How to build deeper connections with your donors using surveys

Socratic fundraising asks questions. It’s easy to think of this as face-to-face, one-on-one conversations. But sometimes that isn’t feasible. The right personnel aren’t available. Or their time is too expensive for the gift size. Or donors don’t want to meet. Or there are too many donors to meet. Or they’re too far away.

Socratic fundraising can still work. It’s still possible to ask questions. Questions can arise in

  • Donor telephone conversations (one-on-one but not face-to-face)
  • Donor focus groups (face-to-face but not one-on-one), or
  • Donor surveys (neither one-on-one nor face-to-face).

Universal steps

In all these formats, the steps are similar. The universal steps for a compelling donor experience are:

  • Socratic fundraising guides the donor through these steps.[1] First, the fundraiser must have a valid reason to ask questions. This then permits questions that:
    • Connect the donor’s identity (history, people, and values) with the cause, the charity, or the project [Original Identity → Challenge]
    • Define a personally meaningful victory [Victory → Enhanced Identity], and
    • Make a challenge that promises the victory [Challenge → Victory].

Justify asking questions

Questions can work. But questions won’t work if people won’t answer. The donor must

  • Return the survey
  • Attend the focus group, or
  • Continue the phone conversation.

So, we need to justify asking the questions. Reasons can include,

  • “I need your help or advice.” This might be because
    • “I’m new here.”
    • “We have a problem.”
    • “We have an idea.”
    • “You’re in charge.”
    • “You’re important.”
  • The reverse is “I can help or advise you.”
  • Another is “I’m interested in your story.”

Legitimate reasons

If you don’t care what donors think, don’t ask. It’s important to have a legitimate reason to ask.[2] It’s also important that reasons appear legitimate. So, beware of adding a donation request to a survey.[3] This can appear as,

“We need your advice … Oh, but now that you’re giving advice, we actually want your money.”

Donors can feel, “You didn’t care what I thought. You just wanted fast cash.”

Also, never ask a question with a forced answer. For example, don’t ask, “Should we continue our award-winning work that is transforming the lives of so many in desperate need?”

This might sound great to charity insiders. But it de-legitimizes the questions. Donors can feel, “You didn’t care what I thought. You just wanted to brag.”

Effective questions must be – and appear – legitimate.

Connect with original identity

Questions can connect the donor’s identity with the cause, the charity, or the project. This can start even before the first question. The reason for asking the questions can be because of the donor’s identity.[4] For example,

“Your insight is especially important because we need input from …”

  • Women
  • Baby boomers
  • Loyal donors
  • Alumni from the 80s
  • Those who have supported us in the past, but not in the last year
  • People who care about _______ [insert specific aspect of the charity]

The questions themselves then further connect with the donor’s identity. This means connecting with the donor’s

  • Values
  • People, or
  • Life story.

What does this look like? What are some actual questions? It depends on the cause. Let’s look at some examples for an environmental charity.

Values identity questions: Examples

Here is an example of questions asking about donors’ values.

Please rate the importance to you of the following:

[Values options (row headings)]

Being a good example for the next generation.

Making a lasting impact in the world.

Ensuring that your values will be remembered by future generations.

[Response options (column headings)]

__ Highly important

__ Somewhat important

__ Slightly important

__ Not important

Values identity questions: Comments

Environmental causes improve the future of the planet. These questions ask about related values. They elicit connections with these values.

Do such reminders work? One experiment tested this. Some people wrote a short essay. Others didn’t. The essay was on what they wanted to be remembered for by future generations.[5] Writing about this increased donations to an environmental charity by 45%.[6]

Of course, other causes may focus on other values. In experiments, reminders of values such as love[7] or religious beliefs[8] also increase donations. Use the values relevant for your cause.

Sometimes, these values responses can be surprising. One charity focused on women’s reproductive rights in the developing world. Leaders assumed the key value was women’s rights. Survey results revealed something else. Many donors cared only about population control.

Life story identity questions: Examples

Here is an example of questions asking about donors’ life story connections.

At what age did you first begin to think about the importance of conserving the natural environment?

__ In childhood

__ In high school

__ In my 20s

__ In my 30s or later


Which of the following have been important in your life? (Check any that apply.)

__ Time I have spent outdoors

__ Time I have spent on a river

__ Time I have spent in a forest

__ Time I have spent on a lake

__ My life experiences with wildlife

__ My life experiences with wild birds

__ My life experiences with trees and plants


When did you first learn about [this charity]?[9]

__ Within the last year

__ Within the last five years

__ Within the last ten years

__ More than ten years ago

Life story identity questions: Comments

These questions ask about the donor’s life story. They connect it with the cause or the charity. This encourages support. One experiment used the first two sets of questions.[10] These questions worked. They increased donation likelihood for an environmental charity.

These life story questions worked for current gifts. But they were the most effective for bequest gifts.[11] Other research matches this. Donors report that life story connections are key for charitable bequests.[12] Neuroimaging shows such decisions engage “visualized autobiography” brain regions.[13] As this visualization increases, so does interest in a bequest. One study tested phrases to describe a charitable bequest gift.[14] The best added, “to support causes that have been important in your life.” Life story references are powerful for bequest gifts.

These questions can help in other ways. They’re a great starting point for conversations. (“Tell me more …”) They can also reveal key messages. For example, donations were most likely for those noting “life experiences with wild birds.” They were least likely for those referencing time “spent on a lake.”  Such details might inform project or image choices for fundraising messages.

People identity questions: Examples

Here is an example of questions asking about donors’ people connections.

Do you have more or less than two family members who consider conserving the natural environment to be important?

__ About 2

__ More than 2

__ Less than 2

Were there any family members in your life who were particularly influential in shaping your views on the importance of nature conservation? (Check any that apply.)

__ Grandmother __Grandfather __ Aunt __Uncle __Mother __Father __Sibling __Other family member


We love to recognize our outstanding team members at [this charity]! Please share any memorable experiences you’ve had with anyone you’ve met at [this charity]. Comments:

People identity questions: Comments

The first two questions ask about family member connections. This can help link the donor’s identity with the cause. This also sets up a later question. It asks about a gift in a will honoring a family member.

The third question recalls experiences with people at the charity. For different charities, these will be different people. At universities, these might be professors. At hospitals, these might be doctors or nurses. Answers to “people” questions also make great conversation starters. (“Tell me more …”)

The questions often omit strong negative answers. This is intentional. The goal is to connect donors to the cause. If some connection is absent, we don’t want them to focus on that. We don’t want them to commit to a strong negative answer.

One approach is to group everything negative into a moderate response. Thus, the most negative answer might be “probably not” or “unlikely.” This leaves out “definitely not” or “never.” In the first question, the lowest group is “less than 2.” This omits the “none” response.

A prior question used a similar grouping strategy. It asked, “When did you first learn about [this charity]?” Answer options included within the last year, five years, and ten years. Notice, these aren’t exclusive categories. A date within the last year is also within the last ten years. Uncertainty nudges towards the safer answer. The safer answer reports a longer connection range. This can make the relationship time feel longer.  It strengthens the identity connection.

Victory questions: Examples

Here is an example of questions asking donors to define their victory.

On a scale from 0 = Absolutely no importance to 100 = Absolutely the greatest importance, please rate the importance of the work of [this charity] in the following areas

___ Environmental conservation

___ Preserve wetlands for wild ducks and other migrating birds

___ Protect and restore ancient sequoia and redwood forests in the U.S.

___ Protect sensitive coral reefs around the globe

Victory questions: Comments

The next step is to help the donor define a personally meaningful victory. One way to do this is with a “victory menu.” The menu lists different projects or impact areas. Donors rate the importance of each. This reveals which is most meaningful to the donor. It helps the donor define his ideal victory. This encourages giving.

One experiment tested this for ten charities from five causes.[15]  Each cause included a charity with three projects. The average likelihood of giving for each charity was

  • 14% when reading about causes
  • 15% when reading about causes and projects
  • 19% when rating the importance of causes
  • 21% when rating the importance of causes and projects

This test included the questions from the previous example. These worked for environmental charities. For The Nature Conservancy, donation likelihood was

  • 11% when reading about causes
  • 12% when reading about causes and projects
  • 15% when rating causes
  • 18% when rating causes and projects

The questions also worked for World Wildlife Fund. Giving likelihood was 13% when reading about causes or causes and projects. It was 16% when rating causes. It was 19% when rating causes and projects.[16]

Another experiment explored how to get the “rich and powerful” to give.[17]  Alumni mailings went to two groups. One had response cards with this statement [where “X” was a checked box symbol]:

“Annual alumni giving through the Penn Fund directly supports these priorities of undergraduate education.

X Student financial aid

X Student and academic life

X Residential life

X Special campus initiatives”

The other’s response cards instead asked a question. They removed the checks from the boxes and added,

“Tell us which is most important to you.

(Please check one box)”

The “rich” were those from the wealthiest census tracts. Among the “rich” sending a gift, the average size was $192 for the first response card. It was $463 for the second. The “powerful” were those listed as being on a firm’s board of directors. Among the “powerful” sending a gift, the average size was $158 for the first response card. It was $714 for the second.[18]

Asking for opinions in other ways can also work. For example, giving people the chance to vote on a project works. In experiments, this increases subsequent volunteering[19] and donations.[20]

In fundraising, “victory” is about the impact of a gift. Describing a potential victory as important can help. But asking works better than telling. By answering, the donor can personally commit to the importance of the victory. The donor can take ownership. This can turn a victory into the donor’s victory. It can help connect the victory with the donor’s identity.

Challenge questions: Theory

In Socratic fundraising, the final step is making the ask. This is the challenge that promises a victory.[21] [Challenge → Victory]. But there’s a problem. A survey isn’t going to ask for an immediate donation. (Doing this can de-legitimize the questions.)

The immediate goal isn’t to get the donor to make a gift. But it’s related. The goal is to get the donor to predict a gift. A prediction is still just an opinion. The question is still in the realm of opinion gathering. But asking for a prediction is surprisingly powerful.

Academic research calls it the “Question-Behavior Effect” (QBE). The idea is this: Suppose we ask a person to do some pro-social act. It might be donating, volunteering, giving blood, voting, recycling, etc. That decision requires a tradeoff.

  • Paying the cost gets positive identity effects. (It affirms, “I am the type of person who gives, volunteers, recycles, etc.”)
  • Avoiding the cost gets negative identity effects. (It suggests, “I am not that type of person.”)

Now suppose instead we ask a person to predict if they will act. Predicting the behavior also has positive identity effects. (It affirms, “I am the type of person who gives, volunteers, recycles, etc.”) But a prediction is free. It’s not a contract. It requires no effort. There’s no cost.

What happens? People are less likely to act pro-socially than to predict they will act pro-socially. That’s no surprise. The surprise is this: Once people predict they will act, they then change their future behavior. They change it to match their prediction. The result? Asking for the prediction first increases pro-social behavior. In experiments, this works with

  • Blood donations[22]
  • Volunteering[23]
  • Voting[24]
  • Recycling,[25] and
  • Buying environmentally friendly products.[26]

It also works with donations.[27] One experiment asked for this prediction:

“If you were contacted by your high school or college and asked to donate money, would you do so?”

Asking this a few days before a fundraising request worked. The share of those donating to their college increased by half.[28]

Another experiment asked some people a different question. It asked how much they would “hypothetically” donate to a project. Asking this increased actual donations later. Gifts went up 43% for a project helping turtles. They went up 25% for one helping elephants.[29]

QBE shows that people tend to change their behavior to match their predictions. This matters for survey questions. The survey goal is not just to get a donation prediction. It’s also to get a positive prediction.

The lead-up questions can help.[30] They can connect the donor’s history, people, and values with the cause, the charity, or the project. They can help the donor define a personally meaningful victory. These steps help increase the subsequent gift prediction. Thus, the gift prediction should come towards the end of the survey.[31]  It’s the punchline!

Challenge questions: Examples

Here is an example of questions asking about the challenge (i.e., the gift).

Many people who care about this cause like to give in different ways. How likely is it that you would consider any of the following gifts in the next six months?

[Gift options (row headings)]

Gift by volunteering time

Gift by check or credit card

Gift as an automatic monthly withdrawal

Gift in a will (if you happened to sign a new will)

Gift in a will in honor or memory of a loved one

Gift that pays you income for life

Gift of stocks, bonds, or mutual funds that avoids taxes

Gift of real estate that avoids capital gains taxes

Gift from an IRA/401(k) that avoids income taxes

[Response options (column headings)]

__ Definitely

__ Somewhat likely

__ Unlikely

__ Have already done so

__ Would like more info

Challenge questions: Comments

Why this wording? Why this sequence? Let’s unpack the details. The question begins with a “social norm” statement.

“Many people who care about this cause like to give in different ways.”

In charitable giving experiments, stating that others also give is powerful. Adding that they “like to” do it is even more powerful.[32] Adding that they “care about” the cause helps, too.[33] This uses social-emotional language. Such language encourages sharing.[34] It also shows these other people are like the donor. (The donor cares about the cause, too.) It delivers a powerful fundraising message. It implies,

“People like me do things like this.”

The next part asks for a prediction. It asks,

“How likely is it that you would consider any of the following gifts in the next six months?”

The question predicts likelihood. In experiments, asking, “how likely is it that you will do X” works.[35] It influences behavior more than asking if a person “intends to” act.[36] Why? Failing to act makes a positive prediction wrong. But it doesn’t necessarily contradict a statement about intentions. Predictions are more powerful than intentions.

But this prediction is still a soft, safe, “no obligation” question. A positive answer doesn’t cost anything. It doesn’t risk anything. The question just asks for thoughts. It’s even softer because it asks what the donor “might consider.” The longer time horizon softens the question even more. Yet, six months is still soon enough to warrant a follow-up contact.

Challenge options: Volunteering

The challenge question uses a long list of gift options. It starts with volunteering. Why? Of course, it’s possible the charity needs volunteers. (And people who volunteer are more likely to donate.) But there’s another reason. Asking about intentions to volunteer increases willingness to donate. In one experiment, first asking about volunteering led to a 50% increase in donation intentions.[37] Asking about giving time triggers a more social-emotional mindset.[38] This mindset encourages donations. Leading with the volunteering question nudges people. It nudges them to predict future donations.

Challenge options: Check, credit card, automatic withdrawal

The next question references the most common gifts – check or credit card. This helps ease into the later – more exotic – gifts. It groups all the gifts together. They’re all just “ways to give.”

Donors can confidently check this box. (This is a donor survey, after all.) By doing so, the donor puts himself in the category. He is the kind of person who makes gifts like these.

The next question moves to the simplest upgrade – the monthly donor. Any indication of interest can trigger a follow up contact.[39]

Challenge options: Bequest

Asking about estate plans is tricky. Using “death” words is dangerous.[40] It reduces interest in estate gifts and other transactions.[41] Messages that “lead with death” tend to have low response rates.

One charity I worked with had sent an appeal letter asking for gifts in wills. The letter very strongly led with death. The response card included only questions about estate planning. Sending 30,000 of these letters resulted in no responses.

Later, the same charity sent a brief survey. It included the same types of questions near the end.  Again, the questions asked about gifts in wills. But this time the charity got a 22% response rate. A year later, they re-sent to the non-responders. They got another 18% response rate from this group. Leading with death failed. But “burying” the “death” question at the end of a survey worked.

The survey does this here. It “buries” the “death” question. The list starts with the most familiar ways to give. The estate gift is in the middle of the list. It’s worded the same as every other gift. It’s just another way to give. It uses the simplest, friendliest language.[42] The question is softened further by making it hypothetical. It adds, “(if you happened to sign a new will).”

If the survey is focused on estate gifts, earlier phrasing can be adjusted. In estate giving, nothing is more attractive than permanence. One experiment compared describing a charity as either

  • “Meeting the immediate needs of people,” or
  • “Creating lasting improvements that would benefit people in the future.”

The first description normally worked better. But for people reminded of their death, the second did. For them, it led to twice as much giving.[43] In a death context, permanence language works.

Another experiment found this for memorial donations. Adding a permanence goal worked best.[44] Death reminders trigger this desire for permanence.

If encouraging estate gifts is the goal, permanence helps. The survey words can be adjusted to match. For example, in a project or cause description, the word “protect” might become

  • “Lasting protection”
  • “Permanently protect”
  • “Protect forever,” or
  • “Protect for future generations.”
Challenge options: Memorial bequest and income gifts

The next question asks about the memorial gift in a will. In one experiment, asking this question worked. It increased interest in an estate gift for about one out of four people.[45]

This shows another function of a survey. It can teach. The gift idea might be new. It might never have occurred to the donor before.  A donor might think this:

“I didn’t know I could make a bequest gift in honor of a loved one.”

A survey can introduce other charitable options. It can ask about

  • A “gift that pays you income for life,”[46]
  • A gift of inheritance rights (house or farmland) with an immediate income tax deduction,[47]
  • A named scholarship fund,
  • A lectureship,
  • An endowed professorship,
  • A virtual endowment,[48]
  • Or any other attractive giving opportunity.

In each case, a question introduces the idea. If it piques curiosity, the donor responds positively. This can lead to valuable conversations.

Challenge options: IRA Gifts

The last question asks about a “Gift from an IRA that avoids income taxes.”

This question can do different things for different donors. First, it is a stealth estate giving question. Heirs inheriting IRA money must pay income taxes on it.  (This is true for any size estate.) But any part left to charity avoids these taxes.[49] The question response can give permission for this conversation. Adding this estate gift is easy. It can typically be done online.

For donors over age 70½, another option arises. They can make current gifts directly from their IRA.[50] This money is earned income. But it has never been taxed. If it’s donated, it never will be. For donors over age 72, these gifts do more. They reduce required distributions that otherwise create taxes.

Challenge options: Gifts of assets

The final three questions lead with value. They reference the tax benefit. This phrasing works in experiments. In one, only 14% were “interested now” in pursuing a gift described as,

“Make a gift of stocks or bonds to charity.”[51]

This increased to 20% when it was described as,

“Avoid capital gains tax by making a gift of stocks or bonds to charity”

With this phrasing, people were more interested in giving. They’re also more likely to want to learn more.

What do people want to read about on their favorite charity’s website?  One study of over 5,000 people asked this question. The share who were “definitely” or “might be” interested in reading more was,[52]

  • 16% for “Giving stocks”
  • 16% for “Giving stocks, bonds, or real estate”
  • 24% for “Avoiding capital gains taxes by giving stocks”
  • 28% for “Avoiding taxes by giving stocks”

Leading with value works. Simple words work.

Asset gift questions can be powerful in other ways.  They can reveal capacity. A person wanting information about gifts of real estate likely owns real estate. The same is true for stocks, bonds, or any listed assets. These questions also imply that making such gifts is common. This supports a social norm of giving assets.

Just thinking about these questions is powerful. It can change the reference point for a gift. A cash donation tends to be compared with other regular cash expenditures from disposable income. This is a small reference point.

A donation of stocks tends to be compared with stock holdings. This is a large reference point. The same idea applies to IRA gifts, real estate gifts, and estate gifts. These are not gifts from disposable income. These are gifts of wealth.

Wealth is a large reference point. It makes a large gift feel more reasonable. Thinking about such gifts can change a donor’s “mental accounting.” It can make wealth “donation relevant.”[53]

Challenge answers

The column headings give the answer options. Notice, something is missing. There isn’t a hard “no” option. The most negative option is, “Unlikely.” Why? QBE shows that predictions are powerful. People tend to change their future behavior to match their predictions. So, we don’t want donors committing to a hard “no.” Here, that isn’t possible.

