ask an expert

Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Today’s question comes from a fundraiser who hasn’t surveyed donors before and would like some advice on the best questions to ask. 

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’d like to survey our donors this year (I’m not sure my organization ever has) and have been doing research about different types of surveys/questions. Some experts advocate for donor satisfaction or commitment questions, rather than questions that ask about why they gave and what they hope to accomplish through giving. Since this is likely our first survey, I want to make sure we get it right!

— Welcome your Thoughts

Dear Welcome Thoughts,

You’ve hit the nail on the head by noting that some experts advocate for one thing, while others advocate for another.  In other words, there’s no one right way to do a donor survey. There’s seldom any one right way to do anything. That’s why we’re so fortunate to have a bevy of different Covid-19 vaccines coming to market around the world.

Here are my thoughts: What works best for you may not work best for someone else. To determine what you need begin with WHY you’re contemplating doing this survey in the first place. There’s no point doing a survey just to check this task off your ‘to-do’ list. So begin with asking: How will I know this survey was successful?

There are two basic reasons you should do donor surveys. One is for you (useful information you will act on); the other is for your donor (a way to usefully participate other than giving money and feel a part of a community of like-minded folks). I’ve written about this in detail HERE.

You’ll want to tailor your questions according to your particular reasons and desired outcomes. Here are a few reasons and outcomes for you to consider:

  • To learn where new donors first learned about you – so you can tailor communication strategies to meet folks where they are. You won’t find new donors if you’re looking in the wrong places.
  • To learn more about donors’ favorite programs/services — so you can tailor marketing communications and fundraising appeals accordingly and renew and upgrade more donations.
  • To learn more how donors at different giving levels feel differently or the same – so you can segment appeals and stewardship communications according to what floats particular group’s boats.
  • To learn donors preferred communication channels – so you can use those with them individually (e.g., if people like text messages you could gather those folks into a segment and send them a quick donor thank you video you record on your smart phone; this will be super effective for this donor segment, while it might be annoying for other segments).
  • To learn how donors hope to benefit from their giving – so you can offer them more meaningful value in exchange for their gift. All of fundraising is a value-for-value exchange, and it’s incumbent on you to offer the value your donor seeks, without judgment. Some may simply want to fulfill a moral obligation while others may want to receive a tee shirt or see their name in lights. Most donors’ reasons are less tangible and more emotional, but you won’t know unless you ask. And when you don’t know, you run the risk of emphasizing precisely what the donor doesn’t care about.
  • To get specific feedback on contemplated strategies before you enact them – so you can gauge supporter interest in such areas as monthly giving, peer-to-peer campaigns, tribute giving, virtual events, newsletters, blogs and social media engagement.

Survey Question Examples

There are so many questions you might ask, so first determine if your reason is (1) research (acquisition, retention and upgrade strategy), (2) donor engagement (cultivation, stewardship and relationship-building strategy), or (3) some combination. Once you have clarity on your objective, here are some questions to consider [This list is by no means exhaustive]. I am also primarily sharing questions where you can tally responses using rank order or multiple choice. You can certainly always add an “other” option (recommended) if you want to leave room for free-form responses.

  1. How did you first learn about us? (e.g., website; email; news; ad; social media; friend)
  2. Which of the following is your preferred communication medium? (e.g., mail, email, text, social media, phone, Zoom, YouTube)
  3. What prompted you to make your most recent (or largest) gift? (e.g., emergency response; asked by a friend; responded to your ____ appeal; attended an event).
  4. How do you prefer to donate? (e.g., check, stock transfer, donor advised fund, credit card, PayPal)
  5. What other causes to you support? (e.g., arts and culture, environment, education, healthcare, social justice, animal rights, science, political campaigns). You may have programs of which your donors aren’t aware that relate to one of their other passions. This is good to know!
  6. With which of these values do you most strongly identify? See HERE for more on how to use what you learn about how your donors identify with the values your organization enacts.
  7. Which of the following types of communications do you most appreciate? (e.g., thank you letter, e-newsletter, blog, social media updates, conference call, online group check-in, annual report).
  8. In which of the following ways do you interact with our organization? (e.g., donor, volunteer, parent, alumni, client, ticket buyer, member, subscriber, advocate).
  9. When thinking about the legacy you’d like to leave the world, which of the following aspects of our mission are most important to you? (If considering building a legacy giving program, this might be followed by a question asking if they might consider this, which could include choices such as “(a) I’ve made provision in my will, trust or beneficiary designation; (b) I’d like more information, and (c) I’m not interested in this type of gift.”
  10. Do you have any questions or concerns about our organization? (This requires a free-form answer, but you can learn a lot from the folks who take the time to respond to this question).

Keep in mind creating and sending your survey is just the first step. You won’t get anywhere if you stop there. Right? The survey should be part of a plan that reads something like this: “Depending on what we find out, we’ll do X, Y and/or Z.”

Additional steps to keep in mind:

  1. Make sure you’re sending the survey to the right people. You may not want to send it to every single donor. Or, if you do, you may want to tweak the questions for different donor segments. Sometimes you’ll want to survey just folks who attended an event. Or just first-time donors. Or just major donors. Or just monthly donors. Or just volunteers who don’t donate. Take some time to think this through. If you’re not going to use the information, don’t ask for it.
  2. Make sure you have a way to meaningfully tally your responses. If you’re looking for averages, most survey programs (e.g. Survey Monkey) will automatically calculate these for you if you use yes/no, rank order or multiple choice questions. It’s a different story if you’re asking open-ended questions which call for a written response.
  3. Have a plan ready for where you’ll record your responses. Donors hate it when they’ve told you something and you proceed to ignore it. So if you have any questions that allow for comments, be prepared to enter this into that donor’s individual record.
  4. Discuss the survey results, and what you’ll do differently based on this information, with your leadership team. This may include executive management, program directors, development and marketing staff, your board development committee and even your full board.
  5. Put a plan in writing to act on the survey results.
  6. Let your donors know the broad results of your survey. This closes the loop for them so they don’t feel like their participation was meaningless. And it gives you the opportunity to ask them for additional feedback if the survey results prompt them to want to tell you something else that isn’t reflected in your summary. It’s always good to keep a dialogue ongoing, because that’s what builds lasting relationships.

Finally, you should know that brief surveys will get a better response rate than long surveys. If you have a lot of questions, consider spitting the survey into two parts. Send one now; send another in six months. And to incentivize participation, you might consider offering a benefit (e.g., entry into a raffle to win a gift certificate from one of your local businesses; some logo swag such as a tee shirt or socks, or even a matching grant from a board member who agrees to donate a dollar for every response).

For more be sure to download this free e-book: Getting to Know You: A Guide to the Hidden Power of Donor Surveys.

I hope this helps you put together a thoughtful and successful survey plan!

— Charity Clairity

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Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad