Tips for Creating a Smart Donor Survey
Holding on to donors — and increasing their giving — are pillars of successful fundraising and more vital than ever as nonprofits work to retain the influx of supporters who gave in response to the pandemic and racial-justice crisis. Savvy groups are using surveys to learn more about their donors so they can communicate in ways that resonate and keep people in the fold.
“Surveys are the single most important tool in a fundraiser’s toolbox because you’re listening to donors,” says Sean Triner, co-founder of Moceanic, a consultancy that provides training for fundraisers. “The best surveys — they’re not really interested in what donors have to say; they’re only interested in what each and every donor has to say.”
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Holding on to donors — and increasing their giving — are pillars of successful fundraising and more vital than ever as nonprofits work to retain the influx of supporters who gave in response to the pandemic and racial-justice crises. Savvy groups are using surveys to learn more about their donors so they can communicate in ways that resonate and keep people in the fold.
“Surveys are the single most important tool in a fundraiser’s toolbox because you’re listening to donors,” says Sean Triner, cofounder of Moceanic, a consultancy that provides training for fundraisers. “The best surveys — they’re not really interested in what donors have to say; they’re only interested in what each and every donor has to say.”
To build a donor survey that deepens connections and helps keep supporters giving, focus on finding out why they care about your work and which aspects they value the most, Triner says. This will shed light on their motivations for giving and help you inspire them to give again.
Try to learn what people understand — and don’t — about your mission so you can assess and improve your communications, says John Warner, chief development and communications officer at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif. The organization in 2018 sent what Warner calls a stakeholder survey to donors and others connected to the group’s work, such as employees, volunteers, board members, and program partners. The responses helped the charity tailor its outreach to specific groups, which has improved donor retention, boosted giving, and helped win back some donors who had stopped giving.
As you use the insights from the survey to shape your messages and communicate with donors about their interests, Warner says, you should see them get more invested in your cause — and give more over time. “You have them now as more of a partner in your work as opposed to an episodic donor,” he says.
To help you develop a smart donor survey and boost fundraising, here are tips from a variety of experts.
Make sure you can use what you learn. If you ask donors to take a survey but don’t do anything with their responses, Warner says, you’ll just annoy them. And that could work against your goals. Before sending out a survey, carefully consider whether your team has the resources, knowledge, and the will to use the results to enact change, he suggests.
Invest the resources needed to do this well. It’s worth hiring an outside firm with a deep understanding of surveying if you can afford it, Warner says. “There’s art to it, but it’s also a science, and you will get better results if you’ve got some support behind it,” he says.
Select your audience. A stakeholder survey, rather than one that is only for donors, can be a good starting point, Warner says, because it can give you a sense for how people in your nonprofit’s orbit perceive the organization. “Everyone is a prospective donor and an evangelist for your organization,” he says, so using the feedback to ensure that those on the front lines of your work understand and talk about it effectively will help you build a pipeline of donors and keep existing ones.
Choose the format. Online surveys are typically cheaper to develop and distribute than direct-mail versions, so they can be a smart way to reach a wider audience on a smaller budget. If you opt for a digital survey, Triner says, share it widely, including, for example, program participants, staff members, trustees, newsletter subscribers, and event attendees. It’s usually worth investing in the paid version of online platforms like Survey Monkey, he adds, so you can get higher-quality analysis, technical support, and such features as unlimited questions.
If you can afford it, send both an email and a physical copy to donors who give through the mail, Triner suggests.
And don’t forget about the phone. In addition to sending its survey to all donors, the Marine Mammal Center held one-hour individual phone calls with 20 major donors to get deeper insights into what they knew about the organization. “That provided a really critical secondary ‘aha’ set of data to pressure test what comes from the larger survey,” Warner says.
Ask people to give. Surveys don’t usually raise as much as direct-mail appeals, Triner says, but they can help cover the cost of the mailing. Don’t replace an appeal with a survey; add it to your communications calendar if you can.
First Book, a nonprofit focused on education equity, recently sent a survey to current donors, including some new supporters who gave for the first time during the pandemic, and those who had stopped giving. The organization did not expect to raise much from it, says Christa Floresca Evans, vice president of development. However, the group received thousands of dollars in gifts. A large amount came from former donors who had ended their support. “Not only did we get a [survey] response from lapsed donors, but we’ve now got their next gift,” Evans says.
Decide when to send it. Any time of the year could work, Triner says, but July or August could be especially strategic so you can use what you learn to inform your year-end fundraising campaign.
Develop questions that will provide actionable information you can track over time. For example, if you want to find out what people understand about your work, Warner says, ask them how well they know a few aspects of it. Use what you learn to develop messages geared toward increasing awareness in lesser-known areas. Then ask the same questions in future surveys and track responses to see if awareness has improved.
Keep it short and focused. Don’t ask more than about 20 questions, Warner says, and be clear when you share the survey that it will take only 15 to 20 minutes to complete.
When designing its survey, First Book started by considering the goal. “If I only were able to gather five pieces of information about a donor, what is it that I need to know to be able to strategically segment them correctly?” Evans says. The organization began with 37 questions on a whiteboard and whittled them to 18.
Enlist the help of relevant departments. For example, if your goal is to improve donor communications, involve your communications colleagues so they can share input on which questions would be helpful and offer guidance on how to best word them.
Before you send the survey to donors, let others at the organization review it and share feedback so you can ensure the best user-experience possible.
Vary the types of questions. Using a combination of approaches — such as fill-in-the-blank, ranked-order, open-ended, and multiple-choice questions — can help keep participants engaged and ensure they finish it.
It can be tough to analyze and identify themes from open-ended answers, Warner says, so use them with care. If you don’t have outside assistance with the survey, it may be best to focus on multiple-choice, ranked-order, and other kinds of questions that platforms like Survey Monkey can present in reports.
Ask questions that reflect what is happening in the world, says Karla Kalis, manager of individual giving at the PAN Foundation, a nonprofit that helps underinsured people pay for their health care. During the pandemic, PAN created two donor surveys that included questions about how people were feeling and how the organization could help. The answers prompted the group make its outreach more personal and relevant, Kalis says.
Offer an incentive to complete the survey. Kalis suggests providing a tool that is useful and relevant, such as a downloadable one-pager with tips for how to do something related to your work.
You could also offer something fun. For example, First Book secured two pairs of round-trip plane tickets from a corporate partner, JetBlue. Everyone who completed the survey by the deadline was entered into a drawing to win them. The group highlighted this prize on the outer envelope of its survey, which motivated people to open it, Evans says.
Request contact information. Include a question toward the end asking if respondents would like you to contact them and the best way to do so, Kalis suggests. Provide fields for an email address and phone number.
First Book didn’t have email addresses for a large share of its direct-mail donors before sending its survey, Evans says. The group asked these supporters to share their email addresses, and about half did, she says, which improved the fundraisers’ ability to communicate with them.
Follow up. “Don’t go dark on people,” Warner says. If people take the time to do your survey, thank them and explain why their participation was valuable. For example, the Marine Mammal Center told respondents that the information helped the group understand how to better communicate the impact of giving. The organization also invited participants to share feedback on its outreach and set up a specific email address for that purpose.