Also missing is a “don’t know” option. These options are attractive. They’re easy. But that’s not the goal. We want donors to spend time thinking about these types of gifts. Forcing other responses requires more thought.

Removing the “don’t know” can also help with follow-up opportunities. Some “don’t know” answers will instead become positive responses when that option is removed. A response of “somewhat likely” can justify a follow-up conversation.  A “don’t know” won’t do this.

Another option is, “Have already done so.” This has a specific purpose. It’s to get information about the gift in a will. (Other past gifts would already appear in the charity’s records.) Including this for all gifts prevents the will question from standing out. (Remember, we want to “bury” the death question. It should feel like just another way to give.) Also, for those who have made any gifts, answering helps donors think this:

“I am the type of person who makes gifts like these.”

Survey outcomes: Follow up conversations

In Socratic fundraising, there’s a final step before the ask. That step is to get permission to present options. This is permission to make the ask. A survey can help.

A donor might check, “Would like more information.” Or they might check “Definitely” or “Somewhat likely” for an asset gift. These give a reason for a contact. The contact can lead to permission to make the ask. A call might sound like the following.

“Hello Sara?”

“Hi, this is [name] from [charity]. Don’t worry, I’m not calling to ask for a gift today. I wanted to thank you for your years of support of [cause]. Your gifts have really made a difference for [beneficiaries].”

“Also, I wanted to thank you for completing our survey a few days ago. This really helps our leadership. It’s important for them to know what matters to loyal donors like you. So, thanks for that!”

“I also wanted to follow up with you on one thing. You mentioned in the survey that you [“would like more information about” / “might be considering”] a gift [“of real estate” / “of stocks, bonds, or mutual funds” / “from an IRA”]. I work with many donors like you who’ve made these types of gifts. The extra tax benefits really make it a smarter way to give. Would you mind telling me if anything in particular prompted you to [request that information / consider this type of a gift]?”

“I’d love to share some examples of what others like you are doing. I think you’ll find some of the options interesting. This can also help with your giving to other causes, not just ours. I’ll be in your area next Tuesday. Would your calendar allow us to meet at 2pm?”

“Great! I’ll put together some options for you. Before we meet, is there anything you want me to know about the [“real estate” / “investments” / “IRA”]? I know sometimes there are special issues with [“property” / “certain types of investments”].”

Of course, this is just one example. There are many ways to phrase this conversation.[54] But the goal is the same. Get permission to present options.

That meeting then allows for a soft proposal. It gives examples of gifts the donor could make. It uses any asset details from the survey or the conversation. It shows the benefits of giving smarter.

More importantly, it should show the impact from the donor’s gift. This impact should be in the areas most important to the donor. Fortunately, the survey reveals that, too.

Survey outcomes: Follow up calculations

This follow up can be powerful. But it requires changing the way most charities do donor surveys. Charities are used to big mailings. That’s how appeal letters work. But it’s not how surveys work. At least not if we want to follow up with donors. Follow up requires sending small batches.

How small? Calculate this backwards. Start with end. How many follow-up contacts can you make in a short time? Divide this by the expected response rate. Divide this by the expected share of surveys with positive answers to key questions. That’s the maximum to send out at one time.

For example, (50 follow-up calls / .12 response rate) / .20 positive answers = 2,083 surveys. If we don’t know these numbers, we guess. The first few batches will show the answers. Of course, simple follow ups can work at higher volumes. If a donor wants a publication, newsletter, or event details, that’s easy.[55]

Survey outcomes: Teach something about the donor

Questions can work even without the follow up.[56] The idea behind the Socratic Method is that questions can teach. More powerfully, questions can help a person teach himself. Here, questions can help the donor connect his values, people, and history with the charity. They can help the donor define a personally meaningful victory. This personal discovery process can increase interest in giving.

Survey outcomes: Teach something about the charity

Beyond this, the survey itself can inform. It can share information about charity projects. Rating the importance of a project requires learning about it. A donor might think this:

  • “I didn’t know they protected coral reefs, too.”
  • “I didn’t know they had conservation centers. Maybe I should visit?”
Survey outcomes: Teach something about giving

The survey can reference new gift types. Rating the likelihood of making a gift requires thinking about it. Questions can imply that others like the donor make these gifts. This establishes social norms. Questions can change mindsets. Many donors think of gifts only as coming from disposable income. Asking about asset gifts can change that reference point.

A donor might think, “I didn’t know that other people,

  • “Save takes by making gifts of stocks or real estate”
  • “Make gifts that pay them income”
  • “Make estate gifts in memory of a loved one”
  • “Avoid income taxes by making gifts from an IRA”
Survey outcomes: Teach something by asking for guidance

Other questions can teach in a different way. They can ask for opinions about communications.[57] By giving a judgment, donors are engaging with the messages. Examples of this approach include,

  • “Please compare the two stories and select which of the two stories made you feel the following.
    1. Made me value the work of [charity] even more.
    2. Increased my connection to the cause.
    3. Moved me emotionally.”[58]
  • “It would be most helpful to me if when you read the booklet you note how it’s written. Do you like the style? Are the examples clear? Do you have any suggestions on how we might improve it?”[59]
  • Which of these ads about giving stocks do you think others will find most compelling?
  • We need your help! Estate gifts have always been critical for [this charity]. But this is a sensitive topic. So, we need your advice. We’re considering using one of these two brochures. Would you share your thoughts by answering a few questions about them?
Survey outcomes: Timely reminders

Being “top of the mind” is important for any donation.[60] But it’s particularly important for rare event gifts. The sale of stocks or real estate may seldom arise. But any parts donated before the sale avoid capital gains tax. Being “top of the mind” before such events is critical.

Drafting a new will tends to be triggered by rare life events. Family changes (marriage, divorce, widowhood, birth of a first child or grandchild) trigger new planning.[61] Health events (diagnosis with cancer, declining health) do the same. Being “top of the mind” at such times is critical.[62] A survey can remind donors of these gift ideas. Sometimes the reminder will come at just the right time.

Survey outcomes: Learn something

First, a warning. This isn’t survey research. It’s Socratic fundraising. There are guides for survey research. Don’t get confused by these. That’s not what we’re doing. Aimée Lindenberger explains,

“A good [donor] survey is not about information. It’s about self-reflection. It’s a conversation on paper.”[63]

The donor survey uses questions to guide the donor. It helps the donor discover something about himself. Its purpose is to persuade.[64] But we can still learn something. Along the way we can receive useful information. A donor’s answers can lead to meaningful follow-up conversations.

Sometimes we might analyze groups of surveys. But we must keep in mind that these are persuasive surveys. The responses are intentionally biased.[65] This means relative levels will be more meaningful. Asking, “Are people interested in project X?” isn’t the right question. The survey is designed to generate positive answers. The better question is, “How does interest in project X compare with project Y or Z?”

