CDE project 11: part 3 — it’s all about the How’

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 30, 2017

All the rhetoric so far is widely recognised and understood by data and communications experts. However, all this theory needs to be boiled down into straightforward steps around on “How to develop a data-driven strategy that will deliver?”

The four “How to” steps below are relatively straightforward BUT with people, processes, existing legacy systems, budgets …. it can slow or stop progress. With the sector under a spotlight it’s essential we overcome these hurdles to improve the overall donor experience.

Step 1: How to get the data basics right

Step 2: How to ensure one view of the supporter

Step 3: How to understand data insights to inform strategy

Step 4: How to provide clear campaign objectives

Step 1: How to get the basics right

Don’t switch-off… this is boringly important! A data-driven DM strategy can’t be achieved if the basics are not tackled.

A small bit on regulations

There are many in-depth articles, texts, reports on this, so for brevity:

  • Data Governance; ensure your Privacy Policy is up to date, data is held securely and appropriate processes and policies are in place. NB. Potential for larger organisations to appoint a dedicated Data Policy Officer.
  • Supporter consent; this cannot be overstated enough, to develop any data-driven marketing a charity will need to have unambiguous consent to hold personal data. So, make clear on all communications, your intentions regarding the use of data. For Direct Mail, it is still ‘opt out’ but ensure the opt out permission statements are clear.

NB. For any 3rd party data such as lists for cold direct mail campaigns, please check you’re given data with existing consents. Also, any direct campaign data needs to be suppressed against MPS / TPS and in future, the FPS.

A charity must have the above in place to avoid potential fines and more importantly to protect the overall reputation of the charity brand, with its huge implications for supporter trust.

Make sure your data are clean

For any reporting and analysis the data held must be clean. Otherwise, any strategic decisions will not be based on solid foundations – leading to incorrect decisions being made.

What do we mean by clean data?

  • Duplication of supporter records
  • Incomplete data e.g. No postcodes
  • Incorrect fields
  • Categorisation is incorrect and inconsistent
  • Merging of data from different sources is inconsistent

For any direct campaign, to reduce costs and increase responsiveness, you need to ensure there is clean data before any campaign data selections or analysis. From a supporter perspective, receiving two mailings with an incorrect spelling of a name does NOT endear them to your cause.

There are examples of up to 20% of database records being duplicates. Cleaning on extract may ease the impact on duplicate mailings, but the impact on analysis and reporting is still large – this could mean active file sizes being significantly over reported.

Before sending a direct mail campaign you should conduct a quick manual review of the file to correct any mistakes and identify duplicates. Additionally you should run your file against a service such as Mortascreen, which helps identify anyone on your list who may have died since you last contacted them.

Improving on the data you hold

All organisations collect data. However, what data is needed for the organisation to be effective? How often does it need to be refreshed? How is it collected? How is this related to existing data / systems? Who makes the decision to collect the data? These key issues need to be agreed, implemented and regularly reviewed in the light of the current hardening attitude to data.

For instance, collecting date of birth (with the right consent) can be very important to an organisation to send the right communications. If an established relationship is in place, perhaps for the older supporter a communication can be sent for a legacy pledge. Without age, this becomes more difficult. 

Collecting further data is a strategy in its own right. With the correct regulatory processes in place supporters dedicated to the cause would be happy to provide more information if they understand why you want it. 

Consistent categorisation of data

One of the biggest obstacles to a consistent data strategy is the lack of a consistent taxonomy for data that is collected. So for example, one person might tag their appeal as a Cash Appeal whereas a different person might call it the ‘Abandoned Puppy Campaign’. Without specific knowledge, it is not immediate these are one and the same thing so might not get grouped together. It is therefore important that all campaigns are clearly labelled with the channel, product and ask of the appeal and subsequent responses similarly.

It’s also important to know what prompts response and what doesn’t, so a simple analysis of the topic and ‘style’ of the appeal is important. Was it emotionally soft or hard? What subject did it deal with – children/adults, disabled people etc?

As well as communications and transactions it is also important to source and date stamp all other entries onto your CRM (including amendment dates to highlight when they are subsequently amended) to ensure that they can be audited and properly understood. Among others, this includes suppressions, campaign preferences and legacy statuses.

Data Enhancement 

Understanding your supporters, and therefore communicating with them effectively, will largely be driven by how they currently behave with you, i.e. by analysing the data on your database. However, 3rd party data can help provide more depth to your understanding of donors (who they are, what they like, what they do) as well as filling in gaps where internal data is limited (new or occasional supporters). They are many suppliers of data on the market who can tag extra information to your database. This is generally done at an individual level (name and address) or at a postcode level. Individual data will usually be more accurate but more expensive and will get less coverage. Postcode level data is cheaper and you can usually cover everyone as it is based on where they live.

