Welcome! You’re about to learn A LOT about donor surveys. At MarketSmart, we’ve spent the past 10 years conducting donor surveys for our hundreds of clients. During that time we’ve figured out what donor survey questions work and which don’t.
Below, you’ll find a table of contents. Whether you’re here to learn about a planned giving survey, an alumni engagement survey, or any type of donor survey in between, you’ve come to the right place. Click on any of the links below to jump to that section of the guide. Or, scroll down to begin!
If you Google search “big data,” you’ll find nearly seven billion results. When it comes to “hot topics” in our industry, none may be more in the spotlight than data (okay, maybe artificial intelligence, or machine learning, but they’re all eerily similar).
Why is “big data” important? There are myriad articles that explain that.Instead, I’d like to reference a quote from the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis: “People … operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent that you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage.”
To put it bluntly, the organizations that are more able to leverage data in their decision making will survive (and thrive) better than their peers. In our sector, our focus is on relationship building. I don’t think anyone disagrees that relationships are the premise for all fundraising; however, data and relationship building don’t appear (on the surface) to go hand-in-hand.
This is why we conduct donor surveys.
Data comes in many different forms. You might not know it, but Amazon offers a service (the AWS Data Exchange), where you can subscribe to data from a vast array of suppliers for a small fee. If you want data, you can have data.
Yet, as with all things in life, the path of least resistance is generally not going to yield the most optimal result. The same holds true here. You may spend a few thousand dollars purchasing wealth data for your prospect list, but are you really any closer to knowing why that individual cares about your organization, or which aspect of your mission they’re most aligned with? Not quite.
This, in the traditional fundraising workflow, is where donor discovery comes into play. As a fundraiser, it is your responsibility to connect with this prospect and learn more about their interests, values, and unique connection to your organization. Then, of course, you need to solicit a gift.
Data-driven decision making, right?
Sort of. With wealth data in hand, we only have a partial portrait of our prospect. This is where surveying your donors can be powerful.
What if you knew the influential person that brought this prospect to your organization in the first place? Better yet, what if you knew which specific programs meant most to them? Or, best of all, what if you knew their likelihood to meet with you right now?
Would this data be compelling?
Of course it would, and it’s all achievable thanks to donor surveys.
It all started with Charles the Great in 800 A.D.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of conducting your own donor survey at your organization, it’s important to understand where surveys originated.
Charles the Great supposedly conducted the first survey around 800 A.D. in Western Europe. Here are some of the questions the king sought to understand:
Charles the Great had burning questions, and he needed answers. His 800 A.D. survey was ahead of his time! With the feedback of his constituency, the king knew he could be more informed in his decision-making process.
Today, we know that feedback helps us in a variety of ways:
Why do we gather this feedback? So that we can adjust and do better. The premise behind surveying is to learn more about something from someone and then use that information to influence the changes we make.
There are three primary methods for collecting feedback that we are most accustomed to:
Obviously, our focus is on surveying to collect feedback, and when it comes to designing a survey you have many considerations to keep in mind. Donor surveys that are too long will yield poor responses. Donor surveys that are all about “me” and not about “you” (the recipient) will foster few meaningful replies. Surveys that have leading questions will skew results. Who knew creating a donor survey was so complicated?
At MarketSmart, we’ve been privileged to conduct hundreds of donor surveys over the years, and we’ve found that a few questions make it into nearly every survey we conduct. Those are:
There are a few more that we typically include; however, these three cover your bases in terms of learning about a donor’s interests and values, as well as where your organization ranks relative to the other charities they support.
No matter how many “good” survey questions you have, an entire donor survey can be made obsolete by including one “bad” question. When it comes to conducting a donor survey, whether it be for planned giving, alumni engagement, or anything in between, there are a few core tenets you should keep in mind:
To this point, we’ve covered why you should survey your donors (#bigdata), questions you should be asking, and questions (and techniques) you should avoid. Now, let’s get specific.
Let’s say you want to conduct a planned giving survey. What does that look like?
First, you need to ask yourself “why?” Actually, if you’re up for it, you should ask “why” five times. More on that here.
If your answer is, “to get information about our constituents’ estate plans,” then you need to take a step back. For years, gift planning professionals have been frustrated by low planned giving survey response rates. Unbeknownst to them, the reason was right in front of them: the survey is designed to learn about constituents’ estate plans and not too much else!
If you answer the “why” question and said something along the lines of, “to help our constituents think about their legacy with our organization,” then we’re on to something! Remember, surveys, especially planned giving surveys (as our friend Dr. Russell James has taught us), need to be about the donor, and their life story, not about you and your need to know about their estate plans. It’s a tough pill to swallow. However, it’s well worth it, I promise. The results prove it.
Next, when it comes to planned giving surveys, you need to be cognizant of our subject matter (i.e. death). James’ research tells us that individuals do not like to think about their own demise. With that in mind, there are a few tactics we can employ to help the survey respondent “ease into” questions about their estate. First and foremost, you should use the beginning of the survey to help your respondents think about their connection with your organization. Questions like, “Do you believe in our mission?” and, “How do you engage with us?” are great “warm-up” questions.
After a series of questions that allow the donor to reflect on their relationship with your organization, you can then begin to ask “your” questions. For example, for many of our clients, we include questions like, “Many people like to include charitable gifts in their will to support important causes in their life. Would you consider making such a gift to ______ to benefit future generations?”
Answers should range from: “I have already included ______ in my will, trust, or beneficiary designation,” to “I am not interested in this type of gift.”
