What Do You Know About Your Donors
and What Do They Know About Your Organization?

If we’re going to ask people for money, it sure helps if they think highly of both our organization and its mission.

  • Do they see our mission as vital and valid?
  • Are we perceived as being successful at carrying out that mission?
  • Has our organization earned and maintained trust and respect?
  • Have we been efficient stewards of donations and resources?
  • Has any controversy been associated with us?
  • Have questions about any of our leaders arisen?
  • Do people believe we are the right organization to address what we declare in our Mission Statement?
  • Do they know enough about us to have formed any deeply held opinions?

Learn About Your Donors

Methods to learn the opinions and impressions donors have of your organization can be implemented in a number of ways, including mail, e-mail, telephone, focus discussions, and face-to-face meetings. Whether comprehensive one-on-one interviews, or a mix of any of the other options, surveys do not need to be complicated research instruments. A simple questionnaire (or format, for personal meetings) can be tallied either by hand or, if you structure the questions right, on a simple computer spreadsheet.

When conducting a donor satisfaction and donor interest evaluation, I think a few suggestions on how to collect data are in order:

Questionnaires are a good way to collect a lot of information quickly. Unsigned questionnaires guarantee anonymity. They are easy to manage, and multiple-choice responses can be easy to quantify. But you have to be careful not to write questions that bias responses. Questionnaires lack a personal touch, and both survey design and sample selection require a high level of expertise. At the very least, a professional should be involved in the creation of the questions.

Focus groups give you a chance to explore issues in depth with donors. Putting six or seven contributors in a room with a video camera running and asking questions of the group as a whole can yield valuable information. However, it is sometimes tough to get people to commit to giving the time and showing up when expected. The group facilitator needs to be able to establish instant comfort for participants and keep them both engaged and on track. You will probably need a professional communicator as group facilitator. Focus groups should be scheduled on a continuing basis to establish benchmarks and measure change. Since the responses are freeform, it can be hard to analyze results, and that analysis can be quite time consuming.

Interviews give you a chance to talk with donors one-on-one. They can yield some great information due to the give-and-take of the conversational process. However, the interview process is time consuming. The information acquired is often anecdotal in nature and can be very hard to quantify. It is easy for a less skillful interviewer to bias responses unintentionally.

What Do You Want to Know?

First, take a hard look at what you want to learn and about the uses to which you intend to put the donors’ responses. Although some questions are “standard,” you will be more productive if you develop a survey tailored to your organization’s specific need. Whether comprehensive one-on-one interviews, or a mix of other information gathering methods is used, donor survey planning must take into account:

Size and make up of the donor base to be surveyed.

  1. Survey timeline.
  2. Adequacy of resources to perform the survey.

Suggested Questions To Be Presented to Donors

Use or adapt those of relevance and importance to your organization and the survey method.

  • On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 highest) how familiar are you with (name of your organization)?
  • Have you formed any deeply held opinions about us? What are they?
  • What do you perceive to be our mission statement?
  • Do you see our mission as vital and valid?
  • Do you perceive us as being successful at carrying out that mission?
  • Do you believe we are the right organization to address what we declare in our mission statement?
  • What do you know about us overall?
  • What do you know about our ….?
    1. Administration
    2. Board of Trustees
    3. Volunteers/Auxiliaries
    4. Staff
    5. Facilities
    6. (Add other components related to type of NPO: i.e., faculty, curriculum, case workers, medical staff, etc.)
  • What do you see as our strengths?
  • In what areas, if any, do you see potential for improvement?
  • Have we earned and maintained your trust and respect?
  • What priority in terms of community (and your) needs would you place on our (List THE main program, service, or project which drives your organization)?
    High _______ Moderate ________ Low ________
  • What priority do you place regarding importance to the community (and to you) on the following? (List OTHER key programs, services, and projects known to be associated with the organization—as many as reasonable and practical.)
    High _______ Moderate ________ Low ________
  • What are your impressions of our financial condition?
  • What makes you feel good (or otherwise) about your financial support?
  • Have we been efficient stewards of your donations and resources?
  • How would you describe the most compelling reason the community should support us?
  • Which other organizations do you support? Why? How are we ranked in priority with them relative to the amounts you give?
  • To your knowledge, has any controversy been associated with us?
  • Have you ever had any questions or concerns about any of our leaders? About our administration? —– About our staff?
  • How do you feel about the various materials we send to you? Newsletters, solicitation letters, other communications?
  • Are we included in your financial estate plans? If not, are you familiar with our charitable giving opportunities that offer you income?
  • May we please have any other comments, advice, and recommendations?


Will your donors answer honestly and objectively? The answer is a qualified “Yes.” Some will answer a question not quite truthfully, and we may never know the reason. Some may not understand a question and thus, will give a “wrong” answer. Sometimes a donor may find a question to be inappropriate, even offensive, and they will not reply.

Acting on the Findings and Recommendations

Once a donor survey has been completed and you’ve received a report of its findings, conclusions, and recommendations, you’re ready to start the toughest part of the process. Now, you have to listen and pay attention and act. You have a wonderful opportunity to benefit greatly from what your donors told you about the pleasure and satisfaction they derive from their support to your organization, as well as to be alerted to their concerns and cares. You work as best you can to “fix” the things that need fixing, according to what the donors told you. And you need to continue and to enhance the cultivation practices which are the most desired and satisfying to your donors. This will surely help in great measure to maximize your chances for their giving to continue, and it will provide opportunities for even larger gifts in the future.

What if the Donor Survey Tells You
What You Don’t Want to Hear?

Make sure that you take the time to go over every aspect of the donor survey. Don’t skip over negative things that on first reading seem minor. It is folly to take the time to conduct a donor survey, spend the money on it, and then risk alienating people important to the organization by ignoring the survey’s recommendations. An organization that ignores some or all of a donor survey’s findings is making a mistake that can damage the organization.

Who Should Conduct the Survey?

The principal value of having outside counsel perform a donor survey is the opportunity to obtain candid answers to tough questions. A consultant is not part of the organization’s “family,” and that means the responses from survey subjects will be more candid and complete.

However, face-to-face meetings between donors and staff or volunteers are great relationship builders as well as a productive data-gathering tool when structured for “listening and learning,” instead of “talking and selling.”

When They Become Non-Donors

You should as well consider conducting selective “exit” interviews with major donors who have declared that their previous gift to your organization was their last gift—whether or not you know the reason they asked you to take them off your donor list.

As well, donor surveys should be selectively conducted with those whose major gifts have been missed for no known reason for at least two years.

Rejections Are Opportunities to Correct Real or Perceived Problems

There are times when you can selectively conduct an exceedingly simple, but effective, survey.

When I was conducting telefunding campaigns as development director of the Cleveland Orchestra, I would look at the reports on persons who the night before had asked to be taken off our list. Some of them would be people who had given us $250 or $500 or even $1,000 in the past. I would call them and say, “I know you said no, and we will take you off our list, but I want to be sure we are taking you off because of something that we can’t fix or is out of our control.” They would, invariably, appreciate the call and would tell me if they indeed wanted to be taken off the list because of a grievance. Sometimes the reason was something we could fix. Sometimes they would even reconsider and make a gift, but I never asked them to. The purpose of my call was to save these prospects for the future, if possible, and to find out if we had done something wrong.

You can use this same strategy at any time, even when the morning’s mail and other sources bring bad news of a loss or a reduction of a major donation. Don’t wait to find out.

Building Donor Loyalty

If you want donors to be loyal to, and support, your organization, they must know you, trust you, and believe that you are fulfilling your mission and using their contributions wisely. If you don’t know who your donors are and what they think of your organization, you can’t successfully communicate with them.

Just think. There you are, for once not asking for their money, but making them feel as important as they really are when you ask for their opinions and impressions about your organization.

Be of good cheer and confident of the almost always welcome and delighted reception you will receive when you ask a donor to participate in your survey. It’s almost a sure thing that the donor will say, “I’ll be happy to answer you questions. No one ever asked me before.”