Posted by Lisa Thompson

Marketing personas: Fictitious characters you create to represent different audience segments (donors, volunteers, advocates, etc.).

Personas are not something you create for the outside world—they’re simply a tool you use behind the scenes to understand your target audience and how to motivate them to support your organization. The better you define your personas, the easier it will be to create your marketing communications.

Here’s how to begin.

Step 1: Get to know the people in your marketing database.

It used to be that we had a good handle on the people who supported us. We called them by their first names, knew what they did for a living, maybe even what sports their kids played. Those were simpler times.

As with everything it seems, figuring out who our donors are has become trickier. But this remains true: If we understand the psychographics of our donors, we have a better chance of engaging with the right type of donor.

Psychographics goes beyond the typical classifications we can know about someone (male/female) and studies attitudes, aspirations and interests. As you find similarities in groups of people in your database, you begin to develop personas.

Much like nonprofit storytelling humanizes your organization, personas put a name to faceless demographics. They represent a particular market segment. Of course, a market segment doesn’t donate to your cause; real people donate to your cause. A persona basically turns a market segment into a (fictitious) individual.

So to start, pull any reports that may give you some initial demographic data such as:

From your list of donors, get a good cross-section and plan to interview at least 20–25.

Step 2: Start talking.

If you want to better understand your donors, you need to talk to them. Donor interviews should be unstructured but direct. Here are some valuable insights you want to glean:

Step 3: Group donors into categories.

Your categories are initially based on assumptions. Some category examples could be volunteers who also give, mothers of small children, business owners, etc. The point now is to start segmenting.

After you’ve developed a few categories, start looking at your data for other characteristics in each category. For instance, business people may give because they believe your organization helps position them as a well-respected business in the community.

Here’s a list of characteristics to look for:

Continue to segment and categorize until you’ve come up with 4–7 personas. Eventually you’ll develop a personality, a name and other life-like attributes for your personas.

Step 4: Define your most valuable personas.

Select your most important categories (read: most giving potential) and begin to create a persona for each category. You’re going to give each persona a voice and a personality, then formulate their role and goals with your organization. Some attributes to consider:

The more fictional details you give about your persona’s life, the more memorable they become. Have fun with this! Give your persona a name, write about a day in their life at work and home, their likes and dislikes, where they’ve come from and where they’re going. Find photos that represent each persona’s lifestyle.

Step 5: Introduce your personas to your team.

Showtime! Now you get to introduce your new personas to your staff. This is an opportunity to get buy-in and inspire people to become more personalized in the way they approach constituents.

And don’t forget: As new people come on board, be sure to introduce them to your personas, especially if they’ll be communicating regularly with your audience. It’s the perfect way to give them a taste of who you’re targeting.

Wondering how detailed to get? That’s really up to you, but the more detailed you are, the more memorable (and useful) your personas will be. Here’s an example of persona that’s been well fleshed out and can be a useful tool when developing marketing materials.

Alex Kauffman, Young Donor

Personal information:
Single male; 27 years old

Personal profile:
Alex has been out of college for five years and now that he’s established a career path, he’s ready to purchase a house with his fiancée and put down roots in the Denver area where he’s lived most of his life. He’s very familiar with his community and wants to make a difference for those less fortunate, especially young people who want a post-secondary education but can’t afford it. He’s been active in several local organizations, and is the type of donor who will roll up his sleeves and volunteer when he finds a nonprofit that he’s passionate about.

Alex is active, into sports and traveling, as well as continued education for his career, attending night classes as he’s able. With a busy schedule and an impending wedding, he doesn’t have a lot of extra time or money, though he has enough margin financially to give regularly to one or two organizations. He doesn’t spend much time watching TV outside of sports, and therefore relies heavily on social media (particularly Twitter and Facebook) to keep him updated on current events and world news. His smartphone is his lifeline to his family, friends and the brands/organizations he follows.

Before Alex commits to either making a donation, attending an event or volunteering for a nonprofit, he looks at their website and checks out their financial info on Charity Navigator. It’s important to him that he’s able to donate online and that an organization has received favorable reviews from other donors.

Why Alex donates:

How he likes to give: Online in a “set it and forget it” fashion or via SMS (i.e., Short Message Service or text messaging to donate).

We want him to:

If we didn’t exist: He believes low-income students would have less of an opportunity to get an education.

Creating personas for your organization should be both fun and educational. Once you have a good grasp on who your donor segments are, however, that’s just the beginning. Next, you need a website and the right online tools to reach them effectively. Firespring can help. We provide beautiful websites and essential tools for nonprofits. Start your free trial at or learn more by calling 877.447.8941.