Beyond Target Marketing, What's Next? | Sharpe Group
Posted November 1st, 1998

Beyond Target Marketing, What’s Next?

Recently the subject of target marketing has become a more popular topic in planned giving circles. In past years, it was common to start with the assumption that you “could never tell” who would make a planned gift, so it was wise to disseminate gift planning information as broadly as possible. This approach worked well for many institutions, especially those with relatively small, homogeneous constituencies.

Lately, however, more targeted approaches have become increasingly attractive for those responsible for planned gift development. There are a number of interrelated reasons behind this phenomenon:

Rising costs of postage, printing, travel, and other associated expenses have made it more important than ever that budgets be focused where results could be obtained most economically and in the shortest period of time. This is especially true in higher education where larger class sizes in the late 1940s and early 1950s are now predictably increasing the numbers of persons who are selected using more broadbased marketing approaches.

As organizations and institutions are now attempting to expand their base of younger donors, many feel it is important to avoid overwhelming these donors with information about bequests and other planned gifts that may not be appropriate in early stages of donor relationships.

Increasing numbers of capital campaigns and major gift development efforts have made it desirable in some cases that information on deferred gifts not be broadly disseminated to those who may be considering major current gift commitments.

Computer technology has made it more economical to store and access the large amounts of information needed to build models that make efficient targeting possible.

New services have made information regarding age and wealth broadly available that in the past could only be obtained by those with extensive research capabilities.
Now that it is more common for planned gift development programs to focus their efforts on particular segments of their constituency, some are asking if it is possible to have too much of a good thing where target marketing is concerned. We believe it is possible to go too far with target marketing efforts in some cases–but that it is possible to achieve a balanced approach with a minimum of additional effort.

Here are some suggestions of ways you may wish to adapt your program for maximum results.

Avoid false conclusions from wealth and gift amounts

As veterans of planned giving all know, it can be a major mistake to target most planned gift information based to any great extent on the amount of a donor’s current gifts or on information regarding the donor’s wealth level. Wealth, income, and giving levels are often helpful in planning for a capital campaign or ongoing major gift development efforts. Bequests, gift annuities, charitable remainder trusts, and many other planned gifts are, on the other hand, frequently received from persons whose current gift level is modest indeed. And often the “millionaire next door” will be missed by wealth rating criteria that are based on prevailing community wealth levels, purchasing habits, peer screenings, and other subjective factors.

There are much better criteria for use in targeting planned gift information, chief among which are the frequency and longevity of a donor’s gifts. These factors, along with age, are among the most reliable predictors of a person’s propensity to make many types of planned gifts.

Recognize limits of age information

Age information can be critical in the process of target marketing many types of planned gifts. The first time age information is obtained however, the temptation may be to focus gift annuity, bequest, and other information only on those persons known to fall within a particular age range. This can be a mistake if taken too far. Here’s why. The age information that is available in the marketplace comes for the most part from public records, principally driver’s license data. Many of the oldest persons on your donor file will have let their driver’s licenses lapse and their age may thus no longer be available from overlay services. In testing, we have found that the average respondent to gift annuity marketing efforts from the longest term donors drawn from the “age unknown” segment of a file will be older than persons from a group known to be over the age of 70.

For the reasons mentioned above, it is a good idea to expand targets in many cases, especially where a donor base is known to contain a high percentage of seniors. Consider including, for example, active donors from the “age unknown” file who have been on the file the longest period of time. If budget requires, this is important enough to “make room” for such persons by dropping a lower priority segment from among those whose ages are known.

Use inserts to fill gaps in mail strategies

Essential components of many planned gift marketing efforts are periodic mailings targeted to relatively small groups within the overall donor constituency. The advantage of this approach is to focus effort where it is most likely to result in the desired gift outcome and least likely to compete with other funding efforts. An example might be a gift annuity mailing to long-term donors known to be over the age of 70. There are some disadvantages to this strategy, however. The narrower the target, the more likely that persons who would qualify but for the lack of age information, for example, will be missed. Criteria that require long time periods on file may miss a very highly motivated person who has only given once or a person with a long prior history of gifts who lapsed for a period of time before being reacquired as a donor.

A solution to these challenges can be to use inserts in gift acknowledgments and thank-you letters that feature helpful information on planned gifts. This approach is a low-key, inexpensive way to make sure all current donors are receiving information at a time when they have just made a gift and may be most receptive to this type of message. This can be more effective and economical than inserting planned gift information in all current gift appeals.

A disadvantage to relying exclusively on an acknowledgment insert strategy is that donors who are reducing the number and frequency of their gifts in later years or who are recently lapsed will receive little or no information via this channel at the very time they may be making their final estate plans!

Take advantage of gatherings

Recognition banquets, reunion gatherings, religious services, athletic events, and other gatherings where large numbers of donors may congregate offer additional opportunities to disseminate information on gift planning in a favorable, non-threatening environment. This can be achieved via printed handouts, audiovisual presentations, or brief mentions of gift planning options as part of a broader presentation that primarily focuses on other material.


Target marketing programs will continue to be a primary means of communicating gift planning opportunities. The most successful programs in the future, however, will recognize the inherent limitations of targeted efforts and take steps to fill in the gaps with other time-tested, economical strategies to achieve maximum results.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The publisher of Sharpe Insights is not engaged in rendering legal or tax advisory service. For advice and assistance in specific cases, the services of your own counsel should be obtained. Articles in Sharpe Insights may generally be reprinted for distribution to board members and staff of nonprofit institutions and other non-donor groups. Proper credit must be given. Call for details.

Sharpe Insights

Site Search

Sharpe Insights Archives

2024 Issues 2023 Issues 2022 Issues 2021 Issues 2020 Issues 2019 Issues 2018 Issues 2017 Issues 2016 Issues 2015 Issues 2014 Issues 2013 Issues 2012 Issues 2011 Issues 2010 Issues 2009 Issues 2008 Issues 2007 Issues 2006 Issues 2005 Issues 2004 Issues 2003 Issues 2002 Issues 2001 Issues 2000 Issues 1999 Issues 1998 Issues 1997 Issues