So I just started working with nonprofits and museums and associations and higher ed and eventually I started a small design firm. This was in New York City and then after several years I segued more into brand strategy and providing brand strategy and creating communications and great design for mission focused organizations has been my mission ever since.

Noah: I like what you said there. We all have kind of our own journeys into the nonprofit world. I talked to someone recently and they said “I didn’t want to help someone sell something no one needed for those people to just throw it away”. Or to go into debt to buy, whatever it is. To really feed kind of the consumer marketplace and they found the nonprofit world as something that was more purpose filled and they could dive in and apply those skills and it’s great because in the nonprofit segment, we need people with all sorts of skills, whether you’re a lawyer, a communicator or in your case, a graphic designer, but even digging into that. You worked in environmental science and then switched to graphic design. What was it about graphic design that kind of drew you in?

Julia: Well, it’s pretty funny because I was an environmental educator and I love it. I love the outdoors. I love nature and the last place I worked was this nature center and it was on the Hudson River and I was the education director and I was supposed to be creating curriculum for the students in the community that was science based and I found myself just kind of gravitating towards art all the time, like interpreting environmental education through an artistic lens and I decided to just kind of explore what graph design was and I took an education class at a school of visual arts where someone who has become a pretty famous graphic designer, his name is James Victore. He’s actually quite an activist graphic designer and that changed my whole understanding and my whole life basically because I understood graphic design to be not really necessarily about working on a computer or making pretty pictures, but really it’s all about getting to the essence of the message and communicating the essence of that message and I think that’s what has informed my philosophy for my work ever since. I love providing wonderful graphic designs for my clients. I think nonprofits deserve to have great graphic design, but it’s really all in the service of kind of a larger picture and the brand and that informs all the communications going forward.

Noah: I love how you said that idea about the essence and finding that. I think that really comes back to fundraising in a lot of ways. What is the essence of the story and the impact you’re having and how do you communicate that, whether it’s visually or through written work or whether it’s through the experience you provide for your supporters. There’s a lot of takeaways and carry overs from that, which probably plays into why you’ve been able to successfully help so many nonprofits through that approach that you take. I know we’ve talked a lot on this podcast about various ways around fundraising and messaging and story telling and even channels like using email marketing or using Facebook to drive to the nations and one of the interesting themes that always comes up is to do something well, whether it’s email, Facebook, even running a fundraising campaign really comes down to understanding who your ideal supporters are or your participants and even your influencers and you can’t do anything well without knowing that. So before we dive into and we’re going to dive into this further because it’s something that you recently wrote about in [unclear 8:00]. I know it’s something you’ve built into the approach that you take, but again, before we dive into how you identify who those people are, could you speak to what an ideal persona audience is?

Julia: Sure, I mean I think on a most basic level my ideal persona is a way to help the nonprofit better understand the people you’re trying to reach with your communications and your fundraising. I think that I first came across the term in a book I read about personas and website design. It’s called “The User is Always Right” by Steve Mulder. Do you know that book?

Noah: No, I’ve never read it, but I’m going to write it down and include it in the show notes. What was it again?

Julia: It’s called “The User is Always Right” by Steve Mulder, M-u-l-d-e-r and so he defines personas as realistic personality profiles that represent a significant group of your users and then later on I came across Kivi Leroux Miller’s definition. She calls them imaginary friends that represent the kind of person you want to communicate with and I just

Noah: Back to childhood.

Julia: So I mean the people you want to reach, they all have distinctive objectives, challenges, needs and values. That kind of defines them as a group and so if you can create a personal sketch of who this person is, that will help paint a clear picture of them so it’s not this nebulous mass or group and then that way you can make marketing decisions that resonate specifically for them so it helps you develop messages and choose vehicles for those messages. So it would be like everything from which communication channels to use, which words to write, which graphics to choose, how to set up your web pages and it’s all with that person in mind.

Noah: A lot of this sounds, will probably sound familiar to those listening around this whole idea of target market, but a persona is different from a target market. Could you speak to how they’re different and maybe how they’re similar?

Julia: Sure and maybe you want to chime in if you have a different take on this. I think it’s a pretty similar concept, but I think identifying your audience as a target market, it’s not really appropriate in the nonprofit world. That’s more of a for profiting term for companies whose focus is on consumers and driving profits and about gaining a competitive advantage whereas I think nonprofits are more about implementing mission and creating trust, building relationships and partnerships. Engagement and participation.

Noah: I think what I’ve seen just not even in my work with nonprofits, but just looking at some of the difference between, because they are similar where they do differ as a persona usually is a semi-fictional representation of your ideal customer or in this case your supporter or your participant where a target market doesn’t necessarily dive into those details so you might be an organization that provides for, I just talked to someone at Overseas Freedom 424. They help women that are in sex trafficking around the world and they said that their main audience profile is women between the ages of 15-30 in the specific regions of the US type thing when they’re looking at their supporters and that’s more of the target market. Really the persona behind that has a personality, has feelings, has why they care about this and you dig into that a little bit more. At least that’s how I’ve always differentiated them in the past.

Julia: That makes a lot of sense.

Noah: Even getting down into that, you mentioned your article that you wrote on this subject that there’s many schools of thought on how nonprofits should approach building out their persona audience, but you really talk about they should really focus on kind of having one or at least one primary. Why is that the case, at least as a starting point?

Julia: Well I think it’s the simplest way and it works because if you can narrow communications so you’re just communicating to just one person, it’s much easier to communicate on a personal level and I think for your listeners, who I believe are small to medium sized nonprofits, I think that works really well because that personal level allows your character and personality to show through and being authentic and genuine are really important.

Noah: I was going to say I think you’re right about keeping it simple and just maintaining that because I think sometimes you can dive into it, especially the small and medium sized nonprofits that are new to this. They’re like “we have tons of different profiles” and really if you can at least narrow it down to one as a starting point and your main persona profile that’s helpful as you start thinking about how it impacts your messaging and your fundraising.

Julia: Right, right because I think if your communication is personal and it’s authentic, then I think you have a better chance of resonating with an individual than with this nebulous mass I talked about. So if you can gain this person as a supporter then she might influence others to follow suit, maybe with social media shares or word of mouth or whatever.

Noah: I think that brings kind of to the next question I have because I know like once you’re kind of understanding of what these are, the next practical question I had was how does this really impact? We kind of touched on it would impact your branding and messaging. You spend a lot of time with nonprofits working on their branding and messaging and so could you speak practically to how a nonprofit’s ideal persona audience would then influence their branding and messaging and maybe some examples on how even a similar organization that just had different profiles might change their messaging?

Julia: Sure. Well I think I’ve already mentioned that if you can personify the audience you’re trying to reach it helps you create more focus in your communication efforts. I think that in terms of the overall brand, I think that the messages in each of those target audiences might differ if you have say three distinct audience groups, but because the value for each of these audiences, what they get from your brand is different, but your organization’s overarching brand should stay consistent and that doesn’t really change from one group to another. So I could give you an example. It’s not really a nonprofit, but I did have one client that was a health and wellness center that had a strong social mission and I worked with them in this area and we identified a lot of detail demographics and characteristics of this ideal person and we were in pretty deeply and discussed things like the needs this person may have that relate to your organization’s programs or services and the attributes and values that are most important to this person and we had words to choose from like teamwork, fun, efficiency, learning, action, love and a whole lot more types of attributes like that. So we were able to get this resulting profile of this person, this semi-fictional person, being a woman in her 50s, she is married with grown children. She’s a professional and makes maybe $50,000-$80,000 a year. She drives a Prius or maybe another hybrid. She shops at Amazon and the local food co-op. She reads the New York Times and health and fitness magazines, but she’s stressed about children, aging parents, her work life balance, chronic pain, staying fit and healthy as she ages and her goal is to stay healthy and pain free as she grows older so that need that she has, that relates to this particular organization is she’s seeking an affordable path to staying healthy and pain-free as she gets older and then we identify that the three most important assets or values to her are connecting, time and learning so you can see that we’ve got this pretty I think powerful profile of this ideal person that can make marketing efforts a whole lot easier and consistent and focused.

