Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/June 2017, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

THIS ARTICLE FOCUSES ON MAJOR GIFT STRATEGIES, and is a sequel to an article that I wrote titled “Surveys and Segments: Building Your Major Donor Strategy,” in the Grassroots Fundraising Journal’s January-February 2016 issue. That article was a retrospective on a strategy Inter Pares had undertaken in 2014. In that piece, I described taking our group of 275 major donors and identifying the top 150 donors, then gathering information from that group through a survey, and subsequently creating five segments of our major donors and building strategies for each segment.

This article is a deeper study of our organization’s major gifts program and our use of surveys. We’ll expand on the question, “Why use a donor survey?” Then we can look at the survey Inter Pares designed in 2014, some refinements we’ve made, and what we have learned from surveying by mail, email, phone and in person. Last, we will talk about how we, as grassroots organizations with small fundraising shops, can realistically start to create major gifts strategies that are tailored specifically to the individual people in our major donor group.

Why Surveys?

Three key advantages to implementing a major donor survey are:

  • Surveys are a means for donors to share their intentions for their relationship with your organization. Generally speaking, whether or not a donor takes the time to complete a donor survey is a good indication of their interest in deeper engagement with your group. You may have major donors who prefer to make their gifts and otherwise have no further engagement with your organization. These individuals will likely choose not to fill out your survey, and in many cases they also won’t answer your phone calls or emails. When these patterns emerge, this is a clear indication that this person does not want to be involved beyond donating to your organization, and you can respect their wishes by not engaging them through the major gifts strategy you create.Of the donors that do take the time to fill out and return your survey, there will be some who engage fully in this process, will give you extensive feedback, and are clearly and explicitly holding the door open to deepening their conversation and relationship with you. Others who take the time to fill out the survey may be giving you quite different signals. Some will fill out the survey with the most minimal effort, answering as briefly as possible or not including any comments in your long answer questions. Others will explicitly take the opportunity of the survey to give you the feedback that “I don’t want relationships with the charities that I support.”No matter what signals you receive from the donor, this is all useful information, and can help you build a strategy for engaging with each of these donors in the way that they prefer. One caveat to remember is that just because someone does not fill out the survey does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to engage with your organization. This can be the case when someone who you know is interested in having a relationship with your organization, or who already has a strong relationship with members of your organization, does not respond to your survey. Keep in mind that many people will lose track of the survey or will receive it at a busy time and never get around to filling it out, de-spite possibly having the interest and intention of doing so.
  • A survey is a conversation starter. As soon as you send out your surveys, you are opening the door to having individual conversations with your donors (Awesome! This is what we are supposed to be doing as fundraisers right?). But remember to design your survey questions carefully. If you throw in lots of questions on many different issues, then you need to commit to taking the time to honestly engage in the conversations that are going to ensue.Before you send out your survey, think about what changes you are hoping to implement after you receive responses from your donors. In other words, what aspects of your major gift fundraising strategy are you most interested in re-fining? Are any of the questions you ask outside the scope of donor engagement you are willing to take on? For example, don’t include a question about interest in volunteering with your organization if you have no existing volunteer program and no intentions of setting one up. Don’t waste your donors’ time asking irrelevant questions just for curiosity’s sake, as it can raise donors’ expectations and set them up for disappointment.To help decide what questions to include, it can be helpful to determine what the goals of your survey are. Some possible goals could be:
    • To determine which major donors want to get more involved and deepen their relationship with your organization (e.g., through volunteering, serving on the board, offering their expertise, etc.)
    • To determine which of your major donors are interested in increasing their of donations (or are open to a conversation with you about that)
    • To determine which of your major donors have the greatest affinity for your organization
    • o receive feedback from your major donors on what they think your organization is doing well and what could be improved
    • To find out how your major donors want to keep in touch with you (visits, events, phone calls, email, mail, or not at all)
  • Surveys give you the information that your organization needs in order to build a strategy for your major gifts program. I’m going to expand on this more at the end of this article. But I want to note here that while there is a strong and growing body of writing and training on major gifts fundraising, which can and should inform the approaches you include in your major gifts strategy, it is important to keep in mind that each organization is unique. More than this—remember that every organization’s group of supporters is a unique combination of individual people. And the history with the organization and the type of relationship that your donors have had with your organization, will be different from organization to organization. Because of this, it is important to build your major gifts strategy—of all fundraising strategies, the one that is based most on building relationships one-on-one with individual people—from an understanding of who your organization’s major donors are right now. There is no one-size-fits-all major gifts strategy. There are a variety of approaches and relationship building ideas that you can include, but the strategy of how you apply those ideas will depend on who you have in your group of major donors. So, if you are setting up a major gifts program, or are refining an existing major gifts program, you absolutely need to start with getting to know who your major donors are.

Inter Pares 2014 Major Donor Survey: Questions We Asked Then, Questions We Are Asking Today

Here is the original major donor survey that Inter Pares sent to all of our 150 major donors in May 2014.

While the version of the survey shown above was the version used for all the print and email surveys we sent in 2014, when we did a subsequent round of surveys by phone and in person, we made some adaptations.

