Donor Relations, Emotional Data, Execution and Tactics, Innovation, Marketing Research, Marketing Strategy, Nonprofits

When to use a Donor Study vs a Donor Survey

by Katie Lord

Donors who give their opinions are more likely to finically support your organization than those that don’t.

As fundraising practitioners, it is our job to not only collect the opinions of our donors but to then use that data to guide our development plans and donor communications. There are two major tools that make this type of data collection easier, donor studies and donor surveys. Not only do we see the misuse of these two tools, but it is a subject where we get a lot of questions here at PROOF. The following will clarify the differences between a donor study and a donor survey and their appropriate use.

To illustrate the differences between the two at a high level, let’s explore a quick analogy. If you have a complex medical issue, you see a specialist. The specialist will help you diagnose the issue, work out a plan of action, and put a treatment plan in place. Then, moving forward, you might see your primary care physician to monitor the issue. Donor Studies are like the specialist, diagnosing and identifying the best course of action and laying foundational strategies for your fundraising communications. A donor survey is an annual checkup to make sure the course of action is working and providing desired results.

Donor Studies:

A donor study identifies and outlines the master plan for engaging your donors. A donor study will help you identify which of your organization’s messages are important to your donors, help you speak to their specific motivations, and identify which segments of new and existing donors provide the largest opportunity for growth and support.

Studies are conducted by third parties experts in research and data collection and they can help to segment your database to maximize your current donors, build retention and identify your audience for acquisition. Studies answer complex questions that are critical to the success of your organization and have the potential to cost both time and resources if implemented incorrectly. The results put numbers and data to your donors’ wants, needs, and reasons for giving to your unique organization. Ultimately, studies take the guesswork out of donor motivations and offer data-driven solutions and tactics to move your mission forward.

A study allows us as fundraisers to understand our donor’s “why” and is best used when:

  • You need to understand donor motivations and sentiments for more targeted communications
  • You have an earned revenue model of any kind
  • Embarking on a new program or a capital campaign
  • You are learning how to increase giving
  • Discovering how to acquire and keep new donors
  • Understanding how to successfully enter a new market
  • Understanding specific sub-populations or segments

With the help of a third-party expert, a donor study will take the complex issues at your organization and simplify them so you can both understand and communicate the issues and execute on them.

Donor Surveys:

A donor survey is something most all nonprofits can execute themselves. They are best used to inform basic donor preferences and identify tactics for fundraising or communication frequency and content. A donor survey builds rapport and creates an understanding of donor preference through short, issue-specific lines of questions.

For example, you should plan to use a donor survey when:

  • You want to understand donor communication preferences and frequency
  • You follow up about what they thought of an event
  • How your staff is performing
  • What you should name your new legacy society
  • What social media channels do they prefer
  • You want to do an annual NPS (Net Promotor Score)

You should NOT use a donor survey when:

  • You are trying to understand what to communicate with a donor
  • You are trying to onboard new donors
  • You want to create database segmentation
  • Testing new programs
  • Winning back lapsed donors

Donor surveys should be implemented annually to make sure that you are still providing the value and experience that your constituents want while continuing to measure behavior. You must be very careful that when implementing a survey that you don’t “lead the witness.” This is easy to do and without realizing it and will typically lead to more harm than good. For further insights on this, check out this article by our CEO + Founder, Grant Gooding.

Your organization should plan to implement typically one donor survey per year and this process can be owned and implemented in your organization. However, if you are trying to move your organization forward, seek an expert to help you implement a study. Plan to spend a little bit of money but the return on that capital will be exponential.

Thought-provoking insights & advice—learn more from the experts at PROOF.