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Keeping Score: Understanding Your Donors

Strong, effective stewardship programs are a core element of fundraising operations at high-performing institutions. These institutions know what their donors expect in terms of stewardship, and they know how they measure up to those expectations. How do they know? It’s simple: They asked. But, more importantly, they asked the right questions.

While there’s no perfect substitute for a conversation between a donor and a gift officer, surveys – and web-based surveys in particular – are an efficient, cost-effective way to help you learn about your donors. However, since web surveys can’t evolve in real-time the way a face-to-face conversation can, you have to be certain that your survey questions will truly surface the information you need to make decisions that have real impact on your stewardship program.

What Not To Do

Perhaps your institution has already explored using surveys to get feedback from donors, or you’ve been on the receiving end of a donor survey yourself. If so, you might have seen a question like this:

Our records indicate that you have made one of more charitable gifts to [institution]. How would you characterize [institution]’s handling of your gift – acknowledgement, stewardship, recognition – compared to experiences you have had with other institutions you support?

                        1 – Much better

                        2 – Somewhat better

                        3 – About the same

                        4 – Somewhat worse

                        5 – Much worse

                        6 – I don’t know

This is, simply put, a bad question. Why? It raises more questions than it answers. First, do we know which institutions we’re asking the donor to compare? We might be asking for an apples-to-oranges comparison between a research university and a local social services organization. Second, let’s say the donor says that your institution is doing “somewhat worse.” Why do they think so? Finally, are donors interpreting the 6-point rating scale in the same way? Probably not, and the scale doesn’t really allow for adequate discrimination between the scale points.

Essentially, all you can take away from this is “We’re doing about the same / a little better / a little worse than other people’s perceptions of their experience with other organizations, but we can’t really say why or by how much.” Unless your institution is highly praised or roundly criticized, the results are not likely to provide you with even a little actionable data.

A Better Approach

Rather than asking these vague, multi-variable questions, structure your survey questions so that they provide you with targeted, concrete data points. Using a stewardship “scorecard” is an excellent approach to such a survey. With the scorecard, donors are not asked to make comparisons, but rather indicate whether they agree or disagree with a simple statement, such as:

  • The process of making a gift was easy.
  • [Institution] did a good job asking me for my gift.
  • I felt that my interactions with [institution] were personalized.
  • I am satisfied with communications I received about my gift.
  • I believe my gift has been used for the purpose for which I intended.

After some number-crunching, we end up with something like this:

These are the results for a scorecard survey sent to each individual donor (with a valid e-mail address) who gave a gift to the university in the past 12 months, during the course of a comprehensive campaign.

Now, how do we actually use it?

What’s Next?

On the sample scorecard, a green score (80-100) indicates an excellent result. A yellow score (60-79.9) indicates a fair result, and a red score (> 60) a potential problem. Here, the university’s overall score of 72.2 indicates a relatively strong stewardship experience, although there are areas for improvement. For example, we can see from the results that:

  • Donors widely believe that their gift is being used as intended. This is especially true among donors above $100,000, a critical constituency. High numbers for lower-level donors help to support the pipeline by building trust and establishing the impact of gifts.
  • Fewer than half of all donors feel that the institution did a good job in asking for a gift, and 30% percent of donors of $100,000+ felt their experience was fair or worse.
  • While most major donors feel they know whom to contact about their giving, the number decreases sharply for donors below $25,000. This issue is a relatively easy fix in terms of improved publicity and communication in terms of advancement office contacts for donors at all levels.
  • No donor level category met the “excellent” threshold regarding appropriate personalization regarding a donor’s gift (though for donors of $100,000+, it was very close at 79.2).
  • 58% of donors say their experience makes them very likely to give again in the future. While few respondents say they are less likely to give in the future, this result is consistent with the finding that most donors feel that the institution is either “about the same” or “somewhat better” in terms of donor stewardship compared to other organizations.

Of course, these are just a few of the insights we can glean from this institution’s scorecard, which provides an overall assessment as well as visibility into specific areas of strength, areas with potential for improvement, and areas of concern that the institution can formulate actionable strategies around. Moreover, the survey can easily be deployed at regular intervals following implementation of these strategies, allowing the institution to track improvements (or lack thereof).

In Conclusion

Well-stewarded donors are donors who are likely to give again, and reaching out to donors so that you can understand what good stewardship means to them is a critical part of growing and sustaining fundraising success. To learn more about the GG+A Stewardship and Donor Satisfaction Scorecard and our methodology, contact Senior Vice President Dan Lowman in our Survey Lab.

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About the author

Dan Lowman

Senior Vice President, Survey Lab

Dan Lowman is a Senior Vice President in our Analytics Department. His clients span the nonprofit sector and include hundreds of colleges, universities, hospitals, and social service, advocacy, and cultural organizations. His work with client organizations includes campaign planning, prospect identification and prospect management, analytics implementation, metrics, annual giving programs,…