How you can use donor surveys to increase income

Rosie Milsom

Having donor surveys in your fundraising arsenal is an effective way to connect with your supporters, measure your effectiveness in stewardship, and – ultimately – increase your income.

Rosie has been a fundraiser for 10 years, working for multiple causes in both small and large charities. She is currently Head of Fundraising for the British Youth Council, and Chair of CIOF’s Sole Fundraisers Committee. She is also a certified life coach.

Resources and links


Zac Parsons
Hello, everyone, and welcome to this edition of the Charity Professional Development Community’s 20-minute webinars. Today, we are joined by Rosie Milsom, who is going to talk to us about the importance of donor surveys in fundraising. Without further ado, I’ll hand it over to you, Rosie.

Rosie Milsom
Thanks very much, Zac. Right, I’m just going to share my screen because I’ve got a few slides to help us through this session today.

As I said, I’m here today to speak to you about using donor surveys to improve your stewardship and, ultimately, increase your income at your charity. My objective today is to inspire you to either do one, if you haven’t done one before, or do one even better if you have; to show that they can work for you no matter what size of charity you are.

What we’re going to cover is: firstly, the why of why you should be carrying out a donor survey. So, the benefits to you as a charity and why they should be a key part of your fundraising arsenal. And talk about the ‘what’. So, I’ll include some ideas and suggestions on the kind of questions that you can be asking; the questions that have worked for me when I’ve done them before. I’m going to share the results of, and successes and learnings of, me doing them before and some top tips. And then also the ‘how’ and ‘when’ to conduct your survey and what to do with the results when you’ve got them.

First of all, talking about the benefits. It starts a two-way conversation with your donors, it helps them to feel valued. Rather than only going to our donors to make the ask for a campaign, also, we might thank them and report them, but actually seeking feedback from your donors and asking them about their opinions on your work, on your stewardship can make them feel valued. It’s more of a kind of give and take, rather than just the take. And it can also help you identify which part of your mission or work is most important to your donors. So really understanding their motivations, especially if what you do is, or what you deliver as a charity, has multiple streams or projects, can really help you understand which of those ones are really hitting home with your donors. And that, in turn, can help inform your messaging. And when you are developing campaigns or stewardship, you communicate an impact.

It can also show you whether donors feel that they are receiving good stewardship from you. So, are they feeling appropriately recognised? Are you communicating well the impact of their gift? These are all things that you can understand from a donor survey.

But also on the income side, that’s the thing that we really want to love. It gives you the opportunity to prospect for, whether that’s for monthly donors, legacy gifts, major giving events, and ultimately through that prospecting you can increase your income. So those are some of the real key benefits that you will receive for doing donor surveys, no doubt, there’ll be a few more as well.

And now we’re drilling down into the ‘what’. So I thought I would give you some examples of some of the questions to ask that you can put within your donor survey to really get the data that you want. So first of all, on the feedback side, when we’re asking for that feedback from donors about their experience with you as a charity, one of the first questions I’ll often ask is “which area of our work most important or inspiring to you?”, and for that, I would suggest using a ranking option. I’ll talk a bit about some surveying tools later on. But many of them will give that option of having multiple answers that you can rank. And again, that goes back to what I was saying about understanding which area of your work as a charity is something that your donors are most passionate about, or which programme, or which stream.

Another one is around how well they feel recognised. So I’ve put suggested one there about setting the tone there to say that it’s important to us to make sure that you feel valued, “how well do you feel we recognise your donation?” So again, that’s “how quickly and”, probably, “appropriately were you thanked?”, and also about “how well do you feel we’ve communicated how your donation is spent?”. So that’s about whether or not you’re effectively reporting back to them about the impact that their donation is making or where their donation has gone and what work it supported.

The next one I tend to ask is around making sure they know how important their support to us, is to your charity, sorry. So, my sample question around that would be “how much of an impact do you feel your donation has made?” And again, similar to the previous question, that’s helping you understand whether or not you are communicating impact, how important they feel their donation is, how important are you making them feel.

And then the next one is around really understanding what type of comms is landing with your audience, which type of comms do your donors receive, that they find most valuable, most enjoyable to read, or enjoy and consume. And you can list your current kind of communications options, so you might have your monthly newsletter, they might prefer to keep up via social media, they might most appreciate the impact reports, they might most appreciate the handwritten thank you letters. So, put your options there and see which ones are really resonating. And whether you do update events for your donors. And it will show you where, I mean … hopefully, you’re getting an idea of what kind of level of engagement and appreciation there is for those types of comms. But if it’s not easy for you to tell, that will give you a real good snapshot of what the donor is most like to use to keep up to date with your charity. And then that’s where you can focus a lot of your time on expanding and developing.

I also put one in there that lets them put, in their own words, why they donate to your charity. And I normally leave that as a free-form box. And it just allows them to speak more to their personal experience of why they support you. And just allows that individual bit of feedback.

And then in terms of questions to ask for prospecting. So I’ve got a sample in there of a current one that I use at BYC, there’s a really interesting question that you can ask about how likely they are to donate to us again. And again, that gives you an indication of you know, whether their support of you is continuing. And whether you have done such a good job in stewardship that they want to give to you again.

And then the second tier to that, I usually use that as a platform to go into monthly giving. So I’ll say, “if you’ve answered that you’re likely to give to our charity again, would you consider becoming a member and giving a monthly donation from just three pounds a month?”.

In terms of the prospecting questions, so you can try and get a sense of what events they might be interested in, I put one in there “would you be interested in attending any of the following..?”, whether that’s, you know, cultivation and stewardship events, like support, or receptions or programme sharings, or whether that’s anything from gala dinners, afternoon tea events, you know, if you’re looking to expand your fundraising events programme, and you want to get a sense of whether or not there’s enough interest to do that kind of thing and invest that kind of money, then that’s something you can ask in your donor surveys.

And then other prospecting questions are around legacies and major giving. So I put a couple of examples here to gently ask “after you provided for your loved ones, would you consider leaving a gift in your will?”. So if legacies is an area of fundraising that you are looking to develop, then that can be a question that you can include.

And then another question that I know has worked very well for a lot of charities, including those small charities, is asking about whether or not they are in the position to or would like to talk about making a transformational gift. So I’ve left the amount blank there because you know what’s going to be a transformational or major gift to your charity might be different to what it is to my charity. But just to give that option, again, it’s that prospecting it’s that reaching out for those who perhaps have the ability to give you a high amount of gift but it’s difficult to tell from the gifts that they’ve given you so far in your database. And that’s another way that you can prospect to

And then just some top tips there on survey questions. I would suggest keeping it to 10 to 12 questions, max. I think I had about 12 or 13 last time which is possibly a couple too many and I’ll go into the reasons why for that in a moment. But definitely, you want to keep it manageable, something that they don’t go “ugh, so many to think about”. And in that sense, what will help inform those decisions is thinking about what you want to find out or promote. So having some specific objectives for going into that survey, what do you want to find out about? What is it that you specifically want to promote? And that leads on to the next one? You know, don’t try and do or ask it all.

The majority of your questions absolutely should be feedback questions, that if you’ve got too many prospecting ones in there, they’re going to think “well, they’re just fishing for more stuff”. If your priority is monthly giving or legacy giving, and perhaps I’d suggest that you have, maybe, two questions around there, but I probably wouldn’t put all three in (a major donor, legacy, and monthly giving). So don’t try and do or ask it all; pick what aligns with your strategy and what you’re looking to grow. And specifically, if you’re looking to find out about how well you’re stewarding people, just think about those objectives, and keep it to those key things.

And give a range of answering options. So, try not to use a “yes” or “no”, try and use a sliding scale of options. I would normally use, where asking a question if they feel appropriately recognised, I would use – perhaps – an extremely well, very well, somewhat well, not at all well. Because people aren’t always just black and white, they might be on the fence about things. And similarly, with monthly giving. You don’t want them to just say a straight-out “no”, and then think, “Oh, well, I can’t promote monthly giving to them anymore, they’ve already told me they’re not interested”, you can have an option that’s “yes. And please send me more info now” or have an option that’s “yes. but not right now”. And then you can still keep them on that if that’s what they choose. And also leaving a comments box where, if people want to extend their answer to more than just that, or they want to expand on the point.

And then also tailoring for different types of donors. So I send two different versions of the survey. I send, obviously, a different one to monthly donors than I do to one-off donors, because you don’t want to be asking about monthly giving to monthly donors who already give. So just thinking about that when you send those questions.

