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How to Pivot to “Portfolio-based Donor Engagement”

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Personalization at scale is possible through a commitment to producing more video content and building systems that enable journey-based donor engagement and fundraising. Scroll down to learn the fundamentals of building donor-centric, personalized fundraising at scale.



As my friend and colleague, James Barnard, often reminds us, “people give to people.”


“People give to people” is an easy concept to put into practice when addressing major donors and prospects. The high dollar value of each gift justifies the one-to-one, gift-officer-to-prospect ratio.


But how do we develop that same one-to-one relationship for annual and leadership annual giving? The answer might be in “portfolio-based engagement.” (Hat tip to Carnegie Mellon University’s Julie Knight for the “portfolio-based” terminology)


At firstname.co, our Donor Engagement Centers are built on the concept of portfolio-based engagement. So what does that mean? In short, with portfolio-based engagement, an annual giving program can build deep bonds between a large segment of supporters and one fundraiser – either a student or a Digital Development Officer – through consistency of content and outreach. Keeping in mind that “people give to people”, we align a fundraiser with specific segments so they may serve as that group's “customer service agent” guiding their donors and prospects to the information they care about the most. The following outlines what we believe is required to do this people-centered fundraising at an institution like yours.


Go big when defining portfolios


Portfolio-based engagement requires thinking a bit differently about the term “portfolio.” With our Digital Development Officer (DDO) programs, we recommend creating portfolios of roughly 3,000 to 5,000 individuals. For students in our Donor Engagement Centers, that number could be significantly higher. We recognize that this may sound like a massive number in the context of traditional one-to-one outreach. But we know that the marriage of authentic video, featuring the student or DDO, combined with technology that scales personalization, creates transformational results, and redefines the concept of a “portfolio.”


Technology to scale personalization unifies channels and organizes the power of email, text messaging, custom microsites, and paid social media to tell meaningful stories and drive engagement. By consistently inserting a student or DDO into a person’s Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn feeds in videos made visible by targeted advertising, you lodge that fundraiser in the minds of those in their large portfolios. Supporters know they like your organization, but they begin to form a personal connection with “Jane” from the videos who can deliver your message so fluently. This increases the likelihood that those individuals will open emails and texts or answer the phone to have a productive conversation with a fundraiser with whom they are already familiar and feel a personal bond.


As social media inspires prospects to click on content, we track engagement using tools like email and microsites. These individuals are raising their hand by and interacting with content that matters to them, so we capitalize on this interest by directing one-to-one outreach toward these warmer individuals. This process of opting-in leads to much greater contact success rates and far better fundraising results.


Build a content machine


Familiarity in portfolio-based engagement requires consistency and frequency. You must be present in social media news feeds, while ensuring that every outbound email has an authentic video, and that every text links to stories supporters want to hear. In other words, you need a LOT of video content.


Portfolio-based engagement is not just about a cadence that includes more outreach across digital channels, it’s about using authentic video to connect large audience segments to a single video-savvy development officer.


Think of it as a paid influencer program for your development operation. If all we’re doing is texting and emailing more people, the lift will be marginal at best. By creating a known personality and warming an audience to a personality using video, then the texts, emails, and phone calls will be far more effective. People will want to talk to the influencer they have been watching for months.


Here a few items to consider in this quest for more video content:

  • Hire and develop a student content machine that is capable of producing 500+ unique videos per year.

  • Build basic video production and editing into the job descriptions for DDOs, annual giving officers, leadership annual giving officers, etc.

  • Streamline the approval process for video production – reduce the number of “cooks in the kitchen” around video work. DDOs and students need the freedom to be authentic without jumping through too many hurdles. Have a separate approval process for priority video communications: the message from the president, the main video for a $50,000/table gala, proposal microsites for eight-figure donors. Allow the day-to-day outreach video from students and DDOs to feel genuine and authentic, without worrying about artificial perfection.


We call it NoColdAsks at firstname.co. We don’t believe you should ever surprise a prospect with outreach. To guarantee you’re making NoColdAsks, invest in creating significantly more video to deliver the personality of your students and DDOs to those in the portfolios they are managing.


Use journey-based technology that allows for one-to-one outreach


VanillaSoft, Blackbaud Guided Fundraising, RNL Engage, Slate – the list of journey-based platforms is growing and providing fundraisers with options for modern fundraising. Many of these platforms provide similar tools and ultimately help to manage portfolios or segments of alumni and donors at scale. When selecting software for this journey-led, portfolio-based engagement, consider the following…


Can you easily customize journeys? As you learn more about how content performs, you’ll want to adjust the journeys and cadences. Whatever software you employ should empower you to make those adjustments with little hassle.


How easy is it to incorporate video? Video builds trust and delivers results. Find journey-based software that makes incorporating video simple, effective, and easy to track for audience engagement.


Will your fundraisers use it? Usability is a critical component of adding any new piece of technology. Find a journey-based platform that your students and fundraisers love using, not something that makes them seek a new place of employment. Again, if people give to people, provide your people with tools that are a joy to use.


Are you considering a shift to a video-first, portfolio-based annual giving program? Let us know in the comments, then head to firstname’s website to learn more about video-driven fundraising that connects people to people through authentic content!


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