Also, questions can measure relative shifts in attitudes. We might want to know, “Are the legacy fundraising messages working?” These gifts won’t arrive for many years. But regular surveys can show donor intentions. A shift in responses over time can reveal progress.[66]

Surveys can also help improve the charity’s words and phrases. Appeal letters can test these for small gifts. But this is harder for major gifts of assets. A survey can help. Phrases or questions that increase predictions will tend to increase donations.[67] We can alter stories, words, or sequencing. Each small batch survey can be another experiment. This testing helps constantly improve the messages.

Other survey issues: Print or online?

Online surveys are cheaper than mail or telephone surveys. Response rates are also lower.[68] The question of which to use depends on the goals. Start with the online survey. It’s the cheapest.

If the goal is just to get a set of responses, this can be enough. Reaching more people requires more channels. Next, mail to those who don’t respond to the online request. This is more expensive. Finally, call those who don’t respond to mail. This is yet more expensive. (It’s also riskier if callers are outsiders or aren’t trained well.)

Other survey issues: How long should it be?

Some donor surveys use just a few questions. An appeal reply card might add just one or two.[69] Others are several pages long. Which is better? The answer is this: It’s a tradeoff.

Within reason, more questions are better. For example, one experiment used some of the previous questions. These were about the donor’s (1) people, (2) values, and (3) life story connections. Using all three types worked better than using any one or two alone.[70] More was better.

Another experiment tested the effects of reading planned gift donor stories.[71] Reading seven stories worked better than reading four. Reading four worked better than reading none. More was better.

This effect is not specific to fundraising. Psychology studies show the same thing. Triggering more expressions of an attitude changes things. It increases commitment to the underlying belief.[72] It increases actions that match those beliefs.[73]

But there is a tradeoff. Questions don’t work if donors don’t answer them. The longer the survey, the less likely it is to be completed.[74] “Length” here isn’t just about page numbers or word count. It’s about how easy it feels to take the survey. Simple words help. Short sentences do to. Active verbs also help.

Attractive design also increases response rates. One study showed the positive effects of

  • “Use of accent color
  • Additional navigation cues to call out section headings
  • More than one blank line between survey questions
  • White space between survey question-response option block is larger than white space between a survey question and response options associated with the question
  • One or more blank lines between end of survey question and start of response options
  • A line or other demarcation between columns of survey questions
  • Visible or extra white space on the survey page” [75]

Most of these increase the physical length of the survey. But they may make it feel easier. They make it more inviting. These design elements were most important for one group. They increased answers the most from the oldest respondents.

Getting more responses isn’t just about making the survey short. It’s about making it feel attractive and easy.


Done the right way, asking questions is powerful. The format can differ. It might start with a social conversation. It might be part of a formal campaign feasibility study.[76]  It might be a focus group. It might be a phone survey. It might be a paper or electronic survey. But the steps are the same. The principles don’t change. Appreciative inquiry is compelling. Socratic fundraising works.



[1] This enhanced identity can be either private (meaning) or public (reputation). This process also reflects the steps in the monomyth or universal hero story. For a description connecting these steps to Campbell, J. (1949/2004). The hero with a thousand faces (commemorative ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 28. See footnote 3 in Chapter 1. Socratic fundraising theory: How questions advance the story.

[2] In one experiment, explaining that asking people to sign a petition was, ultimately, just a way to get either customers (for-profit) or donations (nonprofit) had little impact on the rating of for-profit organizations. But it dramatically decreased the morality rating of nonprofit organizations. The researchers explained, “nonprofit organizations are condemned more drastically for using a deceptive recruitment technique than are for-profit organizations.” [Greitemeyer, T., & Sagioglou, C. (2018). When positive ends tarnish the means: The morality of nonprofit more than of for-profit organizations is tainted by the use of compliance techniques. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 76, 67-75.] Thus, it is important for nonprofit organizations to make sure that inquiries and requests are truly legitimate, separate from any behavioral effects on donors.

[3] This is different than adding a question or two on an appeal letter response card. That approach says, “Since you are giving, please tell us what you think.” That is different than, “We need your advice… Oh, and now that you’ve given your advice, we also want your money.” This second approach undermines the credibility of the justification for asking the questions. The first doesn’t.

[4] Tom Ahern and Simone Joyaux mention this in the context of focus groups. They write, “Conduct focus groups with donors every year. If you wish, consider different donor groupings based on donor affinities: gender and generation, interests within your organization, lifestyle, and so on. How about trying focus groups with lapsed donors?” Ahern, T., & Joyaux, S. P. (2011). Keep your donors: The guide to better communications & stronger relationships. John Wiley & Sons. p. 138.

[5] Zaval, L., Markowitz, E. M., & Weber, E. U. (2015). How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy. Psychological Science, 26(2), 231-236.

[6] Without the essay, 61% donated from a $10 bonus ($2.31 average gift). With the essay, 70% donated from a $10 bonus ($3.34 average gift). Combined, this was a 45% increase in dollars donated. Zaval, L., Markowitz, E. M., & Weber, E. U. (2015). How will I be remembered? Conserving the environment for the sake of one’s legacy. Psychological Science, 26(2), 231-236, 234.

[7] Gueguen, N., & Lamy, L. (2011). The effect of the word “love” on compliance to a request for humanitarian aid: An evaluation in a field setting. Social Influence, 6(4), 249-258.

[8] Shariff, A. F., & Norenzayan, A. (2007). God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 18(9), 803-809.

[9] See, e.g., “How did you hear about our organization?” as a survey suggestion in Alexander, G. D. & Carlson, K. J. (2005). Essential principles for fundraising success: An answer manual for the everyday challenges of raising money. Jossey-Bass. pp. 174-175.

[10] James, R. N., III. (2016, March 7). Using biasing questions in charitable bequest surveys. Available at SSRN:

[11] Id.

[12] Routley, C., & Sargeant, A. (2015). Leaving a bequest: Living on through charitable gifts. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 44(5), 869-885.

[13] James, R. N., III., & O’Boyle, M. W. (2014). Charitable estate planning as visualized autobiography: An fMRI study of its neural correlates. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 43(2), 355-373.

[14] James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[15] James, R. N., III. (2018). Increasing charitable donation intentions with preliminary importance ratings. International Review of Public and Nonprofit Marketing, 15(3), 393-411.

[16] This result was similar, but one important aspect was different. The projects were described as projects of the first charity – The Nature Conservancy. Yet, asking for opinions about each project still increased willingness to donate to World Wildlife Fund. The questions appeared to increase interest in supporting the underlying cause. This increased interest in supporting both the charity operating the specific projects rated and a similar charity presumably operating similar projects.

