Nonprofit Donor Surveying: Fundraising’s *Magic Bullet?*

August 17, 2017

Have you ever had to dig yourself out of a hole (one not of your own making)?

That’s exactly the situation I found myself in my first fundraising job. The year was 2000, and I had just resigned from my job with one of the region’s largest grant-making foundations, to take on a development position with a mid-sized community health agency (annual budget $3M). My task? To create a development department from the ground up.

I don’t need to tell you that it was challenging!

Thanks to a successful local businessman, this particular organization had run a hugely successful capital campaign just five years prior, raising over $5 million for a new facility. And what had they done since?

Nothing. Not a thing.

In fact, the negligence was staggering…

  • Major donors were ignored. Not a single foundation grant proposal had been written in five years!
  • The organization had memberships with a number of key community organizations, yet hadn’t had any contact in years!
  • The businessman who had spearheaded the capital campaign had died and none of the records from that campaign were available to me!
  • The organization’s individual appeal had not only been on a five-year decline because it had been outsourced to a number of different mail-houses, it had also angered a number of locals due to duplications and the perceived cost!

And the more I dug, the worse things looked.

At that point in my life, the closest I’d come to fundraising experience was reviewing the grant proposals at my old job.

Frankly, I thought that I’d taken on more – much more – than I could handle. But I took a deep breath, and then I went ahead and mapped out a strategy. A plan for grants, a plan for public relations, a plan for a website (the organization didn’t have one), a plan for growing our individual donor base.

And then I did one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

After querying our database for 20 loyal donors who had given over $250 a year during the past five years, I wrote a letter of introduction, asking each donor why they had supported the organization.  I sent it out, along with a brief survey and a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Eighteen responded.  Several sent in checks, although I hadn’t asked for money.  Three eventually became major donors.

Lesson learned. As Ryan Levesque, author of Ask: The Counterintuitive Online Formula to Discover Exactly What Your Customers Want to Buy…Create a Mass of Raving Fans…and Take Any Business to the Next Level, notes, “Sometimes starting over at the bottom can be the best thing you can do for yourself.”

Grow Report subscriber, and new development director, Cindy Timmerman, recently wrote in to share her experience using the Survey Letter Template we’ve shared:

“I was reading your Grow Report where you described your first fundraising job and you talked about pulling a list from your database of the most consistent donors. I followed your guidance. Tweaked your letter, created a three-question questionnaire and mailed it with a return envelope.

I mailed 86 letters/questionnaires; have received 46 responses along with $1,325 WITHOUT asking for money.

Remember, understanding your donors’ motivations forms the very heart and soul of great fundraising. Click To Tweet

But surveying your donors regularly goes beyond understanding your donors’ motivations. Surveying is something you should be implementing on a regular basis, for a number of reasons. Surveying can help to reveal your best planned and monthly giving prospects. And specific questions can help you to uncover your organization’s prospective major donors (wealth screening only goes so far).

Before you even begin to think about creating a survey, get absolutely clear on what you want your goal to be. What do you want your survey to accomplish? Sure, it’s easy to want to take an “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” approach to donor surveying, and I’ve witnessed it time and time again. But surveys require careful planning and execution, and just one won’t have the ability to successfully cover all of the bases (of which there are many). If you lack clear cut goals, you’re likely to veer off in a number of different directions, and the resulting mess is more likely to repel useful feedback rather than encourage it. Every single question needs to have purpose. Think it over, be precise, and make each question count. You never ever want to waste your donors’ time.

What questions should you ask in a donor survey?

  • Questions to uncover your donors’ passions
  • Questions to learn your donors’ communications preferences
  • Questions to uncover your donors’ demographics
  • Questions on donor loyalty
  • Questions to learn your donors’ stories
  • Questions to uncover donor satisfaction
  • Questions to recruit new donors

When should you survey donors?

Consider including a short survey in your new donor welcome pack, or following an event. Use surveying when you are about to embark on a capital campaign, or at the very least, as part of your yearly communications plan.

Of course, donor surveying isn’t fundraising’s *magic bullet,* because nothing is. As “Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” But surveying is a necessary piece to the fundraising puzzle, and it is consistently helpful when done right. It can help you in a number of goals, from donor retention to storytelling to identifying planned, major, and monthly donors. And more.

For additional insight on donor surveying (c’mon, you know you want it!), watch this webinar with Greg Warner of Market Smart, where we cover everything you need to know about how and why you should use donor surveys to drive great results. The wisdom within this power hour includes real-world examples and comprehensive research for actionable ideas you can implement to engage and involve your donors and supporters, ultimately leading to better results for your fundraising program.


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