But remember make sure you have the consent to do this, and you have good reasons for doing so. It is rarely necessary to hold all this information on your database but occasional profiling can be useful and if it highlights particular nuances in your supporters, then holding this specific information may be worthwhile.

Many charities for instance, profile their current donors so that, when they do door-drops looking for new donors, they choose roads likely to deliver similar donors and the messages and ask values favoured by each profile.

Step 2: How to ensure one view of the supporter

Data for individual supporters often resides in silos across an organisation, which is often the reason things go wrong. The sources of data can come from various places including external, operational, social, digital and campaign data.

This means developing a Single Supporter View (SSV) to create a master record that consolidates information from all inputting data sources, ensuring that each master record reflects the most accurate and up to date view of every individual supporter. An SSV will empowers organisations to identify trends, risk and opportunities to inform decision making and improved communication strategies.

It removes the danger of people being viewed in isolation on one relationship they hold with the charity rather than holistically in terms of all their touchpoints. For example, the Direct Mail team may see Mrs Smith as a cash donor, but she may also be a follower on Twitter, a campaigner and a beneficiary.

An SSV is one of the most important factors in delivering a good donor experience. Do not accept excuses from any colleague who presumes to hold onto ‘their database’ of supporters. Such chauvinism is inappropriate to a donor-centred strategy.

How can this help with direct mail?

For existing supporters, it helps with strategic insights and the ability to build models that will help an organisation develop the right communications strategy e.g. Propositions / Products / Asks

Understanding their previous DM response is one thing, but knowing what else they are doing can change your perception. Somebody who is actively opening emails and browsing your website might be showing the propensity to respond to a DM appeal even if they have never done so before. Knowing what emails or webpages they are engaging with could inform the content of the mail piece you send them.

A cold mailing file MUST be deduped against the SSV file to avoid any thought of mailing a current donor with a cold ask.

Step 3: How to understand data insights to inform strategy

A direct marketing communications strategy comes from measuring and analysing the patterns in the data. By asking the right questions of the data and uncovering insights means the organisation can drive the communications strategy forwards.

How can data help communications strategy?

Data analysis will help broad strategic principles of acquisition, retention and reactivation:

Nurture: identify and understand the behaviour of potential supporters before making a donation

Activate: understanding the communication variables that drive response and sign-up -such as propositions, recruitment channels, giving methods

Develop: understanding supporters’ giving behaviour in order to provide the insights to increase their commitment to the organisation (e.g. increased giving)

How does data analytics make a difference?

By applying the right analytical approach to the data, an organisation can make a difference to communications performance:

Data analysis underpins supporter communications in 4 areas:

  1. Reporting - What happened? By establishing key KPI’s and metrics a charity can understand past trends to inform future strategy e.g. reach, preference, response / conversion rates, average gift, ROI (return on investment), LTV (lifetime value)
  2. Analysis - Why did it happen? By unearthing strategic insights from the data a charity will know how best to advise on nurturing, acquisition, retention and reactivation in the future
  3. Monitoring - What’s happening? Continual monitoring of live interactive campaigns allows a charity to continually optimise the campaign communications
  4. Prediction - What will happen? Through predictive analytics and propensity modelling a charity can predict supporter behavior, which means the ability to suggest the best next action (product / ask). Equally, we can help forecast income based on past behaviour.

All the above should be looked at for individual campaigns. Additionally you can view your data by looking at analytics for specific programmes (eg all cash appeals), the overall performance (e.g. total net income) and by supporters (e.g. LTV). This ensures that outcomes are aligned to the organisational goals and strategies.

What does this all mean for direct mail?

Depending on a charity’s maturity, elements of Points 1 to 4 above are needed to ensure the best outcomes for any direct mail campaign. Data analysis will provide insights as to how best to target an audience; who they are; what product is best; when to send; what ask level will work. 

This is not exhaustive but some examples for different direct mail campaigns:

Cold mailing: 

Analysing an existing audience will highlight audiences that have a higher propensity to give to a charity. Therefore, giving the best chance for a campaign to succeed

Post campaign analysis will allow you to review list performance – response rates / cost per donor etc 

Integrated channel mix can be reviewed if response is digital e.g. page reviews / time / conversion

Gap analysis may prove there are audiences that are under-represented so necessitating a review of the charity offering to these audiences

Often direct mail is not sent in isolation which means the integrated journey needs to be broken down into metrics to understand response / conversation rates. For instance, a call to action online will mean pulling together digital data (social / website) to understand the full picture

Welcome programmes

Welcome campaigns vary depending on the source of recruitment and the type of product e.g. Sponsorship vs. Regular Gift vs. Cash

The best welcome programmes deliver the best, and pre-tested, campaigns in a range of media, for at least a year before the new donor is slotted into the core appeal programme

Understanding past behavior of recruits will highlight core attrition times – the times most supporters lose interest in the charity’s cause. This analysis encourages research to understand failing motivations and highlights points when a product or new communication should be put in place to remind supporters of the value they bring to beneficiaries 

Testing and data analysis would pinpoint the best time to send such communications in order to ensure the donor experience is optimised


Supporters will have different levels of commitment to a cause – which would necessitate a differentiated communications strategy. Effective data analysis should be used to ensure all your supporters are being mailed appropriate communications relevant to their needs and interests – and ones most likely to prompt a response. It can also help determine optimal mailing patterns and journeys.

