Behind the Scenes: Audience Research for Donor-Centered Branding & Messaging

Donors and supporters get to know your nonprofit based on how you present visually, and what you say online. They want to see themselves in you, so knowing who they are is the first step. Any time a nonprofit embarks on a rebrand, brand refinement, or messaging strategy project, the process should start with audience research.

Any time a nonprofit embarks on a rebrand, brand refinement, or messaging strategy project, the process should start with audience research. In over 10 years of working on these types of projects, I have never encountered a nonprofit team who already knows enough about their supporters to dive right into the creative work.

If your nonprofit is a direct service organization, you may know your service recipients well because you interact with them in a personal way—delivering meals to their homes, providing health care services, helping them navigate challenging times, or if they happen to be four-legged, scratching behind their ears.

It’s common to know a lot less about your donors or supporters. Aside from a handful of major donors and your friends and family members who donate, your nonprofit’s fanbase might feel like a black hole. They open your emails, and some even donate every month, but who are they?

Demographic information like age, gender, location, and occupation shed light on the black hole, but it’s still murky. Demographics shape us, but they don’t define us.

It’s equally as important to understand how your donors and supporters think, how they talk, and how they identify. Do they mostly share a strong political leaning? Are they primarily parents and grandparents? Do most of them subscribe to a specific faith? Are they worldly travelers or local vacationers? Do they see themselves as “entrepreneurial”? “Sustainable”? “Artsy”? “Religious”? “Traditional”?

Why do they care about what you do, and how do they describe your work to people who are unfamiliar?

The answers to these questions will illuminate the black hole. When you can really picture your fans, in color and with full clarity, your branding, storytelling and messaging will naturally come into focus.

I’m lucky to collaborate with Lauren at HeartSpark Design regularly, and we always start with research. I design surveys for clients’ donors and nondonors, and I conduct a handful of in-depth interviews when the budget allows. At the same time, Lauren sends a brand questionnaire to the nonprofit’s staff and board members to shine a light on an organization’s internal alignment.

Depending on the nonprofit and the nature of the project, we may ask for survey respondents’ feedback on specific words or phrases we’re considering incorporating into the brand, or we may keep the questions more open-ended.

When we recently teamed up with The Adventure Project on a brand refresh and messaging strategy project, here are some of the survey questions we asked their donors and nondonors:

  • “In one sentence, how would you describe The Adventure Project to someone who is unfamiliar?”
  • “When you think about The Adventure Project, what words come to mind?”
  • “In your mind, what sets The Adventure Project apart from other nonprofit organizations?”
  • “Have you ever visited Africa?”
  • “Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur?”

Open-ended responses to questions like “How would you describe our organization to someone who is unfamiliar?” are pure gold, because they’re a window into how people see themselves. The aspect of your work they emphasize is what they care about. And the language they use—how conversational or formal it is—can tell you a lot about how they communicate and want to be seen.

Of course, when you survey your supporters, you’re only hearing back from a subset: the people who complete a survey. In most cases, these are your superfans. These are the people who will carve out ten minutes to help you succeed. If your organization can communicate the way your superfans do, you will attract more people like them.

When analyzing The Adventure Project’s survey results, I created word clouds from some of the open-ended responses. A handful of words were super prominent: “people,” “women,” “poverty,” “jobs,” “entrepreneurs,” “Africa,” and “opportunity.” We also asked people to rate words and phrases on a 1-10 scale, which gave us additional intel on language to emphasize and avoid.

While I use all of this information to wordsmith, the research paints a visual picture in Lauren’s mind that translates into colors, fonts, iconography, and photographic style.

When it all comes together, it *clicks* like a seatbelt. The team gets it. The superfans love it. And when it all goes live, heads start turning. 

Lauren and I can’t wait to share The Adventure Project’s refreshed branding and messaging when it launches. We’re certain their superfans will celebrate and more heads will turn! 

If your organization is ready for branding, messaging, and a website that showcase your work in the most compelling way, get in touch with Lauren and we can all team up.

Remember: Donors and supporters get to know your nonprofit based on how you present visually, and what you say online. They want to see themselves in you, so knowing who they are is the first step.

“Working with Lauren and Caroline has been invaluable for The Adventure Project brand. With their research expertise and guidance, we were able to confirm some of the things we suspected were true of our donor base, but perhaps more importantly, we gleaned new insights that helped us adjust our brand messaging and design to better appeal to our supporters.”
Picture of Caroline Griffin
Caroline Griffin

Caroline Griffin, the Marketer on a Mission, helps nonprofits grow their fans and funds online with research-informed messaging, marketing, and fundraising. At the start of her career, Caroline led the marketing and communications department at a statewide public health nonprofit in Texas, helping the organization double in size. Next, she joined the agency Mighty Citizen as their first marketing strategist serving clients including the Livestrong Foundation, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Mothers’ Milk Bank of Austin, the Ed-Fi Alliance, and many more. Now, Caroline consults with clients across a range of cause areas to refine their messaging and upgrade their donor journeys. You can catch Caroline's digital marketing tips by following her on LinkedIn and signing up for her monthly e-newsletter, The Good Stuff.