5 Data-Driven Strategies to Increase Donor Survey Response Rates

The more you can learn about major donors before you meet them, the more effective you will be at that first meeting. A good first meeting is more likely to lead to a second meeting, and eventually a transformational gift for your organization.

The best way to learn the most you can about donors is through surveys. And that means you need to do everything you can to increase your donor survey response rates. See 6 Reasons Why Donor Surveys Work.

When you discover how to use donor surveys effectively and at scale, it saves gobs of time that your gift officers would otherwise have to spend deploying surveys and then storing and tracking all the information themselves. You can automate surveys and other donor cultivation and qualification activities with MarketSmart’s automated donor communication system. See how to automate donor discovery.

But again, this all hinges on getting your prospects to open and complete the survey.

Don’t miss this – these are two separate decisions the survey recipient must make. They must decide to open the survey, and they must follow through on completing the survey. Both must happen for everyone to get the most out of the experience.

Let’s look at a few ways to increase donor survey open rates and survey response and completion rates.

1. Have a Reason for the Donor Survey

As renowned charitable giving researcher, Dr. Russell James puts it, “If you don’t care what donors think, don’t ask.” You need a real, legitimate reason for doing a survey. If all you want is information for your database, the donor will sniff that out. If your survey is really just a backdoor attempt to get more donations, they will see that coming a mile away.

This is why, for the types of surveys we’re talking about, you should never add a donation request within the survey. All that does is confirm their suspicions about your motives for sending it.

What are some good reasons for sending a survey? Here are a few that have proven to work well:

  • We need your help
  • We need your advice
  • I’m new here
  • Because you’re important…
  • I can help you
  • I can advise you
  • I’m interested in your story

It’s worth noting that we know these methods work well, because we use them all the time at MarketSmart, and we track our data. These work.

Why do they work? These methods help increase survey response rates because they appeal to the identity and interests of the prospect.

People like giving advice. They like giving input. And they especially like doing this when it concerns a mission, cause, or venture they care deeply about. Because this person cares about your cause already – which is why you are sending them this survey – they will be interested in helping you.

‘I’m new here’ works because people like to meet other people who share common interests with them. Since you’re from an organization they already care about, they’ll be intrigued by that greeting.

All the above strategies are great ways to get your surveys opened.

If you’re mailing your survey, you can put language like that on the outside of the envelope. For emails, these can be great subject lines, pre-headers, or part of the opening paragraph.

But again – don’t ask them for help or advice if you don’t need any help or advice. You need to have a real situation at hand, where you really want their input.

2. Connect with Their Identity

Any approach that taps into the donor’s identity will generally earn higher open and response rates for your surveys.

For example, imagine seeing this phrase in a letter or email informing someone about a survey:

“Your insight is especially important because we need input from alumni from the 80s.”

That will be perceived quite differently by the recipient compared to the usual communications they get from their alma mater. It’s specific. It’s targeted. It implies something unique is inside, something relevant to them.

You can use a similar approach for all sorts of categories, such as women, baby boomers, loyal donors, volunteers, or people who care about certain aspects of your mission. Targeting language can be demographic, social, psychological, or linked to your organization.

This works.

In one study that Dr. James refers to in Donor Story: Epic Fundraising, our signature online eCourse, some donors were asked to write a short essay about what they wanted to be remembered by in future generations. Those donors gave 45% more money to an environmental charity than the donors who weren’t asked to write anything.

So, the act of expressing their thoughts and feelings about their own future affected how much they gave. Think about that.

Your surveys can do the same thing, because a good survey gives the recipient the opportunity to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about something they care about. The simple act of doing that activates their identity and increases their social-emotional brain activity.

Dr. James describes this as “visualizing their autobiography.” He has conducted much more research about the connection between activating social emotions and charitable giving. This gets explored in great depth in the eCourse, where you learn how to tap into those emotions to cultivate and generate bigger gifts from more donors.

In another study conducted by Dr. James himself, activating a supporter’s identity by asking them about their own life story led to an increase in giving. And it showed the greatest effect in bequest fundraising.

Why? Because giving becomes part of their story, which is the story they care about most. And talking about their life story gets them thinking about ways to make it better. Since you are the one asking them these questions, your organization is positioned to become part of their story.

A survey that connects with and activates the recipient’s identity will get opened and completed at far higher rates than typical surveys.

3. Provide Free Response Questions

Surveys can’t be too long in terms of the number of questions asked. But the type of questions asked matters just as much if you want your survey to connect with the recipient on a social-emotional level.

Your survey should not only feature multiple choice questions. It needs to also include free response, open text boxes for some questions where the recipient can write freely and express their thoughts. You want to hear their stories, get personal details, and let them get all their thoughts out.

Again, this activates the part of the brain that values the social-emotional outcomes that inspire giving.

4. Ignite The Question-Behavior Effect

Asking questions that predict the future behavior of the person answering them has an influence on that person’s behavior.

That’s why a question such as “How likely are you to include a charity in your will?” is a powerful question. Before being asked, the person may never have thought about this. But now, simply because they were asked, it increases the chances of them wanting to do it. The question itself influences future behavior.

And when people make predictions about their own behavior, they are even more likely to want to adjust their behavior to match their predictions.

Answering questions like this also builds up their self-worth because it affirms that they are the type of person who does things like this. Some people don’t give anything to charity. Some give small amounts. But when I say on a survey that I like to give large and more generous gifts, I feel good about myself just by saying that, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

So ask questions that predict future behavior, and your survey completion rates will increase.

5. Use ‘Challenge’ Questions

A ‘challenge’ question is one that gets more specific about asking the recipient to decide something. You aren’t asking them to pledge a gift or anything like that, but you are asking them to do something that will feel like they’re making a decision.

A good approach for this is what we at MarketSmart call a victory menu.

The victory menu lists areas of impact, projects, or other initiatives, and asks the survey recipient to rank the ones that are most meaningful to them. Doing this serves two purposes.

For you, it informs you of what this person cares about, and enables you to make specific offers later that cater to this person’s passions and interests. It facilitates more personalized outreach and communications.

For them, it enables them to define their ideal victory. And this is huge.

By selecting the one or two areas of impact they care about most, they are linking their own life story to these items. The success of those endeavors now connects with their perceptions of the success of their own life.

More research from Dr. James demonstrates the effectiveness of helping the donor define their ideal victory. He studied ten charities featuring a variety of causes and projects. Research subjects were broken into four categories. Some just read about causes. Others read about causes and projects aligned with those causes. Other groups got to rate the importance of the causes, and the last group rated the importance of the causes and the projects.

The last group had the highest likelihood of making a gift, and this held true across multiple charities.

The point is – when donors are asked to consider what is most important to them from an array of choices related to your nonprofit’s mission, their giving increases.

That also means that putting questions like this in your surveys will make your survey more engaging. Not only will you get higher survey response rates, but you may end up with more gifts down the line.

Why Do Donor Surveys Work?

Now you have a better idea of how to get your surveys opened and completed.

But why do donor surveys work? What makes them so effective at increasing engagement with new major giving prospects?

See 6 Reasons Why Donor Surveys Engage Wealth Donors and Prospects


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