Ask! (Don’t Guess) : How Donor Surveys Help You Market Your Nonprofit with Heart, Not Hype

donor attraction donor retention marketing strategy surveys Apr 23, 2018

Have you ever heard of the term “black box?”

Not the fight recorder in a plane (which, interestingly enough, is actually orange), but the term describing a process or machine that’s kind of hard to understand. Computers are a great example. You can see the input; you press buttons to print out a document. You see the output; the page coming out of your printer. But what goes on in the “black box?” Most of us have no idea.

Sometimes I think donor relations is like that. You make an email fundraising appeal. One person donates $250, while another one unsubscribes from your list. Why? It sometimes feels like it’s in the black box.

I’ve seen nonprofit professionals torture themselves over this. What did we do right? What did we do wrong? And it really doesn’t have to be that mysterious.

You could just ask them.

Surveys are a time-honored way of getting priceless insights from your supporters about why they were moved to give to your cause. It gives you the information you need so that you can address the things that matter to your donors and communicate to them with heart, not hype.

Surveying success, however, requires that you ask the right questions and position them in such a way to engage your supporters.

Here are a few tried and true survey tips I’ve used with many nonprofits to help get you started.

  1. Always remember it’s about them, not you. This is the most important thing and it’s going to factor into everything about your survey – from the method you use to reach your donors to the questions you ask.
  2. Figure out the right way to contact your donors. It can be through an online survey, a phone call, one-on-one conversations, direct emails or even written surveys that you mail out. Typically, your method of outreach will depend on how your donor base best responds. Cost may also be a factor, but please remember that your up-front costs will be worth it because of increased retention and donations. 
  3. Don’t call it a survey or ‘ask for their input.’ Now I’m not trying to be cute here. Obviously, you are conducting a survey and hoping for their input. But using those words just makes your inquiry sound self-serving. Make it more about your donors with titles or email subject lines that say “Please tell us what you think” or “Your Opinion Matters.” 
  4. Let them know this will be quick. Give them an expectation of how long this will take and how many questions you have. Telling them this up front will let them know you value their time and aren’t going to take advantage of it. (Have you ever done a survey that doesn’t seem to end? Have you ever given up half-way through in frustration? Don’t do that to you donors.)
  5. Segment your audience. How you frame your questions will be determined by whether your donor is a first-time contributor you are nurturing, a year after year supporter you are working to retain, or a former donor that you are trying to get back.
  6. Ask the right questions. And here’s where you will hit gold in your information prospecting. It will help you identify what goes on in that black box; primarily their reasons for connecting with you in the first place; why they support you; or, conversely, why they aren’t engaging with you. 

Here’s some examples:

  • For new donors, you could ask the primary reason for donating to your organization. Ask them to tell you what they hope their donation will accomplish. Why does your mission or cause matter to them?
  • For repeat donors, ask them what interests them most about your organization. If you have multiple programs or services, ask them which ones they are supporting. If they were asked, what would these donors tell others about your group?
  • Lapsed donors are a little more tricky. It’s important to let them know you are not trying to pressure them to give again; you just want to understand their mindset. So ask what got them interested in your organization in the first place. What do they feel would have the most impact on your mission? If they could lead your organization for one day, what would they do and why? And, lastly, why did they stop giving to your organization? Again, it’s a good idea to reiterate that you aren’t asking to pressure them, but because you want to understand what your organization can do better in the future.

Relationships are always better when they are a two-way street. By encouraging your supporters to share their motivations, beliefs and aspirations with you, you get a glimpse of what goes on in the black box. Understanding that will allow you to better communicate “with” your donors, instead of talking or marketing “at” them.

It will also benefit you in another way. All the leaders I know in the nonprofit world hate the idea of hype. They believe in their cause in the marrow of their bones and they don’t want to have to sell it; they want to share it with like-minded people.

Knowing why your supporters care and believe in your mission means you won’t have to build up your nonprofit with hype; you can authentically communicate how, together, you and your donors will reach your goals and make the world a better place along the way.