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Data-Driven Mid-Level Programs Thrive

By Jeff Muller, Crossroads Insights LLC

At a time when the percent of U.S. households giving to charity continues to decrease dramatically—less than half give now as compared with two-thirds just twenty years ago—the need to deploy data wisely in service to building durable donor relationships has never been greater. For the mid-level practitioner, data serves as the foundation upon which strategic decisions are built, enabling the organization to identify potential mid-level donors, tailor their outreach efforts, and ultimately cultivate stronger, more meaningful relationships. Yet mid-level programs face some unique data needs and challenges.

This was the topic of a conversation I recently had with three expert practitioners—Paul Leo from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), Allison Schmidbauer from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and Alan Stininger from Shriners Children’s. Together, we explored how their organizations are leveraging data to create and supercharge their mid-level programs, identified some of the challenges their programs face, and looked at what they are most excited about on the horizon.

Using Data to Build a New Mid-Level Program

In the past year, Alan led an effort at Shriners to build the organization’s first mid-level program, with data as the program’s backbone. “Data did and continues to play a huge part in all our decision-making and how we’re strategically moving the program forward. In creating the program, we did a lot of modeling and looking at our data.” Alan and his team examined donors’ giving histories over a 24-month period as their baseline—a change in definition from their previous 12-month model—identifying who was actively giving at these levels and who had lapsed that they could try to reactivate. Within their models they also developed different grades of “up-and-comers,” those with the highest propensity to upgrade into the mid-level program.

Surveying was another key tool they deployed in constructing the program, through which they uncovered that these donors wanted to engage with them more. “We took that into consideration as we were building out our donor journeys. Now that we have a full year of data, we can start benchmarking our campaigns and some of our different initiatives against the previous year, which is great.”

Iterating Testing to Inform Program Growth

Over at HSUS, Allison recently spearheaded a major revamp to their mid-level program which has helped revitalize a stagnant program and start it growing again. “We homed in on some testing strategies in 2020. They became the impetus for subsequent strategy tests that led to the scope of the program, which then led to an overhaul in 2022. The data used to make the largest change was generated from a test that we conducted over about six months.” Through this testing, they made the strategic decision to add cumulative donors to the program, joining those who make qualifying one-time and sustainer gifts. “With these changes, those cumulative donors have generated 30% more revenue. Moreover, there are 23% more of those donors and they have made 34% more gifts. All around it was a great decision.”

This latest change to the mid-level is just the most recent one Allison has participated in over her eight years at HSUS. Throughout, data has played a key role in their decision making, driving changes in postage, cadence, ask strings, and package design. However, in her earlier years she experienced one of the challenges that emerging mid-level programs often wrestle with. “When I first started, the mid-level program was still quite new. That group of donors was quite a bit smaller than our current file. We’ve always tested in mid-level to a degree, but those quantities were much smaller, so it was harder to get a read on what was needed.” Between drawing lessons from smaller dollar donors to benefiting from the insight of vendor partners to simple trial and error, they eventually identified a clear path forward.

Leveraging Data—and Technology—to Create a Meaningful Donor Experience

At IFCJ, Paul has one of the more unique challenges you will encounter—and one that can be solved with well deployed data and a little technology. “Our donors are very different from any other organization where I’ve worked. They’re really frequent givers, giving 6, 7, 8 times a year as opposed to the usual 2, maybe 3 gifts a year. That creates its own set of challenges, especially trying to figure out when to ask because they’re giving so frequently.” To address this, they use Gravyty, an AI-based platform that combs the donor data and provides daily suggestions of who should be engaged—and even goes so far as to draft a note to send. Of course, this platform works best when there is a program like Paul’s that includes a well-resourced internal team. “We’ve got amazing data which is wonderful. We also have an in-house team of three analysts who built me a suite of Power BI reports on my mid-level program so I can slice and dice this a lot of different ways. It’s really a luxury.”

Paul’s experience at IFCJ should be an object lesson in two ways for organizations as they consider how they want to build and resource their programs. First, through analysis his team was able to demonstrate that donors with positive interactions with the organization are worth more. And second, this has helped drive resources to better retain and engage in ways that feel meaningful to the donor. “Concerning data, we look beyond recency, frequency, and monetary value to indicate the type of interactions and value those that said this is what we need to do. And it works.”

Creating Bespoke Communications for Donors at Scale

Looking to the future, Alan shared one of the efforts at Shriner’s that is in the works, though probably still a year or two away. “We’re really excited about building out an interest library for our donors so we can eventually give them the content they want to receive. It’s a very data-driven effort and we’re beginning with a lot of survey work and response analysis. It’s important to build this out for the future of not only fundraising for mid-level, but for the rest of our programs as well. This goes back to the machine learning discussion. There’s a way to utilize AI where we’re inputting the content or data that we have, and it could help us develop something that is specific to a certain audience.”

Clearly, in a rapidly evolving nonprofit landscape, harnessing the power of data is not just beneficial; it is imperative for creating a mid-level giving program that can thrive and make a lasting impact on the organization’s mission.


Are you interested in more Mid-Level program insights? Join our Mid-Level Giving Group and stay tuned for our upcoming webinar on hot topics from  our second-annual Mid-Level Benchmarking Summit May 6-7, 2024 in Hyattsville, MD. Discover Mid-Level at the DMFA to learn more and ensure you can attend in 2025.