Empathy Maps: A way to understand your donors and beneficiaries

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empathy maps  a way to understand your donors and beneficiaries
"I'm a confused person" by Carly at http://www.flickr.com/photos/cstnc/4319195477/

Ever wished you could get inside the head of a donor and find out what is really going on in this person’s life? How about a parishioner? Or people you help? Here’s a way to better understand the relationships your ministry has that will help you design more effective strategic plans.

As part of our current strategic review we want to get a better understanding of the people who work at our member ministries. After all, although the organization is the CCCC member, it is the people who work there who we interact with. We’d sure like to understand them better so we can design programs and services that exactly meet their needs.

Empathy Maps

An empathy map is an organized way of learning about another person that you create in a brainstorming session. When completed, you should have a pretty good idea of what it is like to be that person. You know what they think about, what they do, what they see and hear around them, what gives them grief and what gives them joy. You have entered into the life of someone so that you can see your own ministry through their eyes and judge it according to the pressures in their life and their needs and wants. Are you an interruption to them or the source of great relief and joy? An empathy map will help you find out.


You normally create several empathy maps at a time. Think about the people you want to know better. You can likely sort them into several categories, or personas. In the for-profit world, the personas would represent customer segments. You might want to develop personas for your donors – the major donor, the monthly donor, the occasional donor. In a church you might do a single mom, a retired man, a person who has special needs and so on. For our strategic review at CCCC, we have developed eight personas:

  1. A treasurer of a small church
  2. An administrator of a reasonably large church
  3. An executive director of a small foreign mission agency
  4. A president of a large international relief agency
  5. A secretary-treasurer of a denomination’s district office
  6. A church board chair
  7. An agency board chair and
  8. An agency’s fundraiser

We chose these eight because:

  • Two-thirds of our members are churches, and 60% of those are fairly small (less than $300,000 total revenue). The person we most often serve in a small church is a volunteer treasurer, so we will study that person.
  • Large churches (more than $1 million in revenue) are few in number (231 in membership) but tend to be involved in a lot of activities that require more detailed knowledge (foreign activity, liability etc.).  In a large church the paid administrator is usually our primary contact, so that becomes a persona.
  • One-third of our members are agencies and two representative sectors are foreign missions and relief & development. We serve some very large agencies, but half of our agency members are below $700,000 in total revenue. Since their needs are quite different, we made one agency small and the other large.
  • Governance and fundraising are major topics for us.
  • We especially want to be denominationally-friendly and support the work of denominational offices.

It really helps to give the persona a name and a face, and perhaps even to create a ‘back story’ to help you get into the exercise. We did empathy maps at the two strategic planning workshops I’ve previously described for up and coming leaders in BC and Ontario. We found pictures of people representing different demographics and laid them out for the groups to look at. They picked a picture of a person to represent each persona and then came up with a name. This was a lot of fun as people debated which picture and name most suited the position.

For an important update to the design of the Empathy Map, and to download a template, click here.

What you want to know about the persona.

To get inside a persona’s world, think about them in the context in which your ministry will engage them and ask the following questions:

  • What does this person see in this context?
  • What does the person hear?
  • What do they think about and feel emotionally?
  • What do they say and do?
  • What causes them pain?
  • What would they like to gain?
Empathy map example

We put paper up on a wall with a head in the middle and the categories placed around the head. Everyone had Post-it(R) notes with them as they walked around looking at the personas, and when they had an idea for something, they wrote it down and posted it.

Using the output

It is important to understand that the empathy maps may or may not be accurate. First, people in the same type of job may be in very different circumstances. Second, unless the people doing the empathy map are in that persona’s role, they are either guessing or answering based on what they have observed. In both cases, they may not have the complete picture and may be speculating about stereotypes. So you will have to exercise judgment.

Here are some ideas for what to do once you have completed an empathy map:

  • Use the map to develop questions for a survey of the persona’s group. Test to see if the observations are accurate. The map informs you as to what the likely issues and opportunities are. Check it out.
  • Use the map’s output as a lens through which to evaluate your ministry and its services. Is it meeting real core needs or is it missing the mark? Are there gaps in your services that they want filled?
  • Think like the persona and how, playing the role of that person, you would like to be engaged (or not engaged) with your ministry. What strategies and services are likely to reach the persona and get action?

This strategic planning/marketing tool has been around for a while (it was the basis for Lee Strobel’s book, Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary), but it is still a new tool for many people. It will be helpful in at least three areas of your ministry:

  1. Strategic plan
  2. Program design
  3. Fundraising

Thoughts on Empathy Maps: A way to understand your donors and beneficiaries

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