Noah: Yeah, I think it does and I know just in my experience with working at a nonprofit and having donor personas, we had more than one, but we served a very, very large kind of broad audience base, but we did have three primaries. It changes the conversation internally because you’re not saying how do we raise money during our annual fund. It turns into how do we influence this lady to participate that cares about this? How do we communicate with someone like that? How do we tell a story that’s going to resonate or how is she most likely to share with her friends? Is she on Facebook? Is she on Twitter? Maybe not on Twitter but on Facebook and how do we dive into that and it does really change that dialogue internally on teams or even between the executive director and their board about how you can really connect this person even though fictional with your cause. Just as like a secondary example, the organization I was at was International Humanitarian Organization and we had a profile of kind of a male supporter and we also had a female supporter, but they were usually from different entry points, just based on where they were at in their lives because of how their engagement levels. We had two that I always though were really interesting. One was called Brian the Businessman who was much more about building his career and building out these things, but then as an older donor persona that we had, his name was Terry and we always talked about the difference between Brian and Terry was that Terry could have been Brian previously, but not he cares about different things. He might have grandchildren that he wants to spend more time with and he’s not climbing the corporate ladder and wants to get more involved or is willing to go on trips to see the work that we do and values that reputation and impact as the key motivation whereas Brian was much more about he had a busy schedule and really wanted to maximize his investments and really just make sure that there was a big impact whereas that shifted as the persona got older. So even though Brian and Terry might be the same person in real life over the lifetime of that person, the motivations and ways that we could communicate with those individuals or even programs that we could develop to engage with them as we look to cultivate a relationship were just fundamentally different.

Julia: Yeah and I think I’m glad that you brought up the fact that you had maybe two or three different ideal audience personas because the reality is that nonprofits have more than one audience they need to communicate with so I think it’s perfectly fine to create two or three or four if you need to. That’s just the reality. I think that if you’re going to divide your audience into groups, you have to make sure there are some very distinct differences between them. So for example, if one of your groups is women aged 20-40 and having another group of women that’s a target that’s aged 50-60 probably is enough of a meaningful distinction.

Noah: Yeah, just on demographic information it doesn’t really make sense, but when it gets down to how you’re communicating with them or even the ways that they want to interact with your organization and even the messaging that you would send to those individuals or where they find their information, I think that’s where it gets down and I think we see that at our organization and we also saw that even though we had a broad stroke of personas, there were primary ones that would lead us to others and so like I said, we had one. Her name was Megan. She was 25-40. Most not full time career, but much more either part time or stay at home type of individual that was very involved in outside activities, but she was kind of the entry point and really the controller of disposable income, where the family spends time, what causes they care about and we kind of knew that. She was actually a great person that we could connect with because it allowed us to gain access to maybe even some of the other people in the family that we wanted to engage with, which was really interesting for our organization. Everyone has potentially different people that they’re targeting. Even if another organization would be targeting 25-40 year old women, they might be focused on a different subset of that same age group. So the age group itself doesn’t necessarily indicate that they’re a specific group of people. I think even just for our listeners, that’s what I see as like the main difference. It’s not just demographic information. It’s much more about those needs, values and how you can emotionally connect them to your organization and cause.

Julia: Exactly.

Noah: I loved one of the quotes that you had that you’ve shared and I’ve heard it before, but when I saw it in your article, I just loved it. You said “marketing to everyone equals marketing to no one” and I would love you to kind of explain that to our listeners. I’ve heard it before and I kind of understand it. I’d love to kind of hear how you’ve seen that maybe played out in your work with nonprofits.

