Expand the Reach of Feasibility Studies with Surveys

Feasibility study results are dependent on the donors who are interviewed. Although we know from experience that more than 90% of the funds raised in most campaigns will come from less than 5% of donors, at many institutions there would still be more prospective high-level donors than can be interviewed. Although “too many prospects” may sound like a good problem to have, budgetary and practical limits on how many interviews can be included in any study may reduce the utility of the results.

While the perspectives of the interviewed donors are certainly meaningful, they are not necessarily representative of the broader donor community. The sample size is too small and, because they’re typically an institution’s closest supporters, there may be a disconnect between that insider group and everyone else. We often see significant differences when we subdivide survey results by giving level. For example, top-level donors would likely have received a higher standard of stewardship than other donors; they may also have different opinions on the institution’s leadership, with whom they are more likely to have had personal interactions.

That’s why we believe there’s a better way: taking the temperature of a broader swath of donors by incorporating a survey in parallel with interviews of top-level donors. Given that campaigns seek to expand the reach of fundraising, we’ve found that institutions that supplement interviews with a survey of next-tier donors have a better sense of their constituencies’ perspectives on their institution and their likelihood to participate in the campaign.

A broader perspective

Feasibility study interviews require time to arrange and conduct, making them a significant investment. On the other hand, surveys enable institutions to bring significantly more donors into the process at a relatively modest expense. And we’ve found that lower- and mid-level donors want to participate; we routinely see response rates around 20% or more.

That broader perspective offers a wealth of valuable information. For example, incorporating a survey enabled a public land grant university to hear from several thousand high-capacity donors who were not yet giving at their full capacity, in addition to those that were.

The survey brought more people into the conversation and enabled the institution to ask questions and gather data, including upfront questions such as their openness to a gift and to volunteer on the campaign. We also typically include space that gathers qualitative data by allowing respondents to write comments that may provide clues that will assist a gift officer in deciding how to follow up.

The benefits

While feasibility studies provide a wealth of data and insights, the process also serves an important role as an engagement or communications tool. It signals to an institution’s closest constituents that it is considering a campaign and that it has them in mind as leadership donor.

Taking top prospects through leadership briefings and interviews is part of the cultivation process. Testing specific potential giving amounts helps prepare them to be asked. Often the interview with an outside consultant may be the first time that a prospect hears the order of magnitude of the overall campaign goal, and the level at which the institution is thinking of soliciting them.

A survey can expand this additional benefit of a feasibility study by signaling to a broader group of donors that there is an ambitious campaign in the works, that the institution is serious about fundraising, and is considering them to be among the potential donors to this new effort.

At institutions with less experience in fundraising, the feasibility study process can also serve an educational function, especially when it serves to introduce the elements of a comprehensive campaign: multiyear goals, multiple fundraising priorities, and “stretch gifts” payable over multiple years. Surveys can serve a similar purpose (although perhaps to a shallower degree) for a much larger population than could be feasibly interviewed. Although this could be true even in an established institution of higher education that conducts a campaign every decade, it is particularly helpful in up-and-coming organizations conducting their first major efforts and those in countries where these structures may not yet be commonplace.

The survey process also helps build a pipeline. For example, 17% of those who took a recent survey for top-ranked liberal arts school said they would be open to meeting with a gift officer and 13% said they would include the institution in their will. Those next-tier donors are important to identify as the institution builds its pipeline.

While we’re more skeptical of dollar amounts from surveys than we might be of in-person estimates, they do allow us to quantitatively increase the size of the pool and therefore increase our estimation of the gifts available in the campaign. Paired with capacity ratings, self-reported amounts can shed important light on individual prospects.

While each survey is fully customizable, they share a number of similarities. On a macro-level, they aim to broaden support, assess the campaign’s feasibility, determine the funding priorities that have the greatest overall support, and bring more people into the process. On a micro-level, the individual responses help the institution learn which high-priority prospects want to be more involved, and they may even tell us what prospects are passionate about achieving with their philanthropy.

Information is a valuable commodity

The value of surveys is that they serve as a two-way street; they provide information to a broader group of prospects about the proposed campaign than is possible in one-on-one interviews and they enable the institution to gather feedback that can inform its decision-making.

That flow of information often leads to better, more robust feasibility studies, more strategic campaign planning, and, ultimately, better fundraising results.

If you want to know more about the benefits of including surveys in feasibility studies or other ways surveys can benefit your fundraising shop, contact Royal Rarick at RRarick@grenzglier.com

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About the author

Royal Rarick

Associate Director, SurveyLab

Royal Rarick serves as Associate Director in the Analytics Practice Area’s SurveyLab, helping clients gain valuable insights from constituents to align donor aspirations with desired philanthropic outcomes.   Royal brings a wealth of experience delivering strategic business development projects for clients, including survey development, data collection and analysis, and communications. Before…