Simply looking at the recency of the last gift and the frequency of previous gifts will determine those supporters most likely to respond to a specific campaign (i.e. those who have responded most often, most recently). And the value of their previous gifts will determine whether it is profitable to mail them. 

But from the donor’s point of view, you should establish some common-sense mailing criteria:

  • If the donor hasn’t responded to three appeals, make sure they get an appeal that talks about the subject which first prompted them to respond
  • If they still don’t respond to an appeal, ask them to do something else – fill in a questionnaire, buy a prize draw ticket, take out Weekly Lottery membership etc 
  • If you mail a donor six times a year and they only ever respond once, either cut down their mailing programme or, better, ask them how often, and with what, they’d like you to write. 

Don’t mail, simply to make up numbers or to deliver on excessive budgets. Doing that makes donors feel pressurised.

More sophisticated modelling (introducing other variables such as recruitment channel, other giving profiles, age or demographics) can then enhance processes even further and identify other donors who are likely to respond. For example, a raffle donor with a similar profile to other cash donors could be identified for a cash mailing (even though they have never given cash before).

Past analysis has often found up to 50% of mailing programmes being sent to supporters who are never likely to respond. Identifying these and removing them from the mailing can save thousands of pounds and manage supporters’ perception of a charity over-mailing. 

Furthermore, replacing these with donors who have not previously been selected (but are likely to respond) can engage more of your supporters and release thousands of pounds in untapped income.


Good practice is to formulate a plan for communications that will test different creative treatments. It is vital when designing the plan to ensure all tests will produce robust and actionable results. And, of course, the results of the tests are fully analysed, clearly communicated and fed into subsequent communications.

By running pilots or tests, a charity can isolate the variables that providing the best results for the donor experience. For instance, which creative proposition produces the most response and engagement, or which prompt amount delivers most net income. For instance, if a group of donors have not been responding, then reduce the ask levels. Response will follow.

Please remember data analysis provides the insights to drive a communications strategy. However, a data-driven approach still needs to be informed by audience research (qual / quant) to derive the best creative proposition / messaging, a good creative idea and a need for some commercial sense around integrated and differentiated marketing.

Step 4: How to provide clear campaign objectives

There’s nothing new in this

The success of a campaign can only be measured if campaign objectives have been set. This means KPI’s and diagnostic metrics need to be identified and aligned.

So, to use a well-used acronym, objectives need to be SMART. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely)

They also need to be fed from the top down, so that individual campaign goals are aligned to achieving the organisation’s overarching targets whether this is to optimise short-term income, build the active supporter file, create deeper engagement across existing supporters etc 

Ask yourself, is the campaign – to test specific campaign variables, to increase donations, to increase retention, to build awareness of an issue? What is the duration of the payback timeline – 1 ,2 or 5 yrs – in order to define the success measure. Which typically in direct mail is ROI but increasingly in the future, may involve the subsequent ability to encourage a legacy gift? 

What does this all mean? 

A data-driven communications strategy means that more intelligent campaigns can be delivered to supporters, giving pleasure instead of the feeling of pressure to support.

Developing a data driven culture does not happen by itself but does not necessarily require massive capital investment. However, it does need careful strategic planning and a co-ordinated roll out across the organisation. The results will be a more holistic understanding of your supporters enabling you to communicate with them in a more effective and engaging manner. And will help ensure your direct mail communications are relevant, appropriate and an integral part of a comprehensive overall communication strategy.

It can be achieved by having clean data, bringing it together into one place and establishing campaign objectives and applying the appropriate analytical techniques and models. Ultimately, using appropriate data analysis will deliver appropriate communications to each supporter which fosters trust, commitment and satisfaction. Therefore, a stronger and longer lasting relationship through whichever KPI and metric a charity wishes to establish.

The benefits of a clear data strategy will mean:

  1. Personalisation and targeting. If you know your supporters, you can service them better. And make your direct mail more engaging and relevant. As a fundraiser, your job is to delight your supporters
  2. Efficiency. A good data strategy means you will hit fewer data related roadblocks. Buying new technology rarely fixes a lack of an underlying data strategy. Instead good processes will make your campaign cycles more efficient – and effective
  3. Multichannel co-ordination. Consumers expect a seamless user experience. Data underpins the ability to service customers via the channels they may choose to use. This ensures mail is used where appropriate – whether in isolation, or in combination with other channels
  4. Supporter centricity culture A culture based around your supporters needs

Click on the image below to view project 11 in full - PDF format

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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