Julia: Well I guess it’s not enough to say that your audience profile is people who care about the environment for example. That’s not going to help your marketing efforts. That’s too diluted. You just can’t be all things to all people. It’s not how strong differentiated brand is built. It’s just not sustainable.

Noah: The one thing about this too is I think it’s even more significant in the day and age we live in because even though the world is much more connected so you think about how we’re only four or five degrees of separation away from those people now because of social media and just the connectivity that we live in, that’s kind of integrated itself into our daily lives, but what that’s allowed us to do is to find more people that are more like us and almost kind of high, not high but find more niches that we can focus in and hang out with and be a part of and it’s almost like we’re more connected, but we’re connected in smaller ways around common likes and interest. Even nowadays I think marketing to the masses doesn’t work at all because there really isn’t any mass marketing channels available anymore. Most is niche focused activities, whether it’s people that still read specific newspapers or visit certain websites on a daily basis or they might be on LinkedIn and they’re on LinkedIn in a very specific group because they’re getting interest on their work or what not or in a Facebook group or in a community group here in our city or in your city. So everyone is kind of more fragmented and it isn’t a mass market. Like everyone doesn’t sit down every day, except for maybe, we’re recording this on the day that the opening ceremony for the Olympics is going on. Maybe that’s like the one exception and maybe the Super Bowl is another exception, but not everyone is kind of gathering around the same media anymore whereas before everyone` kind of watched prime time TV or read the newspaper or everyone kind of received information the same way and you would have more access to more people that way. It may have not been as effective still, but you had more opportunities to market to more people.

Julia: That’s why I think it’s really important when you do this kind of audience persona, do audience persona exercise that you try to get as detailed as possible. Everything from where this person is located to their education to their employer, their income, their family status, their hobbies, their affiliations, etc, etc, etc, but then sometimes when I do this with clients, they kind of feels silly doing it and they’re maybe a little bit reluctant, but what I think is important to keep in mind is it’s not really about creating this box for you to be in. It’s really just like a guide and you can certainly deviate from that list. It’s more like a short hand way of referring to them. So not every detail is going to be manifested. It’s just going to be more like the spirit of your audience if that makes sense. So like you know if your profile says your ideal target person has a cat, it doesn’t mean that not every one of them in actuality is going to have a cat. Maybe the majority of them will put the conventions that most people would attribute to cat owners.

Noah: Yeah absolutely. We spent three days going through this activity when I was serving in a nonprofit and it was actually fun to try to build something out. I know it might seem silly for a lot of people to be like we’re building this fake fictional imaginary friends, but I think what you realize is being able to refer to it also reminds you that your marketing to people and that I think is one of the other benefits to having this is that I’m writing a fundraising letter to Mary or to Megan or to Terry or to Brian or to this person. I’m not writing it to some mass list of people. You are, but the end of the day, that fundraising letter is going to be consumed in someone’s dining room and it’s one to one at that point. I think the personas remind you of that because it’s so important to maintain the humanity in a relationship. In fundraising, if you lose that, it’s very obvious. I think the organizations that do fundraising really well do personalization at scale or at kind of a broad way, but still feel where you can connect personally with the organization and when they send you letters, they’re communicating with you one on one and that’s what we see in the peer to peer fundraising campaigns that we get to see every day on Causevox is that one to one really drives a lot of fundraising value. I know you’ve said you walked nonprofits through this process before. We try to keep it really practical on this podcast so I’d love to leave listeners as we kind of wrap up with kind of a short overview of how they can go about building out an ideal persona.

Julia: Well I mean when I work with my clients, I kind of guide them in a discussion using a worksheet that I’ve put together. If your listeners want to, they can download the worksheet themselves. It’s on my website and it’s called “The Ideal Audience Persona Worksheet”. It’s in the Resources section under Free Worksheets for Nonprofits.

Noah: I’ll definitely include a link to that because I know when I was doing research prior to the call, I saw that worksheet and I think it was a really helpful resource for our audience. Could you walk us through some of the steps around that worksheet just so that those that are listening can kind of get an idea of how they would even go about this process?