And then my other top tip is to follow up on any feedback and thank participants who aren’t anonymous. So I usually leave an option at the end for them to leave their email address if they’re interested in talking about any of the other options. So, if you have that and you know who’s responded, do thank them for taking part and pick up on any feedback that they’ve given.

Now talking on the ‘how’. So, thinking about tools and timescales. You can use Typeform, that’s actually supposed to be SurveyMonkey, not MailChimp, I always get them mixed up, even though I use both of them. And I believe Google Forms also have a free surveying option and the free option for SurveyMonkey, I think you can only have up to 10 questions, which is fine, but I think you can now only have up to 10 responses. So if you are sending out to a few, you’ll probably need a few more.

And thinking about how you’re going to send it. So, email and post, or just email. If some of your donors are of a certain age, you might want to include that postal option for them too and increase the chance of them replying. And thinking about how often you’ll send as well, I genuinely function on the premise of two years, I think perhaps every year is a little bit too much, especially if you have a small donor pool. But if you are a large charity, and you have a lot of donor data, then you could perhaps do it every other year and just segment those who’ve sent it to you before.

And then just thinking about how you’ll present the data, are you going to share it with trustees or are you going to share it with the wider team? You know, we created some just really simple Excel graphs and summary documents in Word that can help us just really look at the data in a simple way and see where we were doing good and where we needed to develop.

Now I’m just going to quickly share with you some of my results to show how this can work for you. So the most recent one I did was in February this year. I sent it via email to 69 donors – one-off donors that is – and then 13 monthly donors. I put there the average open rates, click rates, and the completion rates. You’ll see that – actually – the completion rate for the monthly donor survey was less than the one-off, which I was surprised by; I thought the monthly donors would be the ones to commit to continuing it to the end. And that’s why I’m saying that perhaps I would have scaled back one or two of the questions just to make it a bit more manageable for them to complete.

But the wins I got from it were three new monthly donors, two people interested in legacy giving, and we also uncovered two people who confirmed they had already given us a gift in their will that we didn’t know about, which means that we could keep in touch with them and steward them properly and send info to the people interested in legacies. And another big win was the fact that 95% of them felt extremely or very well recognised for their donation and 90% felt we communicated the impact of the donation extremely or very well, which was really great.

And then versus this. I did one at my previous charity, where the donor database was absolutely from scratch. I mean, both of these are quite small, small charities. But yeah, email to 50 donors, hardcopy sent to around 25 donors in the post. And wins from that was one unsolicited donation via cheque, two monthly donors, and seven people registered their interest in events.

I’m talking about charities that are really quite new to their fundraising function. So just imagine what these could have been, and what these results could be, if you’re a charity with more donor data than that. So, I just want to show that goes to show that this works for small charities too. And it gives you a massive and great insight, as well as growing your supporter base and income. So that is all from me. So thank you very much for listening. And I’ll now open up to any questions, I’ll just stop sharing my screen.

Zac Parsons
Great, thank you so much, Rosie, it’s amazing to see those results; it really brings into view the tangibility of what we’re talking about. And I love the idea of being disciplined with the number of questions because I know what it’s like, you’re just so tempted to go “I want to know all of the things”. And so really having that discipline. And it’s great to get some concrete examples of questions to use, either as carbon copy or as inspiration. So in terms of questions we, as charities – or some of us – do fundraising where we have fundraisers and our donors are indirect, for lack of a better word, what’s your approach to surveying those indirect donors?

Rosie Milsom
So you mean like these who – perhaps – sponsored someone using a challenge? They didn’t directly donate? I do segment those donors in our emailing system, and our CRM, so I tag them as sponsors, as opposed to donors. But the thing is, you can’t always assume the connection. So I would always send it to them, they can always read it and decide to not to fill it in or not to subscribe. But by taking that option away from them, you might have converted them with great stewardship, they might have come on board as an indirect donor, and then actually through your stewardship and demonstration of impact and telling stories they would want to give again, so I would always include them.

Zac Parsons
Brilliant, duly noted. Thanks very much, Rosie. We will close by another big thank you to Rosie for such an amazing session. And I hope you will all go away and start building surveys and start talking to your donors through that. So brilliant. Thank you very much, everyone, and we will see you next time. Thank you.