One of these adaptations came out of the realization that when talking to major donors who make significant monthly gifts, there was a need to nuance the questions (#8 and #10) about whether the survey respondent would be interested in increasing their gifts. We decided, after some constructive feedback on this question during one of our phone surveys, that we would preface that question with a statement about how much we appreciate the person’s existing support. We also decided to expand on question 10, so if the donor said in person or by phone that they would be interested in discussing a special gift, we would then have three follow-up questions:

We also updated question 12 about other ways of getting involved, changing and expanding that list with some more concrete and interesting (but trying to remain realistic) opportunities to get involved in our work.

Survey Communications Channels: So, Should I Call You?

From May 2014 to date, we have undertaken three different phases of surveys. The largest phase, with the biggest response, came first. In May 2014 we mailed 150 surveys to our major donors and received 80 back over the following three months. In August 2014 we did a follow-up online survey for people who had not completed the mail survey. This time we used a shortened version of the same survey, set up as a form on our website, and we emailed the link to that survey to about 40 people (we did not have email addresses on file for everyone who had not completed the survey at that point). We received about 10 survey responses through this email version, and those responses were all received within about one week.

One and a half years later, in early 2016, we started another phase of following up with people who we had not heard from in the initial surveys. This time we tried surveying by phone and in person. For various reasons, we did this phase at a much slower pace and on a much smaller scale. In all, I did five surveys by phone and five surveys in person in 2016-17.

Comparing the four communications methods for surveys, each have their own particular benefits, and each approach will appeal to different people.

Surveys as a Form of Prospect Research: Mail and Email Advantages of Using Mail:

  • Mail and email are the easiest strategies to send out on a mass scale all at once.
  • Because some people take time and can be more reflective in filling out a paper survey, you can potentially get very detailed and clear responses (and quotable quotes, that you may be able to use, with the donor’s permission, either for sharing with your staff/board team, or in This is the one strategy that you can likely use to reach everyone in your major donor list. You may not have every donor’s email address or phone number on file and you may not be able to meet everyone personally, but you probably have everyone’s mailing address.
  • If you take the time to handwrite names and addresses on the surveys, you can get a high open rate.

Considerations When Using Mail:

  • If it is a large mailing you may receive a large volume of responses, and so you will need to set aside the necessary time for both survey follow up1 and inputting the responses into your database.
  • Because sending a mailing through the postal service can take some time, and paper copies can get buried on someone’s desk, you may be receiving responses over a period of weeks or months.
  • Inputting the survey responses into your database may require some tedious typing of responses or scanning in the paper survey as a PDF.
  • You may not be able to read everyone’s handwriting.

Tip: Make sure you put the donor’s name on the survey before you mail it to them. You don’t want to be stuck with a survey that has been returned by mail, with amazing feedback, but no way of identifying who it is from (this happened to us with two copies of our surveys that were sent back with detailed responses but for which we somehow missed putting the donors names on before mailing).

Advantages of Using Email:

  • People respond to email surveys in a fairly short time window, so you are likely to receive a flurry of responses, and then nothing.
  • It is very easy to import survey responses into your database if you receive them electronically as text.

Considerations When Using Email:

  • Depending on your donor base, not everyone will have an email account, and not everyone will want to share their email address with you.
  • Many people feel they receive too many emails, and may not have time to open your email, or may open it at a busy moment in their day and don’t feel they have time to respond, and then the email soon gets buried in their inbox and forgotten.
  • To do this in a way that is easy for donors to provide information securely and confidentially, you need to be comfortable setting up a webform either through your own website or through a platform like surveymonkey.

Surveys as Cultivation and Direct Relationship Building: Phone and In person Advantages of Phone Surveys:

  • You can do these at your own pace, either spread out over a period of time, or all at once during an intensive period.
  • You receive feedback in real time.

Considerations When Surveying by Phone:

  • Taking the time to do a survey is something that your donors will likely want to plan into their schedule. It is a good idea to set up phone surveys in advance (i.e., arrange a time in advance that is convenient for your donor via email).
  • Some of the questions in your survey may be sensitive (e.g., asking someone if they would consider increasing their support), or may require some reflection. Being at the other end of a phone line means you will not benefit from any visual cues or body language to help understand how the person is reacting to the question. Likewise, the donor you are speaking to will not be able to read your body language if you are trying to nuance how a question is framed.

Advantages of In Person Surveys:

You can do these at your own pace, either spread out over a period of time, or all at once during an intensive period.

  • You receive the feedback in real time.
  • This can work really well as a kind of guided conversation, and usually you will have a bit more time available in person than you would over the phone (since you’ve already taken the time to get together in person, there is less of a rush to wrap up a phone call and move on). Take the time to really explore any of the questions in as much or as little de-tail as your donor wants. If you go on a tangent and depart from the question for a while, don’t worry about it, follow the flow of the conversation.
  • These can work really well in your first meeting with someone, as a way to structure the “getting to know our donors preferences and where their passion for our work is fo-cussed” process of relationship building
  • This can also work well for discussions with donors who you already know well, but you need to tailor the survey for them specifically, and ask them questions that would not have not come up in your previous conversations. For example, if you are doing a survey in person with a donor who you know well and have spoken with and/or met in person many times before, you don’t want to ask the introductory generic questions that you already know the answer to. But maybe you want to ask some questions about whether they are interested in engaging more deeply. These kinds of questions could include:
      • In addition to the ways you already support our work, are there other ways you would be interested in getting involved?
      • Would you be open to discussing a gift for a specific new initiative?
      • If so, how often would you be open to having that kind of discussion?

Considerations for In Person Surveys:

  • If you haven’t told the donor you are planning to conduct a survey with them in advance of your meeting, you often don’t know where the conversation in a donor visit will lead. You also don’t know how much time you have with the donor, and it can be difficult in the flow of your conversation to segue into, “So I brought along this survey, do you mind if we fill it out together?” In these kinds of situations, if I really want the donor’s feedback through the survey, I have either left a print copy of the survey with them at the end of the visit, or have mailed/emailed them a copy of the survey as follow-up after the meeting.
  • If you want to do a large number of surveys at once, trying to do them all in person is not the way to go. This approach is time-consuming, but it is time very well spent.
  • Keep in mind that for surveying in person, you also need to take the time to write down your donor’s responses. Capturing responses in adequate detail and asking all the questions can be a bit exhausting. All the more reason to take your time, as long as the donor is not pressed for time during the visit.

Tip: A quick note on data collection: For survey questions with multiple choice responses, we set up new attributes in our database for those questions so we could create queries based on responses to particular questions.

This Is Just for You: Individualized Major Donor Strategies in Small Shop Fundraising?

Ultimately what you are doing with your surveys is gathering information from individual major donors who are sharing their interests, preferences and intentions with you. In my 2016 Journal article, “Surveys and Segments: Building Your Major Donor Strategy,” I discuss in detail how you can use the information you gather in your surveys to group people into segments based on the kind of relationship they want to have with your organization. It may be that segmenting your major donors is more of a conceptualizing tool, rather than a practical basis for your strategy.

In other words, you may find it useful to look at your major donors in three ways:

  1. Zoomed in all the way, which would be looking at each individual donor.
  2. Zoomed out partially, looking at one of your segments, which could be a subgroup of 15-30 people or one-third to one-eighth of your total major donor group depending on how you create your segments.
  3. Zoomed out all the way, which is looking at your entire major donor group as a whole..

There are particular strategies that make sense to apply to your entire major donor group. For example, by making it standard practice to phone each of your major donors at least once a year, or being sure to send a handwritten card or thank you phone call each time one of your major donors makes a gift. It can also be useful to apply strategies to just one segment of your major do-nors, because a strategy for a subgroup of 15-30 people is much more manageable than a strategy you apply to 150 people.

However, moving beyond strategies for segments of your major donor group, I want to move on now to something that we really need to be talking about: one-to-one strategies for your major donors. And I don’t just mean one-to-one one-time activities. I mean crafting ongoing strategies specific to one individual at a time in your major donor group. Before you stop reading, throw this article in the air and say, “Come on now, do you honestly think we have the time to build a strategy for one single person? Don’t you know how much else we have going on in our workday?!” Please, bear with me on this…

It is vitally important to begin working on what your ongoing strategy is for individual major donors. You will need to decide, based on your capacity, how many of your donors this will be feasible for. But I suggest you do take the time to identify, at a minimum, the three to five donors at the very top of your major donor group (the donors who have made the largest gifts in the past three years), and ensure you are doing an excellent job of keeping in touch with them on a regular basis. The number of major donors for whom you have the time to build and track individual outreach strategies is up to you. It needs to be based on a realistic understanding of your own capacity and time.

For several of Inter Pares’ top 10 donors, when I look in their donor record, I can see the number of interactions we have had with them in the past 12 months and for at least three of them, over the course of a year our outreach totals over 10-15 interactions by email, phone and in person. On the flip side, before we had systematically identified who our top 10 donors were, there were several of them who we had not kept in close contact with at all. We are trying to change this now.

Being realistic about the time you have available to work on your major donor program is also a process of recognizing that you will not have time to have ongoing one-to-one outreach through the year every year with everyone in your major donor group. If you accept this fact, which I think is healthy to do, then the next healthy step can be to analyze your major donor group and identify your top few donors who you absolutely must con-tinue to keep in good contact with, no matter how busy you get.

For Inter Pares, our top 20 individual major donors collectively donated a total of 10 percent of our overall revenue in 2016. The depth of their commitment to our organization requires us to have a fundraising program that is organized enough to ensure their support is stewarded with great care and attention. If you are engaging major donors who want to support your organization, and are building mutually meaningful relationships with them, then this will be a natural and ongoing process. Eventually, it won’t feel like “work” or another task on your overwhelming to-do list. ■

Jack Hui Litster works at Inter Pares, a nonprofit based in Ottawa, Canada, working on international social justice issues. The Inter Pares staff is made up of 15 co-managers and functions as a collective. All staff earn the same base salary, have an equal voice in decision making and an equal responsibility for managing the organization. Jack’s fundraising responsibilities include Inter Pares’ major gifts program, planned giving and foundation grantseeking. www.interpares.ca