One of the most popular metaphors for the donor retention issue is a leaky bucket. And with good reason.

We spend a lot of time and effort acquiring new donors, only for 40% or more on average to never give again. We’re caught in an endless cycle of refilling the bucket, with sustainability always just out of reach.

The more I got to thinking about this ubiquitous metaphor, the more I realized how ironic and self-fulling it truly is.

The primary reason we have a leaky bucket is because we are putting donors into a bucket.

Regardless of who they are, why they gave, how often they give and what they give, they all go into the same bucket (whether it’s a donor database, Excel spreadsheet or filing cabinet).

Once they’re in the bucket, we are sending:

  • the same newsletter to everyone
  • the same appeal to everyone
  • the same thank you letter to everyone
  • the same event invite to everyone

Why do we wonder why the bucket starts to leak?

To make things worse, all those un-engaged donors who haven’t given in a few years because we don’t listen to them, they move away or they pass away get pushed further and further towards the bottom of the bucket. Even if we wanted to hear them we wouldn’t be able to.

When the bucket fails

I recently donated to a zoo in a city that I do not live in (we visited and I felt obliged because we had such a good time).

What did the zoo do? They put me in their one bucket.

How do I know? I received this email from them:


I do not live in this city nor employee anyone in the city. There is absolutely no way I would be interested in hosting an event at their facility. They know my physical address, and yet I was not filtered out of this email campaign.

This kind of thing happens all time.

With one bucket, we send out an appeal to someone who passed away last year (only for a surviving relative to receive it).

With one bucket, we send a physically-demanding volunteer appeal to someone with mobility issues.

With one bucket, we send an email newsletter that covers every imaginable topic but fails to resonate with any one recipient.

So the recipients feel disengaged, ignore your communications and eventually leak out.

Segmenting is the answer

What we need is an infinite amount of buckets, custom-tailored to the type of constituent we are trying to communicate to. When that happens, the communications themselves can be tailored for maximum impact.

Here are just a few of the many buckets (segments) you can create:

  • first-time donors
  • monthly recurring donors
  • out of town donors
  • donors who give above average
  • donors who give below average
  • donors who haven’t given in 2 years
  • volunteers who have not yet donated
  • donors with high engagement rates
  • donors with low engagement rates
  • donors who have downgraded in the past year
  • donors who have upgraded in the past year
  • donors who have active on social media
  • former employees and board members
  • donors who have shared negative feedback
  • donors with pets
  • donors with children
  • peer-to-peer donors
  • memorial donors
  • event attendees who have never donated
  • donors who give through a donor-advised fund

Each of those examples can be further drilled down into.

Of course, your segments are only as good as the data you proactively collect and regularly cleanse.

We need a new metaphor

No one wants to be put in a bucket. They’re gross, made of cheap plastic or rusty iron, and diminish donors down into a storable commodity.

So stop putting your donors into a bucket. Make it a throne, a white horse, whatever, but make sure there’s more than one.

What types of segments do you utilize? Let me know in the comments below!

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