The 5 ½ Principles of Effective Donor Surveys

June 26, 2018 Rachel Clemens

Do you know why your donors give? Is there consensus within your organization about the reasons they dip into their pockets to fund your mission? Or are there simply “best guesses” floating around that may or may not accurately answer that question?  

Unless you ask your donors directly, your gut instincts are merely opinions. And research kills opinions.

A well-crafted donor survey delivered in a savvy way can provide the facts you need to make smarter fundraising and marketing decisions going forward. You know all those small and mid-level donors on your list? They are the perfect audience to answer your questions. (For now, we’ll leave the major gift donors alone. You should already know why those donors give based on your conversations with them.)  

But before you create your survey, let’s take a look at the five-and-a-half principles that will ensure you solicit accurate, authentic feedback that doesn’t also annoy the heck out of your donors. And while this article is specifically about donor surveys, many of the lessons here apply to all surveys.  

1. Purposeful

You should not conduct a donor survey unless you know exactly what information you need to obtain from the survey and what you’ll do with the info once you get it.  

Every time you ask your donors for something—even just a quick survey response—you’re making a withdrawal from the relationship. It’s only worth asking for a favor if you know the results will be put to use. In other words: Don’t ask your donors to take the time to fill out your survey unless you’re prepared to make strategic changes based on what you learn.  

What’s the Goal? 

Are you clear about what you’re trying to accomplish? Do you have concrete goals for what the survey will achieve? Are all internal stakeholders in agreement? Are the goals prioritized? Are they written down? 

It’s important to write down your goals and how you’ll know that you’ve reached them. Otherwise, how will you know if your donor survey was successful?

2. Targeted

You probably don’t want to send this survey to everyone in your donor CRM. Instead, you’ll want to target specific subsets of your donor base. Selecting the audience for your survey depends on the purpose of the survey.  

For example, is your goal to find out why your monthly donors choose to make an ongoing commitment? Or do you want to know why younger donors give to you versus other audiences?  

There are a ton of ways to segment your audiences. Some of the most popular include:  

  • By donation amount — e.g., Why don’t donors who give less than $25 give more? 
  • By frequency of donation — e.g., Why do people who donate only once per year not give more often? 
  • By when they give—e.g., Why do donors who give only during the holidays not give in the summer? 
  • By age or other demographics—e.g., Why do donors younger than 30 donate? 
  • By how they give—e.g., Why do some donors refuse to donate online? 

3. Short

Research shows that shorter surveys are more likely to produce higher response rates, so keep the survey as short as possible. Try not to include more than 10 questions—and quite a lot fewer, if possible.  

Most, if not all, of your questions should be closed questions.  

Closed questions provide a list of acceptable responses—e.g., multiple choice, yes/no questions, checklists, etc. Closed questions are quick and easy to complete.  

Meanwhile, open questions—which require the respondent to type in an answer of their own—can increase survey abandonments. Users simply don’t want to write much. In a 10-question survey, we recommend having no more than 1 open-ended question.  

But what if you have 20 things you really want to know and you can’t possibly get the survey that short?  

First, we’d urge you to review those 20 questions. Do you really need to know all of them? Do they make sense together? Be ruthless in your editing. It’s better to get 100 responses to a short survey than 10 responses to a long one.  

You can also split your long survey into two smaller ones. (Or even two audiences.)  

4. Delivered Well

Chances are, your survey will be delivered online. With cost-effective tools like SurveyMonkey and Google Forms, the only reason to use mail-in survey is if it’s best suited to your target audience (e.g., older donors). Most people are used to taking surveys online and find them easy to use and understand.  

Whichever online survey tool you use, make sure it’s:  

  • Intuitive for you and your users 
  • Works well on all web browsers (you can use your Google Analytics to see the most common web browsers used by your online audiences) 
  • And most importantly, is mobile-friendly! Many of your users will get the invitation to take your survey on their phones. Make sure it’s easy for them to take the survey on their mobile devices.  

When you send follow-up reminders about the survey, don’t send those reminders to people who have already responded. Not only does it make you look out-of-touch, but they’ll start doubting whether they completed the survey the first time and whether it actually went through. Don’t give them reason to doubt you! 

 5. Tested

Just as you fully edit and proof your blog posts, you should also edit and proof (and re-edit and re-proof) your survey before sending it out. Unlike a blog that you can later update, you get only one chance with a survey. Don’t let a typo or strangely-phrased question mess you up. 

A quick way to be sure your questions make sense is to read the survey out loud. You’re more likely to catch small mistakes when you hear them rather than when you read them.  

Share the survey with a friend who’s not familiar with the survey (or better yet, your organization). Ask them to complete it while you sit alongside. Where do they get hung up? Where did they turn to you to explain something? Those are the areas you need to work on before releasing the survey. 

And be sure to test the survey on multiple web browsers and devices so some users don’t get a bad experience.  

5 ½. Incentivized 

Why the half? Because this last principle is optional. 

Incentives can increase your response rate by 5-20%, but you want to use them thoughtfully. Incentives are best used when the survey is longer (i.e., more than five minutes) or the audience is less likely to be engaged (i.e., lapsed donors).  

Over the years, we’ve used lots of different types of incentives—everything from gift cards to event tickets to give-away items. And respondents are typically entered to win one gift card or one of several if we expect a large response. 

A few warnings about incentives: 

  • Don’t make them so big that they sway your results. A $500 gift card is overkill. Typically, a $50-100 gift card is a good incentive. 
  • Make sure you can easily give the incentive away. If you plan to give a t-shirt to everyone that completes the survey, how will you fulfill those orders? Do you have the resources to package up and mail hundreds of t-shirts? 
  • If you offer an incentive, it’s harder to make the survey anonymous. Keep in mind that anonymous surveys tend to produce better information. So, there is a tradeoff between anonymity and incentives. 

There’s plenty more to crafting a great survey—i.e., writing unbiased questions, the order of questions, how to properly analyze responses, etc. But most important to your survey’s success is making sure it’s purposeful, strategic, and targeted from the outset.  

If you obey these principles, you’ll surely garner some fascinating insights into your donors’ motivations and your organization’s goals. From there, the sky’s the limit. Best of luck!  

Editor’s note: After following these great steps from Rachel, get some additional benchmark insights into donor behavior in Blackbaud Institute’s 2017 Charitable Giving Report. 

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