[17] Kessler, J. B., Milkman, K. L., & Zhang, C. Y. (2019). Getting the rich and powerful to give. Management Science, 65(9), 4049-4062.

[18] In this study the variation in the response card had little effect on the likelihood of a donation. This makes sense because a person who was not donating would be unlikely to read or answer a question on the appeal letter response card. This would limit the question’s ability to influence the decision to donate or not. Thus, in this experiment it is likely that only those who were donating actually received the “treatment” of answering questions. The average gift size among those donating who were not in the “rich” or “powerful” categories was $235 for the statement group and $286 for the question group. Total letter recipients were: 16,031 (question group not rich or powerful), 16,143 (statement group not rich or powerful), 766 (question group rich), 843 (statement group powerful), 582 (question group powerful), and 595 (statement group powerful). See Kessler, J. B., Milkman, K. L., & Zhang, C. Y. (2019). Getting the rich and powerful to give. Management Science, 65(9), 4049-4062, Table 1.

[19] Mertins, V., & Walter, C. (2021). In absence of money: a field experiment on volunteer work motivation. Experimental Economics, 1-33.

[20] Zarghamee, H. S., Messer, K. D., Fooks, J. R., Schulze, W. D., Wu, S., & Yan, J. (2017). Nudging charitable giving: Three field experiments. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 66, 137-149.

[21] Also known as the “call to adventure” in the monomyth (universal hero story) or the “inciting incident” in a general narrative structure.

[22] Godin, G., Germain, M., Conner, M., Delage, G., & Sheeran, P. (2014). Promoting the return of lapsed blood donors: A seven-arm randomized controlled trial of the question–behavior effect. Health Psychology, 33(7), 646-655; Godin, G., Sheeran, P., Conner, M., & Germain, M. (2008). Asking questions changes behavior: Mere measurement effects on frequency of blood donation. Health Psychology, 27(2), 179-184.

[23] Sherman, S. J. (1980). On the self-erasing nature of errors of prediction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(2), 211-221; Spangenberg, E. R., Sprott, D. E., Grohmann, B., & Smith, R. J. (2003). Mass-communicated prediction requests: Practical application and a cognitive dissonance explanation for self-prophecy. Journal of Marketing, 67(3), 47-62.

[24] Greenwald, A. G., Carnot, C. G., Beach, R., & Young, B. (1987). Increasing voting behavior by asking people if they expect to vote. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(2), 315-318.

[25] Sprott, D. E., Spangenberg, E. R., & Perkins, A. W. (1999). Two more self-prophecy experiments. In E. J. Arnould & L. M. Scott (Eds.), NA – Advances in Consumer Research: Vol. 26 (pp. 621-626). Association for Consumer Research.

[26] Bodur, H. O., Duval, K. M., & Grohmann, B. (2015). Will you purchase environmentally friendly products? Using prediction requests to increase choice of sustainable products. Journal of Business Ethics, 129(1), 59-75.

[27] Obermiller, C., & Spangenberg, E. (2000). Improving telephone fundraising by use of self-prophecy. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 5(4), 365-372.

[28] Id.

[29] Johansson-Stenman, O., & Svedsäter, H. (2008). Measuring hypothetical bias in choice experiments: the importance of cognitive consistency. The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 8(1), 1-10, 6. (“The MWTP [Marginal Willingness to Pay] for the Elephant-Campaign is 25% and 70% larger in the real-after-hypothetical and hypothetical treatments, respectively, than in the real-directly treatment. For the Turtle-Campaign, the corresponding MWTPs are 43% and 87% larger.”)

[30] The idea behind most of these survey questions is actually similar. People first express an opinion about the cause, the charity, the project or associated values, history, or people. This might be an importance rating, a vote, a “hypothetical” gift, or a gift prediction. But the key is this: The opinion about the pro-social project, cause, charity, or act is given in a cost-free environment. It is just an opinion or maybe a guess. It’s not a contract. This cost-free environment creates more pro-social opinions. Later, people can choose to match their opinions with behavior. But because they’ve already stated an opinion, their behavior changes. It changes to make their behavior consistent with their previously stated opinion. The most powerful opinion is the prediction. It’s the most powerful because it’s the most closely tied to the target behavior – making a gift.

[31] Starting with giving prediction questions for various projects reduced the predicted likelihood of a gift compared with starting with opinion questions about those projects prior to making the gift prediction in James, R. N., III. (2018). Increasing charitable donation intentions with preliminary importance ratings. International Review on Public and Nonprofit Marketing, 15(3), 393-411.

[32] See B2 v B3 in Table 1 at p. 1002 for the effects of adding/removing “like to” in a social norm statement when asking about charitable bequest intentions in James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[33] See B4 v B3 in Table 1 at p. 1002 for the effects of adding/remove “care about” in a social norm statement when asking about charitable bequest intentions in James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[34] See Book I in this series: The Storytelling Fundraiser: The Brain, Behavioral Economics, and Fundraising Story. Chapter 4: “Math problems in fundraising story: Motivations & barriers” and Chapter 5: “Solutions in fundraising math: Story first, math second”.

[35] Armitage, C. J., Norman, P., Alganem, S., & Conner, M. (2015). Expectations are more predictive of behavior than behavioral intentions: Evidence from two prospective studies. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 49(2), 239-246, 240.

[36] Notice that “intend to” is a statement about a current state. It can still be accurate, even if the person doesn’t later engage in the future act. In contrast, the accuracy of a prediction of future behavior depends entirely upon the future act occurring or not.

[37] See Experiment 1 in Liu, W., & Aaker, J. (2008). The happiness of giving: The time-ask effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 543-557. (Average responses to “How much money would you donate to the American Lung Cancer Foundation?” increased 49% from $24.46 to $36.44 when participants were first asked “How much time would you like to donate to the American Lung Cancer Foundation?”)

[38] See Experiment 2 in Liu, W., & Aaker, J. (2008). The happiness of giving: The time-ask effect. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 543-557.

[39] For some great examples, see The Monthly Giving Communications Template Kit by DonorPerfect at

[40] See Chapter 11: Socratic fundraising “legacy edition”: How to ask for the gift in a will without fear or anxiety.

[41] James, R. N., III. (2016). An economic model of mortality salience in personal financial decision making: Applications to annuities, life insurance, charitable gifts, estate planning, conspicuous consumption, and healthcare. Journal of Financial Therapy, 7(2), 62-82; James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011; Salisbury, L. C., & Nenkov, G. Y. (2016). Solving the annuity puzzle: The role of mortality salience in retirement savings decumulation decisions. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 26(3), 417-425.