As responses to this survey come in, it’s easy to focus all your attention on those who inform you they have made a legacy gift to your organization. That is where your immediate attention should go. However, keep in mind everyone else still needs to be acknowledged and cultivated after they respond, even those who show no or deferred interest in a planned gift. Completing a survey, a planned giving one at that, is not an easy task, and it’s incumbent upon your organization to have a cultivation plan in place for when responses start to roll in.
Unlike pure “gift planning surveys,” blended giving surveys typically require approval and sign off from both legacy and major gift departments within an organization. Whereas a legacy giving survey focuses on learning only about individual’s estate plans, a blended giving survey takes a wider approach to learn about estate plans as well as current giving vehicles (think donor-advised funds, qualified charitable distributions, supporting a campaign, meeting with a gift officer, etc.)
In practice, we recommend our clients take a blended approach to their surveys. Remember, the reason we survey is not to get estate planning and gift-giving information. Rather, it’s to provide the respondent with an opportunity to self-actualize with our organization. However, since we have their attention (i.e. they are responding to the survey), we might as well learn more about their comprehensive giving.
We recommend including a question such as, “Would you consider furthering our work in any of the following ways?” Then, follow that up with a Likert scale with multiple giving options.
Up to now, nothing we’ve shared with you should feel too unfamiliar. We’re all accustomed to seeing polls, ratings, and surveys. The question then becomes why do people (and in our case, our supporters), complete these feedback devices? There are seven primary reasons why people respond:
If you’re concerned that you will design a great survey but no one will answer it, our recommendation would be “don’t be!” It may sound cliche, but the proof is in the data. After conducting hundreds of surveys for organizations of all sizes, scopes, and mission alignments, we see time and time again that supporters will respond.
The exception to this rule is if your supporters have been overwhelmed with communications and solicitations. If your “list” has been mistreated over the years, don’t expect a high response rate. Building trust and rapport with your constituents takes time (they’re real human beings on the other end of those emails and direct mail pieces). If that trust has been lost, response rates for your donor survey may be low.
Your supporters like surveys; they really, really do. Why? Because they can…
Over the past ten years, we’ve had the privilege of surveying tens of millions of individuals at MarketSmart. Our average response rate? 5%. Surveys work because individuals like to share their stories. You know the old saying, if you ask for money, you’ll get advice; if you ask for advice, you’ll get money. It’s really the truth.
There is a variety of benefits your organization can derive from conducting a donor survey. They include:
There are seven common reasons we see why nonprofits don’t survey their donors:
But all of the potential negatives are easily offset by the positive outcomes of surveying. Don’t take our word for it though. This is what others are saying:
By now, we’ve hopefully convinced you that surveying your donors is worthwhile, right? So what’s next? If you’re going to go for a survey effort, there are a few things you should keep in mind to get the most out of it.
Donor surveys work best when you have an end goal in mind, and no, that end goal can’t be to solicit a respondent after they’ve completed the survey. Instead, think about why you want to conduct the survey. What are you hoping to accomplish?
Who are the stakeholders? What will you do with the information? Who are you going to be surveying: all donors in your database or a select segment?
The more you consider these questions, the better off you are. Your survey will feel more complete, coherent, and connected if you address the points above.
Donor centricity expands well beyond the world of surveying, but it is of the utmost importance in the context of a donor survey. When an organization acts in a donor-centric way, they put trust-building with the individual above all else. There are a few ways you can accomplish that in your donor survey:
NOTE: You may use open boxes for elaboration but do so sparingly since long-form answers require more thought, energy and time..
These are just a handful of tactics you can (and absolutely should) employ in your donor survey. There are more, but foundationally, these are the ones you should aspire to include.
There are several tactics for increasing survey completion rates. After all, you need this input to improve your nonprofit. For example, try the following:
Hopefully you did not survey your donors just for your benefit. If you did, then you might have done more harm than good. A survey should rarely only be used for ‘research.’ Rather, it should be used to help bring you and your supporters closer together. Therefore, make sure you have a plan to follow-up with your supporters politely and persistently (also known as cultivation) with highly personalized and relevant communications based on what you gleaned from the survey.
If you fail to do that, you might make them angry because you took their time without providing anything in return. Never forget, time is your donors’ most valuable asset. If you waste their time, you’ll upset them. You can learn more on this topic here.
What information can major and planned gift fundraisers attain from surveys that cannot be provided inexpensively or at all otherwise?
What should be done with the information?
Although this was written above, it bears repeating.
First and foremost, you should never survey your donors without a plan to follow-up with them (also known as cultivation).
At MarketSmart, our research has found that it is quite counterproductive to survey your donors without showing them (later) that you used the information to provide them with a better donor experience.
In other words, if you survey them but fail to cultivate the relationships properly, you’ll only end up making them angry. That’s because time is your donors’ most valuable asset. Waste their time and you’ll upset them. So, make sure you have a cultivation plan in place before you even consider surveying your donors. More can be found on this topic here.
Otherwise, here are some other less important actions you might consider taking once you capture information from your supporters.
What if we are concerned that we won’t get enough responses?
Don’t worry… you will! In fact, your supporters are wondering right now why you haven’t asked for their opinions. And, they are giving more to nonprofits who are already surveying their interests and desires.
What if we are concerned that we’ll get too many responses?
This is certainly a good problem to have and one that our clients experience frequently. Don’t be concerned about too many responses. It’s never a bad thing. Just make sure you are well organized, and your methods for tracking data are efficient. Contact us and we will show you our automated cultivation system!
How often should we survey?
You should survey your donors at least every 12 months (yearly). However, you can continue to reach out to non-responders several times a year (people get really busy and intend to take the survey later but forget).
Over the years, we’ve accumulated a lot of resources on this topic. See the list below of related readings: