One Common Planning Mistake

One Common Planning Mistake


by David Allen, Development for Conservation


A common mistake I see all too frequently relates to the difference between planning and recognition. Many fundraisers either confuse the two, or fail to treat them as different altogether.

When planning, we use “segments” to separate activities or nuances meant for one group while not necessarily meant for everyone. For example, we might segment based on what they gave last year, asking $100 donors to give $150 while asking $500 donors to give $1,000.

Or how they were recruited – asking people who responded to a membership mailing to “renew” while asking people who joined because of a local project to give again to that project, or to similar projects.

We might ask birders to help protect migratory habitat, and fisher-people to help protect water quality.

Or, we might segment based on the degree we are interested in cultivating them individually, or engaging them in donor events.


We use “recognition levels” to separate those that are due to receive one benefit from another. For example, we might list people separately in the Annual Report, listing those that gave “$1,000 and more” separately from those that gave $100-$999.

Or, send a premium (like a T-shirt or coffee mug) to people who renew at $100 from $35 or $50 last year.

Or in some cases, recognizing “what” they gave to, listing people who gave more than a certain amount to a specific project/campaign on a recognition plaque, boardwalk, or donor wall.


Segments describe groups of PROSPECTS before they give.

Recognition describes groups of DONORS after they give.


Here are several examples:

Harriet gave $35 last year and is listed in the Annual Report as an “Individual” level member. This year, she’s in the segment called “$99 minus members” and asked to give $100 or more. She “renews” her membership with a gift of $1,000 – a “Guardian” level gift. Harriet is still in the “$99 minus members” segment for this year but is recognized in this year’s Annual Report at the “Guardian” level. Next year, we’ll put her in the “Guardian” prospects segment.

Jakob gave $250 last year and is in the “Guardian prospects” segment. In addition to all the normal communications we offer to every $250 member, we personally invite Jakob to a meet-and-greet with Board members as cultivation for asking him to give $1,000 later this year. If he says yes and gives $1,000, he will be recognized as a Guardian – while remaining in the Guardian prospects segment. This is true even if he renews at a lower level (or does not renew at all) – he is still considered a Guardian prospect for this year.

Thomas gave $250 last year also, but Thomas is in the “Mid-level prospects” segment and NOT in the “Guardian prospects” segment because he was asked to make the Guardian leap last year and politely but clearly said he couldn’t do that.

Rosie gave $1,000 last year. She was recognized as a Guardian and is in our Guardian prospects segment this year as well – as a renewal. If she renews at $1,000, she will again be recognized as a Guardian. But regardless of whether she renews at $1,000, renews at something less, or fails to renew at any level, she remains in the Guardian prospects segment.


(You’ll need to translate the names of these levels for your specific organization.)


When we make plans, we need to use SEGMENTS. Segments help us plan effectively for prospect activities. Segments help us evaluate what’s working and what might not be. Segments help us measure our success.

BTW – This is another reason why we should all be using the words “Major Gift Prospects” instead of “Major Donors.” Major Gift Prospects describes a segment – those we intend to work with to support projects or specific outcomes at a much higher level than just membership. Major Donors describes the group we succeed with.


When you evaluate an event, you consider the number of people who came, but you’re going to want to know how many were invited as well so you can tell how effective the invitations were.

When you evaluate a mailing, you consider the number of people who responded, but you’re going to want to know how many were sent as well so you can tell how effective the appeal letters were.

When you evaluate a cultivation strategy to recruit “Guardians” – people giving $1,000 or more – you consider the number of people in the Guardian prospects segment as well so you can tell how effective the cultivation strategy was.


This implies that once someone has been “assigned” to a segment, they stay there for at least this year. To be most helpful, your database system should be able to handle this level of complexity – the segments to which prospects are assigned based on their giving potential and cultivation plans, AND the recognition levels to which donors are assigned based on their actual giving decisions.


That said, it’s not infinitely complex. I typically use just six planning segments for individual donors:

  • Board members (Yes, Board members deserve their own segment, and many include Board members who have recently left the Board. You might also wish to include official committee members, junior Board members, and others)
  • Major Gift Prospects – Those whom you expect to ask for a major gift to a special project within the next 1-3 years.
  • Annual Giving Leaders – Those whom you expect to ask for at least $1,000 as their renewal gift this year (threshold could be lower for some land trusts)
  • Members – Everyone else who gave money last year.
  • Lapsed Members – Donors who gave two years ago but not last year.
  • Long-Lapsed and Prospective Members – People who either gave a long time ago or who have never given.


These are segments because you will treat them differently. HOW are you treating your segments differently?


Cheers, and have a great week.




Photo by Samiha Antara courtesy of

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