[42] “Gift in a will” generates more interest than “estate gift” or “legacy gift” or “bequest gift.” See James, R. N., III. (2018). Creating understanding and interest in charitable financial and estate planning: An experimental test of introductory phrases. Journal of Personal Finance, 17(2), 9-21; James, R. N., III. (2016). Phrasing the charitable bequest inquiry. VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 27(2), 998-1011.

[43] Wade-Benzoni, K. A., Tost, L. P., Hernandez, M., & Larrick, R. P. (2012). It’s only a matter of time: Death, legacies, and intergenerational decisions. Psychological Science, 23(7), 704-709.

[44] James, R. N., III. (2019). Encouraging repeated memorial donations to a scholarship fund: An experimental test of permanence goals and anniversary acknowledgements. Philanthropy & Education, 2(2), 1-28.

[45] Unpublished results from an online survey conducted by author in November of 2014. After reporting interest in making any gift to charity in a will, respondents were then asked a second question. Some were asked to report interest in, “Honor a family member by making a memorial gift to charity in my will.” 24% (119 of 504) reported greater interest in this second gift than in the first. Others were asked to report interest in “Honor a family member by making a tribute gift to charity in my will.” 29% (147 of 505) reported greater interest in this second gift than in the first.

[46] This refers to a charitable gift annuity or charitable remainder trust. For tests on this exact wording, see James, R. N., III. (2018). Describing complex charitable giving instruments: Experimental tests of technical finance terms and tax benefits. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 28(4), 437-452.

[47] This refers to a retained life estate.

[48] When a current gift to fund an endowment is too large for the donor, a virtual endowment might work. This combines annual gifts for the endowment payout plus a sinking fund (eventually fully funding the endowment) with a “back up” estate gift that ensures funding in the event of death.

[49] Occasionally a financial advisor might give mistaken information about the effects of adding a charity as a beneficiary to an IRA or 401(k). Charities are not “designated beneficiaries,” so adding them could accelerate required minimum distributions for other beneficiaries. However, there are so many solutions to this issue that it isn’t functionally a problem at all. For example, this doesn’t apply so long as the charity’s share is paid out before September 30 of the year following the year of the participant’s death. Treas. Reg. sec. 1.401(a)(9)-4 Q&A 4(a). Alternatively, the rule doesn’t apply if the different beneficiaries separate their accounts by end of year following the participant’s death. Treas. Reg. sec. 1.401(a)(9)-8 Q&A 2(a). Or, if the spouse is a beneficiary, that part can be simply rolled into spouse’s IRA. Finally, if the concern is great enough, the IRAs can be separated into a 100% charitable and 100% non-charitable account before death. This last approach allows distributions to be taken from either account to match estate planning goals.

[50] This is called a qualified charitable distribution. For those who have a 401(k) plan, the money is first moved into an IRA rollover which then permits these gifts.

[51] James, R. N., III. (2018). Describing complex charitable giving instruments: Experimental tests of technical finance terms and tax benefits. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 28(4), 437-452, 447.

[52] Unpublished results from online survey by the author. The introductory question text was “Suppose you are viewing the website of a charity representing a cause that is important in your life. In addition to a ‘Donate Now’ button, the following buttons appear on the website. Please rate your level of interest in clicking on the button to read the corresponding information. (Note: after answering this set of question, you will be asked to read information about one of these topics, so please more highly rate the ones you are actually interested in.)”

[53] See Book I from this series: The Storytelling Fundraiser: The Brain, Behavioral Economics, and Fundraising Story. Chapter 6, “The secret to fundraising math: Gifts of wealth not income”.

[54] See a great example in Ciconte, B. L. & Jacob, J. G. (2009). Fundraising basics: A complete guide. Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. 421. This uses phrases such as, “Would you mind telling me if there is anything in particular that prompted you to request that information?… I’d like to help you, if I may. The information we sent was very general in nature. I would be happy to send you more specific information on the subject of estate planning or even stop by for a visit.”

[55] An option might include, “Would you be interested in receiving our regular newsletter or additional information?” Alexander, G. D. & Carlson, K. J. (2005). Essential principles for fundraising success: An answer manual for the everyday challenges of raising money. Jossey-Bass. pp. 174-175.

[56] Thus, even anonymous surveys can be useful in affecting donor behavior.

[57] Knowing that donors prefer one advertisement to another is also useful information. But it isn’t the most relevant outcome of interest. Ultimately, the key question for an advertisement is its effect on behavior rather than whether people prefer it.

[58] Davis, L. & Biles, S. (2019, February 28-March 1). Reinventing an established gifts in wills program. [Slide deck]. Fundraising Institute of Australia Conference 2019, Melbourne, Australia. An alternative form could change the questions from self to other: “Which do you think would be more likely to: 1. Help others value the work of [charity] even more. 2. Increase their feeling of connection to the cause. 3. Move them emotionally.” These indirect questions may be easier to answer and sometimes provide more insight. They also emphasize the consultative or advice-giving framework of the task.

[59] Ciconte, B. L. & Jacob, J. G. (2009). Fundraising basics: A complete guide. Jones & Bartlett Learning. p. 421.

[60] In an unusual example of the role of reminders on donations, one study found that donations to medical nonprofits increased following the issuance of postage stamps associated with related medical topics. Walczak, S., & Switzer, A. E. (2019). Raising social awareness through philately and its effect on philanthropy. Philanthropy & Education, 3(1), 73-102.

[61] James, R. N., III. (2009). Health, wealth, and charitable estate planning: A longitudinal examination of testamentary charitable giving plans. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 38(6), 1026-1043.

[62] On the importance of being “top of the mind” see experimental results showing that just asking the question, “Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will?” more than doubles the share of people including charity in their will documents. Cabinet Office (2013). Applying behavioral insights to charitable giving. Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team. pp. 22-23; On the fluidity of the charitable component in estate plans see James, R. N., III. (2020). The emerging potential of longitudinal empirical research in estate planning: Examples from charitable bequests. UC Davis Law Review, 53, 2397-2431; James, R. N., III., & Baker, C. (2015). The timing of final charitable bequest decisions. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 20(3), 277-283.

[63] Lindenberger, A. (2019, March 31). Why your donor doesn’t want to meet and what you can do about it. [Slide deck]. AFP ICON 2019, San Antonio, TX. Slide 23.

[64] Both Socratic fundraising and survey research use questions. But they use them for different purposes. Misunderstanding this sometimes causes confusion. For example the Council of American Survey Research Organizations has guidelines for survey research companies. But these rules would make no sense for companies asking questions for, say, prospect identification. When a car dealer asks, “Are you planning to purchase a new car in the next three months?” it isn’t conducting survey research. It’s trying to sell cars.

