The Ultimate How-to-guide For Conducting Nonprofit Donor Surveys

How to use donor surveys to raise more money at lower costs

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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 clients. During that time we’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. Below you’ll find a table of contents. Click on any of the links to jump to that section of the page. Or, scroll down to begin!

Please enjoy, and please share with anyone who you think might find this information valuable.

Donor surveys: the basics

Charles the Great
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 from.

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:

  • Why are so many men refusing to join the military service to defend the borders of the realm?
  • Why are there so many disputes in the kingdom with one party attempting to take the property of another?
  • Why are people refusing to offer refugees shelter?

Want to learn how MarketSmart can help you create a high performing donor survey?

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The king of the Franks from 768, king of the Lombards from 774, and emperor of the Romans from 800, was ahead of his time! He know that feedback from his constituency would be beneficial in his decision making process. Today we know that feedback helps us in a variety of ways:

  • A captain on a ship uses feedback to alter course;
  • Children in school get feedback in the form of grades;
  • Employees get feedback from peer reviews;
  • Politicians get feedback from constituents;
  • etc, etc.

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 changes we make.

There are three primary methods for collecting feedback that we are most accustomed to:


Image result for poll example

Provide quick insight into one specific question.

Reviews & Ratings

Example review image

Provide feedback on a specific idea, concept, product, or experience.


National Trust for Historic Preservation donor survey

Provide feedback on a specific idea, concept, product, or experience.

Why people respond

Up to now, nothing we’ve shared with you should feel unfamiliar. We’re all accustomed to seeing polls, ratings, and surveys. The question then becomes why do people (and in our case in particular, donors), complete these feedback devices? There are seven primary reasons why people respond:

  1. Because they are interested in the topic
  2. They’re curious about what questions they’ll be asked
  3. They have affection for the company or organization asking the questions
  4. They want to shape the organization to their liking
  5. They want to be heard
  6. They want to reciprocate (especially if they are offered an incentive to participate)
  7. They simply want to be helpful

Why donor surveys are so powerful

Your supporters like surveys, they really, really do. Why? Because they can…

  • Engage, get involved, give feedback, enter into a two-way conversation, feel that their input counts;
  • Tell nonprofit about preferences (time of year to be asked for a gift, what they like/don’t like or want/don’t want);
  • Tell your nonprofit why they care (Charity is a form of extended family. Supporters want to “talk it out” with their favorite charities i.e. – I care because my mother had breast cancer);
  • Tell your nonprofit how they might consider helping the cause (by getting involved, donating jewelry, making a gift in a will, etc.)
Example questions for donor surveys

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, individuals like to share their story. 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 are a variety of benefits your organization can derive from conducting a donor survey. They include:

  1. Raise money (YES! Survey respondents will actually give more)
  2. Find new volunteers, reengage alumni, and re-inspire past donors
  3. Identify your 80/20 and zero-in on your best major or planned gift opportunities by analyzing the key traits of your most profitable donors
  4. Recruit leaders for Board positions
  5. Find new major donors via referrals from passionate supporters
  6. Make your supporters feel valued and appreciated because your organization actually sought their opinion
  7. Get feedback on ideas, initiatives, concepts, or policies
  8. Measure donor satisfaction and interest in particular giving opportunities
  9. Establish benchmarks so you can monitor trends
  10. Clean up your list
  11. Capture demographic information you simply cannot buy

What’s stopping you?

Example questions for donor surveys

There are seven common reasons we see why nonprofits don’t survey their donors.

  1. Don’t know what questions to ask and/or what specific words work best
  2. Don’t know how to design a survey that will get a high completion rate
  3. Don’t have the time
  4. Don’t have the expertise to ensure that your supporters’ feathers won’t get ruffled
  5. Don’t have the technological capabilities
  6. Don’t want other departments to get involved
  7. Don’t want to start office drama/politics

But all of the potential negatives are easily offset by the positive outcomes of surveying. Don’t take our word for it, this is what others are saying:

Surveys can also give you amazingly useful info on why your donors are motivated to give to you

Gail Perry, Fundraising Author, Speaker, and Consultant
Gail Perry

Intelligently crafted donor surveys speak truth to delusions. Donor surveys are the thermometers of fundraising. Surveys can tell us whether donor sentiment is running hot or cold, positive or negative.

Tom Ahern, Fundraising Author, Speaker, and Consultant
Image result for tom ahern

Let’s get to work

By now we’ve 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.

Be strategic

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, 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.

Want to learn how MarketSmart can help you create a high performing donor survey?

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Be donor-centric

Donor centricity expands well beyond the world of surveying, however in the context of a survey, it is of the utmost importance. 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:

  • Limit the number of questions
  • Only ask questions that are absolutely necessary to attain the objective (remember from above, you need to set an objective!);
  • Be honest and up-front. For example: Let your supporters know up-front how long it will take (be realistic);
  • Use simple words and short sentences (avoid jargon and long paragraphs no matter how highly educated you think your audience is);
  • Design it so it’s easy to complete on desktop, mobile or tablet devices and in print;
  • Always use big fonts in dark colors on light backgrounds with easy-to-click buttons;
  • Make sure the flow seems logical;
  • Allow supporters the opportunity to come back to an incomplete survey and complete it at a later time;
  • Put related questions in groups and describe what those groups are;
  • Employ a progress bar so people know how many questions they have answered and how many remain;
  • Avoid “requiring” questions to be answered before continuing unless absolutely necessary;
  • Use mostly closed-ended questions so your donors don’t have to think
    too much. For example: In the case of a hair salon…
good vs bad donor survey question example
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.

Ways to increase your completion rates

  • Tell them why you need their input and explain how your organization will benefit in a way that also benefits the respondent
  • Explain why you selected the respondent to answer the survey
  • Tell them that their opinion matters and could make a difference
  • Start with easy and interesting questions to get them in the
    groove then progress to greater complexity (but never too
  • Use the word “you” to emphasize that you are focused on them
  • Create a sense of urgency by mentioning that you need their response by a specific date
  • For sensitive questions, be sure to explain why you are asking the question and provide options so your supporters don’t feel boxed-in
  • Make sure your survey is branded so your supporters feel that it’s trustworthy and credible. NOTE: Services such as Survey Monkey can’t
    do this and using low-end services will result in drastically reduced completion rates
  • Include your contact information so they can reach out to you directly (phone & email of a real person along with a link to your website)
  • Include your privacy policy (especially as it relates to the information you are collecting)
  • Wait to put any demographic check boxes near the end
  • Employ back-end form filling to get them to hit “submit” (In other words, fill the last page with information you already know about them such as name, address, phone number, email address, etc. Do this so that they don’t have to spend time typing in all of the information you already have/should already know) NOTE: MarketSmart employs this technology for clients
  • Allow them to update their contact information so your follow-up outreach is successful

Before the survey

  • Prepare for the responses
    • Train staff (create cheat sheets for what to say to whom based on the response you might anticipate receiving)
    • Involve departments (let everyone know what’s happening so they aren’t surprised by calls or emails)

After the survey

  • Provide valuable offers to the respondents. Make sure that they are relevant and personalized based on their needs and desires described in their responses (this is done most easily online).
  • For example:
    • Provide opportunities for respondents to sign up for newsletters and/or alerts
    • Help them send a letter to their Congressman
    • Allow them a chance to donate immediately or through their DonorAdvised Funds
    • Offer information (eBooks or downloads) that align with their self-described desires
    • Give them a chance to share their story with you, or spread information about your mission
  • Respond to everyone but prioritize them by first reaching out to the people who seem to have issues or problems that need to be resolved right away
  • Analyze the data to determine whether or not your survey helped you achieve your strategic objectives
  • Determine the next steps!
  • Set meetings with passionate, high- capacity prospects and planned giving leads
  • Steward new Legacy Society members
  • Reach out to referrals

Frequently asked questions

Question 1

What information can major and planned gift fundraisers attain from surveys that cannot be provided inexpensively or at all otherwise?


• Childlessness
• Self-reported age
• Donor Advised Fund ownership
• Complaints/Discrepancies a donor may have with your organization
• Interests, passions, desires
• Updated contact information
• Insights into emotional triggers
• Names of people your supporters might want to memorialize or honor with a gift
• Etc

Question 2

What should be done with the information?


• Update your records! This is the cheapest way to clean up your list
• Engage with your supporters. Show ‘em that you care
• Take note of complaints and deal with problems head-on
• Personalize your future outreach so you show ‘em that you know ‘em
• Spot trends in the results
• Share results with others (possibly to realign budgets in your favor)
• Call them, meet with them, and offer them opportunities to give or get involved

Question 3

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 the nonprofits who are already surveying their interests and desires.

Question 4

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!

Question 5

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).

More on donor surveys

Over the years we’ve accumulated a lot of resources on this topic. See the list below of related readings:

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