Don’t survey your donors unless you have cultivation ready to go

Let’s start at the beginning.

Almost 10 years ago, when MarketSmart was a marketing agency for private sector businesses and I first offered to help a charity generate leads, I recommended an outreach effort that included a mini-survey. It worked! So we expanded it to a more comprehensive donor survey and it worked even better.

The only problem was that the organization didn’t have enough staff to call the highly qualified leads.

I thought that was terrible.

How could you ask people to give up their most prized possession — their time — without delivering any follow-up soon after?

These people were pouring their hearts out in those surveys. They were sharing intimate information about themselves, their passions, their desires, and even their wills and estate plans.

“But we added them to the Legacy Society,” I was told.

I replied, “And the ones that didn’t leave the organization in their wills yet? What about them?”

“Well,” he responded, “I treat ’em like they never happened. Look, I don’t have time to cultivate every lead.”


Hmm. So that meant they were opted-in to a ‘club’ they didn’t ask to join. They were later sent a letter and a pin followed by a subscription to a magazine they did not request. That was it! That was how the supporters were treated.

In return for their ultimate gift ($63,000 average), they were ‘spammed’ with stuff they didn’t necessarily want or they were ignored. Nice job!

So what did I do?

I called the donors who said they already planned a gift and the prospects who said they were interested in doing so.

No, not all of them. There were way too many. After all, we were darn good at generating great leads!

More than a decade has passed.

Now, many years have passed and we have data to reflect upon. Sadly, we have found that surveying donors can actually harm your organization’s relationship with them.

Our research has found that donors who take surveys but do not receive follow-up cultivation proving that you listened to them results in less revenue, not more.

This is probably the exact opposite of what you want.

Don’t let your research team be the tail that wags the dog. Make sure they understand that your supporters are people. They are caring, loving human beings, not germs in petri dishes. If you treat them like germs, you’ll get a disease you don’t want. But if you treat them like human beings, you’ll get engagement and more revenue.

Be very careful with surveys.

Since we started helping our customers send surveys to their supporters, lots of consultants, consulting firms and other types of vendors have begun selling surveys to their customers. All of them claim to be experts. Most don’t work with Dr. Russell James continuously to improve their results. And most don’t really pay much attention to the aftermath they cause.

Sure, the vendors get a sale. But what do you get? Data!

That’s not the right reason to send out a survey. It’s not about collecting data. It’s about building relationships and helping support your supporters (as they make their way through the major gift decision-making process).

In Dr. James’ book titled The Socratic Fundraiser (available here for free) he wrote: “If you don’t care what donors think, don’t ask.”

In other words, if you just want the data so you can gain insights or can engage the low-hanging fruit you find among survey responses (the most qualified leads), then you’re doing fundraising wrong.

We learned this the hard way. Through testing we found that surveying donors without properly developed, highly relevant and personalized (and in our case, automated) cultivation that shows that you truly care about them resulted in LESS revenue and weakened relationships in need of repair.

Donors think of their relationships with charities much differently from how they feel about products or services they buy and use. With charities they feel a deeper familial connection. In fact, they sometimes remove members of their own family from their wills to give their estates to charities. They don’t do that for Microsoft, Apple or Nike.

Therefore, it’s essential that you treat your supporters like family too. That includes the way you treat them after you receive their survey responses.

This leads me back to the title of today’s post: Don’t survey your donors unless you have cultivation ready to go.

Folks… if you don’t have the time to personally and properly cultivate all of the supporters who fill-out your surveys, don’t conduct the survey efforts at all. Heed this warning! If you don’t the consequences could be devastating.

Ignoring these well-meaning supporters can actually be more harmful than not engaging with them at all. Asking people to take time out of their lives (their most valuable asset) to fill-out a survey without consistent follow-up that proves you care is just plain rude. Plus, it’s wasteful and will likely reduce your retention rates and revenues as a whole.

Follow our lead.

At MarketSmart, we now feel so strongly about this that we no longer offer surveys to nonprofits unless they employ our ‘done-for-you,’ turnkey, software and services duo. It’s an automated and highly personalized, highly relevant cultivation system that delivers the right messages to the right donors at the right times. These text-only, one-to-one email messages get ‘spawned’ by your supporters survey answers. Plus we track their follow-up engagements online (their digital body language) as they click on your website. It’s amazing. But, of course I’m biased.

You don’t have to subscribe to it (of course). Instead, you can plan and implement follow-up on your own. Just be sure to have your cultivation ready to go way before you invite your supporters to take your survey. It’s very hard to catch up once your survey responses start coming in.

Last but not least… make sure they opt-in.

Some supporters want cultivation and some don’t. The key is to be responsive to their wishes. Therefore, it’s important that you make the opting-in to your cultivation part of the survey you deploy. Don’t forget that. Without an opt-in tool or question, you’ll fail to accommodate them. Don’t believe for a minute that they won’t remember that!


Related Posts:

>>Why your nonprofit’s donor survey could be causing more harm than good
>>How It Works: Cultivate
>>Podcast Episode: Fundraising Climate Change

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