Why it pays to ask donors how they feel about annual giving

Even in normal times, institutions are likely to know far less about their annual fund donors than they are about nearly any other donor segment. There’s good reason for that: There are many more annual fund donors than there are any other donor group and each of those donors likely has their own motivations for giving.

The lack of insight into what drives annual fund donors to give presents a challenge. Given that every donor has his or her own motivating factors, it can be difficult for institutions to be efficient in their annual fund outreach. After all, whenever an institution takes a haphazard approach, it squanders its most valuable resources—time and money.

Now, in the midst of uncertainty and challenges for many institutions, knowledge is all the more valuable. To help us better understand the importance of assessing annual fund donor sentiment amid the current moment, we spoke with Dan Lowman, Senior Vice President, SurveyLab, which is a tool nonprofit organizations use to gain valuable insight into the views of their donors, alumni, patrons, and friends.

Q: How are institutions using tools such as SurveyLab to learn about their annual giving program and annual fund donors?

DL: Institutions typically know far less about their annual fund donors than they do about any of their other donors. By surveying donors, institutions can learn what motivates them to give, as well as seek feedback on any number of issues.

Q: What type of feedback are they seeking?

DL: It ranges the gamut. For example, one institution we work with uses surveys to determine the types of messages and images that resonate with annual giving donors. When we presented donors with six different solicitation postcards the institution planned to use and asked donors to rate them based on whether they found them clear and compelling, we learned there were two clear favorites. That enabled the institution to only print those two designs, which saved it time and money.

Beyond those top-line results, institutions can find significant value in our analyses. Examining the results based on factors such as class year, geography, school, or unit, we’ve found that alumni of a university’s law school, for example, rank the institution as a top annual giving priority significantly more than its liberal arts school graduates or that West Coast alumni are less engaged than those located in the Midwest. Identifying those differences can help institutions better craft successful annual giving messages to particular groups and can help shape the structure of their programs.

Q: How do surveys help shape an institution’s programs?
DL: There’s probably no area where surveys are a more effective tool for shaping a program than stewardship. Surveys enable a program to quickly assess the donor experience. It can ask whether they believe their gift will be used as intended, whether it was acknowledged—and how quickly it was acknowledged. When an institution discovers a shortcoming, it can use that information to quickly address the situation. That’s particularly true for institutions that use DX—SurveyLab’s Donor Experience Dashboard—which tracks 10 core metrics and up to 12 custom metrics to enable advancement programs to evaluate their donor relations operations in real time.

Q: What are some key questions that institutions are leveraging?

DL: The most important question we ask is “What limits you from giving more?” How someone responds can be extremely valuable. For example, if he says he doesn’t have the resources, you can know that there’s no room for growth—at least right now. If he says that he has other priorities that trump this institution, you can figure out how to overcome those challenges. That’s why we also ask the question, “What might make this institution one of your first or second priorities?” Most of the surveys we run are not anonymous. That means that we can go back to individual records and look at opportunities to upgrade a donor—if he sounds amendable to it.

Q: How can you tell if a donor is amenable to an upgrade?

DL: Surveys offer signals. We can score donors’ responses to questions such as how engaged they feel to the institution, how loyal they feel to the institution, and various other questions. That enables us to sort through who we can upgrade and who we can avoid. Those types of insights can be extremely valuable.


Dan’s counsel is available to your organization as part of GG+A’s Virtual Resources for Advancement Professionals offering, which you can read more about here.

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