Similarly, applying the rules of academic research to Socratic fundraising doesn’t make sense. Thus, the advice that I am sharing here will in places conflict with the approach taken by Kevin Schulman in his article “Facts and Myths of Donor Surveys.” The reason is simple. He is writing about survey research. I am not. I am writing about Socratic fundraising. His focus is on accurately uncovering “deeper constructs” of donor motivation. (Answering such “why” questions is the typical focus for academic research. Conversely, fundraisers tend to be focused on “what works” while having somewhat less concern for the underlying “why” questions.) Thus, he dislikes leading questions that bias people towards a “yes” answer. I insist on them. He dislikes questions about future intentions. I insist on them. He’s not wrong. And neither am I. We’re just using questions for different purposes. The questions in this chapter are not designed to uncover hidden psychological webs of interconnected constructs underlying donor intentions. Those goals are achieved by different research methodologies using different questions and different data analysis. The purpose of these questions is to persuade.

[65] It’s also important to keep in mind that even when you are not biasing the results, the donors still are. In other words, donors’ responses shouldn’t be taken as accurately describing reality. They should be taken simply as donors’ responses. For example, social desirability bias means that when people are asked for their motivations, they will tend to give the most socially appropriate ones. Thus, donors will be unlikely to self-report that they are motivated by tax benefits. This doesn’t mean such benefits aren’t motivational. This is demonstrated not only in econometric analysis of national datasets, but also from randomized controlled experimental studies. People’s self-reported statements of motivations don’t mean we should avoid mentioning such benefits. It means only that we can’t test this issue in this way (i.e., via self-report).

Similarly, finding that older donors are unlikely to report they are planning to make changes in their will documents doesn’t mean they aren’t going to make such changes. Older adults make changes in their will documents due to unplanned shocks: divorce, widowhood, marriage, birth of a first grandchild, diagnosis with cancer, rapid decline in health, etc. Thus, they are still, for many reasons, the right target audience. Similarly, the idea that people are unlikely to recall having dropped a charity from their estate plans doesn’t means such plans aren’t highly fluid. Donors need not consciously drop a charity. They just make a new plan. The charity doesn’t happen to come to mind during that process. (Estate planning attorneys rarely charge clients to read through an old will that is about to be revoked, much less carry over provisions from that document. Their document creation systems are somewhat automated and construct new documents based upon the client’s current answers to questions regarding assets, family members, and current goals.) Even if the decision was, at the time, a conscious one, doesn’t mean that such – somewhat less than socially desirable – actions are likely to be recalled later. However, misinterpretations of donors’ responses to questions are common in fundraising advice. This is especially true when these results promote ideas that make fundraisers’ work less burdensome. Many fundraisers are naturally drawn to the idea that they don’t need to learn anything about charitable tax benefits. Many legacy fundraisers enjoy the suggestion that they can just work with people their own age and then “count it and forget it.” This is easier than including the oldest old in their visits.

In fundraising, we are ultimately interested in behavior (giving) rather than opinion. Answers to questions are important, but they aren’t the same as behavior.

[66] However, this works only if the questions don’t change. Otherwise, it may be impossible to know whether any changes in responses were due to a change in attitudes or a change in the questions themselves.

[67] In experiments, measuring expressions of charitable intentions have produced results similar to those using real donation requests (Dickert, Sagara, & Slovic, 2011). Even measurements of hypothetical intentions to donate reveal similar motivations (Nilsson, Erlandsson, & Västfjäll, 2016) and similar choices (Carlsson & Martinsson, 2001) as compared to measuring actual donations. For example, one experiment found no significant differences in the effect of others’ donations between hypothetical contribution experiments and actual contribution experiments (Alpizar, Carlsson, & Johansson-Stenman, 2008).

Alpizar, F., Carlsson, F., & Johansson-Stenman, O. (2008). Does context matter more for hypothetical than for actual contributions? Evidence from a natural field experiment. Experimental Economics, 11(3), 299-314.

Carlsson, F., & Martinsson, P. (2001). Do hypothetical and actual marginal willingness to pay differ in choice experiments? Application to the valuation of the environment. Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 41(2), 179-192.

Dickert, S., Sagara, N., & Slovic, P. (2011). Affective motivations to help others: A two‐stage model of donation decisions. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 24(4), 361-376.

Nilsson, A., Erlandsson, A., & Västfjäll, D. (2016). The congruency between moral foundations and intentions to donate, self-reported donations, and actual donations to charity. Journal of Research in Personality, 65, 22–29.

[68] Shih, T.-H., & Xitao, F. (2008). Comparing response rates from web and mail surveys: A meta-analysis. Field Methods, 20, 249-271.

[69] This might seem to contradict the suggestion to avoid making an ask with the survey. But this is different. This isn’t presented or justified as primarily being a survey instrument. It’s presented as a donation request with one or two questions added at the end. Those not donating wouldn’t infer that they should return the response card. The questions are never presented as a survey instrument for everyone. The questions are only for those who are donating to the appeal.

[70] James, R. N., III. (2016, March 7). Using biasing questions in charitable bequest surveys. Available at SSRN:

[71] James, R. N., III., & Routley, C. (2016). We the living: the effects of living and deceased donor stories on charitable bequest giving intentions. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 21(2), 109-117.

[72] Descheemaeker, M., Spruy, A., Faxio, R. H., & Hermans, D. (2017). On the generalization of attitude accessibility after repeated attitude expression. European Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 97-104; Holland, R. W., Verplanken, B., & van Knippenberg, A. (2003). From repetition to conviction: Attitude accessibility as a determinant of attitude certainty. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39(6), 594-601.

[73] Downing, J. W., Judd, C. M., & Brauer, M. (1992). Effects of repeated expressions on attitude extremity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(1), 17-29.

[74] See, e.g., Rolstad, S., Adler, J., & Rydén, A. (2011). Response burden and questionnaire length: is shorter better? A review and meta-analysis. Value in Health, 14(8), 1101-1108.

[75] Quoted from Appendix B. Description of Respondent Friendly Survey Design and Coding of Attractiveness in Burkhart, Q., Orr, N., Brown, J. A., Hays, R. D., Cleary, P. D., Beckett, M. K., … & Elliott, M. N. (In Press). Associations of mail survey length and layout with response rates. Medical Care Research and Review,

[76] For a great example of questions used in a formal feasibility study in a campaign, see Ciconte, B. L. & Jacob, J. G. (2009). Fundraising basics: A complete guide. Jones & Bartlett Learning. Appendix 14-D. p. 392. American Society of Civil Engineers Foundation 2002: Building the Future. Feasibility Study Questions.


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