Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/June 2013, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
HAVE YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF GETTING READY to organize an individual donor campaign and realized that you had too little information about your donors to determine how to approach them or who should approach them? Or you wanted to find ways to better engage your organization’s donors but had no idea where to start? Or you recently took the time to analyze your data and discovered that your donor retention rate was far below the industry standard of 65 percent? Although a donor survey will not completely solve all of these problems, it can be an extremely useful tool for learning more about your donors to inform your strategies going forward.
There are many reasons to survey your organization’s supporters including: to get a general sense of how your donors feel about your work; to learn more about who your donors are; to inform the feasibility of a large capital campaign; and more. This article focuses on using donor surveys to help you develop stronger relationships with your donors, to better understand how they want to be engaged, and to fine tune your communication with them.
Surveying your donors can be a great way to learn some quick, but important information about who they are, what is important to them, and whether there is potential for increased participation in the organization or higher levels of giving. It can help you figure out which of your donors to prioritize for in-person meetings and solicitations, who might have the potential to get more involved as a volunteer (or even a board member), and what is the best method of communication to reach them. It can also provide you with critical feedback on how donors experience your fundraising efforts and activities, and even turn a disgruntled former donor into one of your biggest supporters.
Before embarking on this path of surveying your donors, you need to clarify why you are doing it. You also need to assess what your donors’ opinions, reactions and feelings mean to you, and what your capacity is to respond to the feedback you get from them. If you find that some of your donors are upset because they are not thrilled with the new direction your organization has taken, they had a bad experience with a volunteer who called to ask them to renew their gift or they think you are asking for money too often, will you be able to address their concerns and keep track of each donor’s preferences? Of course, just because a donor is unhappy with some aspect of your work doesn’t mean you have to make a change. But if a significant number of donors share a similar criticism or question, that can be important feedback for you that might have implications for your programmatic priorities, your donor communication methods, and/or the extent to which your donor base is (or is not) made up of your key constituencies.
You might start by asking yourself the following question: Are your donors a part of your organization’s constituency that is important to you beyond the money they contribute? For example, are they also sometimes your volunteers, members, leaders, and allies? Do you take into account what they think about your programs, priorities and direction your organization is moving in? If in your heart you really want your donors to cheer you on from the sidelines as they open up their wallets at the end of the year, then asking them for their opinions, preferences and feedback may not make sense.
If, however, you know your donors are more than sources of funds, but also a group of people who have the potential to be an integral part of what makes your organization successful in achieving its mission, conducting a donor survey might be a great way to begin building closer ties to them.
Since you can’t learn everything you might want to know about your donors from a written survey, focus on the key pieces of information you want to learn that will actually be useful in the near future. Only ask for information that you have the capacity to track in your database, meaning you have staff members or volunteers who can commit the time to entering all of the responses into the database. Also only ask questions to which you have the capacity to respond. For example, the ACLU’s donor survey (downloadable from grassroots fundraising. org/surveys) starts with a multiple choice question asking which areas of the organization’s work the donor is most interested in. This question only makes sense if the organization is then able to tailor its communication with donors to focus on each donor’s primary interest areas.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice found that the question of how the organization ranked in the donor’s giving priorities was extremely helpful in identifying the most committed donors, and as a result, they were able to personalize their approach to them accordingly. (See Martha Farmelo’s article, “Getting to Know Your Donors: Th Donor Survey, GFJ, Vol. 20, #1).
- Preferred means of communication: e.g., phone, email, text message, mail.
- Preferred method of receiving updates about the work: e.g., print newsletter, email newsletter, Facebook or Twitter posts.
- Information about who they are, including demographic information (e.g., age, race, gender), and their relationship to your organization (former board or staff member, parent or other relative of a program participant, etc.).
- How important your group is to them? Ask them to rate you compared to other groups they support.
- What they think of your organization’s effectiveness.
- Whether they would consider becoming more involved in your organization.
- Whether you can publicly thank them/list them in your newsletter, annual report, and/or website.
- How they first learned about your group and/or who they know in the organization.
- Whether they would like to learn more about making a legacy/planned gift
A written survey can only provide so much information. Sometimes interviews or focus groups may be a better choice or an additional way to get input from your donors. According to William Vesneski and Nancy Adess (“What do They Really Think? Creating and Analyzing Surveys” GFJ Vol. 23, #5),
“Interviews and focus groups are more appropriate when you have the following goals:
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- You are seeking to understand a range of ideas, attitudes, and feelings held by your stakeholders
- You are trying to understand different perspectives among groups or categories of people
- The purpose of your work is to uncover factors that influence opinions, behavior, or motivation
- You want to pilot-test ideas, materials, plans, or policies
- The audience for your research places high value on capturing stories and/or anecdotes.”
And don’t forget that meeting with your donors, whether in the context of asking them for support or building the relationship, is an important way to gather information about their interests, concerns, and preferences as well. Pay attention to what they tell you in the course of the meeting, and make sure the notes in your database reflect anything they say that you would want to remember for future communications.
Consider the following as you get ready to write your survey questions (and for more detailed information on creating useful surveys, see “What do They Really Think? Creating and Analyzing Surveys” by William Vesneski & Nancy Adess, GFJ Vol. 23, #5).
Closed-ended versus open-ended questions. A closed-ended question would be one in which a yes or no or multiple-choice response is required. An open-ended question would be one in which the respondent expresses an opinion or point of view. An example of an open-ended question is, “What do you wish our organization did differently?” Ideally, you want your survey to include some of each question type.
Anonymity. Do you want the survey respondents to be anonymous? If you are asking questions that donors may be reluctant to answer completely honestly, especially if the feedback is critical or negative, consider using an anonymous survey. Surveys for feasibility studies for capital campaigns are typically anonymous to make sure that you are getting a truly accurate sense of how much support there is among your donors for a large fundraising project. However, if you are using the survey to learn more about your donors so you can accommodate their individual preferences and determine their potential for greater support or engagement with the organization, you will want to know the identities of the respondents.
Increasing response rates. In order to get the greatest response rate you can, consider creating incentives to encourage people to take the time to fill out your survey. Response rates to surveys can range from 15 to 50 percent (a wide margin). Ways to increase response rates include sending out the request multiple times, offering something to those who do respond (e.g., a discounted ticket to your next event, a chance to win a prize, or a copy of a recent publication), and making follow up calls to remind recipients to fill out and return the survey.
Most surveys are now done online, and the software that exists for them is often either free or very affordable (like SurveyMonkey, Lime Survey, etc.). Another advantage of online surveys is that they can aggregate and sort the data for you, and you can import the responses directly into a database. Keep in mind that you may have some donors who do not spend much time online or prefer to fill out a paper survey, so you should make that option available to them.
Taking the First Step
Donor surveys are a wonderful tool—underutilized by most grassroots organizations—for getting to know more about your donors. If you are not sure about your capacity to respond to the information you generate from a survey, start with a shorter survey and choose the questions carefully. Include the three top things you would like to know, and consider a longer survey as your capacity increases. The more you get to know your donors, the more enjoyable your interactions with them will be, and the better you, and they, will feel about asking for their continued support.