How to target your donors: a key element of your fundraising strategy

The way in which some charities target donors has attracted a lot of attention recently.

Asking for support (which is a much nicer way of putting it) is always a finely balanced act. Don’t ask enough and you will raise less money for your cause, ask too much and the only thing you’ll attract is Daily Mail journalists.

Knowing who to ask, how much to ask them for, how often to ask them to give, and the best way to ask them is key to getting the best return for your fundraising efforts. Segmentation of your donor database is really important in helping you to make the most appropriate requests to the people most likely to respond.

In my book Effective Fundraising, I outline three simple categories for doing this;

  • A hot list: your active and supportive donors
  • A warm list: for those who have shown some interest in what you do, maybe given once or attended an event
  • A cold list: people who don’t know you, but have a potential reason for supporting your work (live in the local area for example)


The way you engage with those three groups should be very different. Try to think of your hot list of supporters like your friends and family. You know them well as a result of how they have behaved in the past, and they also know you well. There’s an existing relationship, and communicating with them in a way that overlooks that can quickly push them away. When I visit my brother I don’t start off by introducing myself, telling him where I grew up and where I went to school; that would be weird. Instead we pretty much talk about the things that have happened since we last saw each other. Similarly, if I just wrote “Dear Family Member, Merry Christmas, From Ben” on all my Christmas cards, most of them would be offended. Donors are the same. If you have an existing relationship, acknowledge it in your communications with them and show them that you care about that relationship before you make your next request for support.

Ask to borrow the car of a stranger

If you think of the cold list as pretty much strangers, a similar approach can be helpful. Walk up to a stranger in the street and ask to borrow their car and see how you get on. With no prior relationship, no context for the conversation, and no reason for them to help you, it’s going to be a difficult conversation with a very limited chance of success. Asking strangers to write your charity into their will or give large one-off donations can be a similarly awkward and challenging proposition to people who have no prior relationship with your organisation for the same reasons. Look at contact with people on your cold list as the beginning of a relationship, and make it easy as possible for them to know what you do and what they can do to help.

Hi neighbour

The group with the most potential for miscommunication though is the warm list. Think of them as maybe neighbours. It’s possible that knocking on their door and saying “Hi I’m Ben, I live next-door-but-one, would you like to be best friends?” will result in a fantastic friendship that lasts through the ages (hot list). But it could also result in a restraining order (cold list). They may know something about your work as a previous donor, or they may not. They may have come to a fundraiser as a guest of someone else, or only been in contact because they wanted one of your London Marathon places. It’s this group where further segmentation is really useful, if you have the resources or information at hand to be able to do it.

If you want to maintain and develop relationships with your donors, it’s crucial that you communicate with them effectively, and in a way that’s appropriate to the relationship you have with them.

Since joining DSC in 2003, Ben Wittenberg has had several roles, overseeing at various points, fundraising, website development, research, publishing, policy and campaigning. He has written Effective Fundraising.