Julia: Sure. I think I’ve kind of mentioned a lot of the steps. So it’s just kind of structuring details like the demographics of the person. Where they live and their level of education, their likes and dislikes, their religion, their health status. I even ask people to give this person a name and maybe even paste in a picture of their head shot so it kind of gets down to that level as well, but then again, don’t forget those questions that are more about what’s the value that you think this person is going to get from interacting with your organization. Is there a particular need that they have that they’re going to connect with you on? So those kinds of questions as well are included on the worksheet.

Noah: Like I said, I’ll definitely include a link to that so if you’re listening on iTunes, you can see that in the show notes or if you’re listening to it on the website, you can see it in the additional resources section of the blog post. Before we go, just sort of a final question. Many of our listeners and those that may see kind of this in various forms are just kind of exploring on how they can leverage online fundraising to further their impact. You’ve worked with nonprofits and you’ve seen nonprofits come online and leverage online fundraising. Is there one insight or lesson you’ve learned that may be valuable for our audience?

Julia: Well as your listeners know, fundraising is really all about relationships and cultivating donor’s passion in your work and your mission. People give to groups they share values with so that’s why identifying the nuances of people you’re trying to reach is so important. Their values, their interests, their challenges, etc and I think that online fundraising can be tricky sometimes because you’re trying to develop that relationship, but if you’re not meeting in person, the nuances and the emotion and passion can be missing from the conversation. So with the outreach that you’re doing online, somehow you still need to tap into that emotion and passion and try to build that relationship. So let me think of an example. I live in Indiana. I do a lot of work with higher ed and I saw a video recently. It was for Indiana University and they were featuring a well-known philanthropist and so he had just give $20 million recently to the Kelley School of Business and obviously this is not the kind of fundraising that we’re doing. What I liked about the video is that at the end, the dean of the school comes on and speaks about the values of Kelley students and grads, which she describes as hard working, talented and tenacious, which I think speaks to our point today about creating a message that the ideal target audience can relate to, which I hope will inspire them to engage as well.

Noah: I think even as another example. We’re in the middle here in the US for those that are here in the middle of a political season that’s very, very interesting and if you hear how the various candidates communicate, they’re not talking to everyone. That’s why when certain people say things or someone else does something it might upset you or it might resonate with you, but it’s because they’re speaking to a specific audience and I think if anything what I have seen is a great example is actually watching how that works. I think there’s a lot to learn from some of the messaging and the focusing that happens in kind of those political campaign seasons that can really help drive stuff. I appreciate that example though and I think that’s always great to kind of get that perspective and be reminded of even some of the simple things, like really just understanding the purpose and the passion behind your organization and how you communicate that so others that are like minded can join and rally around your cause. Where can our listeners learn more about you and connect with you online Julia?

Julia: My website is StoneSoupCreative.com. The worksheet I mentioned is in the Resources section under Free Worksheets for Nonprofits. I’m also on Twitter @JuliaReich and then I have a Facebook and LinkedIn page. It’s also Stone Soup Creative.

Noah: Excellent and we’ll save the story behind Stone Soup Creative for another conversation. If you want, you explain it on your website so if anyone is curious, check out StoneSoupCreative.com. Julia, I really appreciate your time and hopefully you enjoy your weekend.

Julia: Yes, you too. Thank you so much.


Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of our podcast. I want to take a moment and tell you about the new resource our team here at Causevox just put together. Year end planning is quite a challenge, especially if you’re on or lead a small fundraising team. Our new planning tool is designed to help you plan the last 60 days of the year and how you can fundraise successfully during this time. It includes a full guide to make sure that you’re planning effectively, but also a checklist to keep it simple and remind you of the things that are most important. You can download your free copy by visiting Causevox.com/yearend or if you’re listening to this on iTunes, it’s included in the show notes of the podcast description. I hope you’ll check it out. We’ll be back with another guest serving in the trenches. We’ll see you then.

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