Empathy Mapping: Questions to Help You Love Your Donor


Jeannie loves fresh garden carrots.

She had a huge garden on the farm where she raised her five kids. Her husband Hank told her she grew too many, but never complained when she’d send them in his lunch box. Even if he had, Jeannie wouldn’t have stopped sending them. She liked teasing Hank, even just a little.

It made her feel so alive to grow fresh food, and deeply misses her garden now that she’s living in a retirement condo the city.

Not nearly as much as she misses her dear Hank.

Forty years they were on the farm together. It broke her heart to leave, but not nearly as much as it broke her heart to stay there without Hank. Her children said it gave them peace of mind to have her closer to them, and she did like the thought of being closer to her grandchildren.

Things weren’t always easy, but she never regrets raising her children on the farm. They learned to work hard for everything they had and learned to appreciate good, wholesome food.

All kids should be so lucky.

She knows they aren’t. Even her own grandkids don’t know what it’s like to play in the dirt and grow something fresh. Sure, times have changed, and not many people have gardens in the city. She thinks it’s really too bad that growing your own food has become an old-fashioned concept.

Lots of things seem like they’ve gone out of style. Jeannie remembers fondly baking dozens of pies with her small town church group for the men during harvest. She used to make loaves of sandwiches for the Davis kids – she knew that Roy and Evelyn didn’t have much, but kids should be kids, and kids need good food! She always volunteered at the town hall when there was a funeral, helping to serve coffee and tea to grieving families. A small gesture, she thought, and knew that some day when she needed to feel the kind of comfort, that someone would offer it to her.

They had, and she would never forget the warmth of the small flowered mug she sipped instant coffee from the afternoon they buried Hank.

That’s just the kind of thing you do for people in need, but it doesn’t seem like the thing to do nowadays. Sure, there’s lots of places that help folks in need, but it all felt like it was missing something. It’s not just about handouts. Jeannie doesn’t believe in that. It’s about something more.

The warmth of that mug of coffee. The laughter of the Davis kids nibbling away at the crusts of those sandwiches. The feeling of digging those first autumn carrots. The taste of that first bite, straight from the garden.

Jeannie’s story is pretty simple, but in it are complex details that have created her own unique worldview.

Jeannie is your donor. How well do you know her story? And how do you empathize with her to help connect her to your cause?

Empathy Mapping

You’ve likely heard of donor personas, but perhaps you’re not too sure where to start. Empathy Mapping is a powerful tool you can use to help more deeply explore your donors and find ways to connect with them through your communications.

It’s a simple concept, but takes a lot of empathy muscle (and teamwork) to do it well.

First, gather key people from your team and beyond whose input might be helpful (loaded, I know) – think people from your fundraising team, empathetic leadership, insightful communicators, trusted stakeholders. You don’t need a bazillion people, just a few to ensure that you are asking tough questions of your donor knowledge and assumptions. Come armed with great data and information you’ve already got on hand – any information you may have on donor demographics, past donor testimonials or interviews, web analytics (if it’s applicable), current marketing material (if it’s not crappy), or anything that might be useful to flesh out your empathy map.

Next, get a giant sheet of paper (or whiteboard) and a create a map that looks something like this:


If you happen to have a photo of a real person who looks like “your Jeannie” this is even better. Keep that real person at the centre of things while you collect ideas around the following points:


  • How do they think about their fears and hopes?
  • How do they feel about the work your organisation does?
  • What do they hear when other people talk about your organisation?
  • What do they say or feel about your organisation, whether in private or public?
  • What about your mission? Do these two align?
  • What are their pain points when donating to your organisation? To any organisation?
  • Is this a positive or a painful experience for them?
  • What heartstrings does your organisation pull for them?
  • What does a typical day look like in their world?
  • Do they hear positive feedback about your organisation from external sources?
  • What do they hope to accomplish by donating to your cause?
  • What kind of language does your donor use to talk about the work you do?
  • Etc.

As you are working through these questions with your empathy team, be sure to check each other’s assumptions. Would “Jeannie” really feel like that? Why do we assume that? If we can’t prove it, how could we get closer to the truth?

The point of this exercise is both to get to know your donor better AND challenge your own assumptions about how you should be communicating with them. 

Jeannie, of course, is a very special kind of donor. She’s one I see a lot in my work on the Canadian prairies. Jeannie’s children are also incredibly important. But that’s a story for another time.

Have fun, and keep me posted on how it goes!