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  • Writer's pictureBeatrice Schulter

Get to know your organisation’s best fundraising consultants – your donors!

The Swissfundraising workshop, January 22, 2020, on donor surveys and interviews, led by Tom Neukirchen from Foundgiver Social Marketing, focused primarily on direct marketing and mailing campaign fundraising. And there are valuable take-aways for institutional fundraising, as well.


Blurry images on the wall…


One of the main challenges NGOs face in fundraising was aptly compared with Plato’s allegory of the cave: NGOs usually operate with a lot of indirect information, analysing data generated through direct marketing or through general surveys conducted by survey institutions. For grant-giving foundations they rely on information in the press, tips and data from other NGOs or on what can be found on the web, which is often not specific enough.


Interaction with donors is generally a one-way communication: NGOs keep sending calls for donations, supported by information on their organisation and work. But how often do they get feedback, apart from the calls of those who are annoyed by receiving mailings? Even with institutional donors the communication is quite one-sided: Grant agreements describe in detail, when and how grantees need to report back to the donor – and rarely include anything about how the donor is going to share information about the level of satisfaction on project implementation, interaction or developments at their end. Fundraising effectiveness is measured primarily based on monetary return, and the reasons why a donor gives or stops giving often remain blurry.



Your donors are your best fundraising consultants

In order to develop a strategic approach to resource development, it is important to know your donors – they are the best fundraising consultants for you. Donor surveys and interviews, therefore, can help NGOs to become better in their fundraising and public communication.

The good news is: donors are generally interested to be heard and to contribute with their views and knowledge. They value the acknowledgement, when the organisation they support is interested in them and in their opinion.

Tom Neukirchen shared some impressive numbers from surveys conducted by numerous organisations he has been working with: Donors who had been inactive for some time responded with a rate of 0.3-0.7%. That might seem very low, but if among 1000 addresses you have 3-7 people with the potential to be reactivated as donors, that’s at least something. More importantly: Following up with those who take the time to reply promises to yield important information on why donors are leaving and what could be improved.


The full potential of surveys gets clear, when looking at the other donor categories: Among regular active small donors between 4 and 12% replied to the surveys, and among high donors the return rate was even higher: between 10 and 34%! The information provided by these individuals allows the organisation to continue the conversation with them based on their specific interest. And it opens a path to upgrade their contributions.


Donor surveys and interviews

A donor survey should be a stand-alone campaign and not mixed with fundraising campaigns. It can be distributed and collected on paper or online. It should contain 10-30 questions with a mix of open and closed questions, and it should not take more than 10 minutes to respond to. The questions need to be specific and adapted to the different kinds of donors, so that it can be used to upgrade each one from one level of support to the next.


After some general questions on the donor’s understanding of the organisation and its work, assessment of the donor service, criticism and wishes, questions on the specific following sections could be elaborated: Communication, engagement, personal information and specific questions relevant for your organisation.

The opportunity should be used, especially in the high donor segment, to include the question, whether they are interested in a personal in-depth interview. This yields another highly valuable opportunity to increase the relation with these donors.


An important point to be considered is to make sure that everyone in the organisation is part in developing the survey, including the content and the implementation plan. The time needed for such a project depends on the donor base. On average the following timeframe should be considered: 6 weeks for preparations, 6 weeks for responses and reports, as well as 6 weeks for the follow-up. It is crucial to be able to respond to wishes, questions and criticism received through the survey in a time-sensitive manner.


A very surprising fact: it is generally possible to cover the costs of such a campaign by including a general payment slip in the mailing or a donate-button in the online survey. In addition to that, the organisations received valuable information on the preferences of their donors: suggestions for channels of communication, their preferred projects and programmes, and their preferred way of donating.



And other ways to involve institutional donors

It is certainly worthwhile to make the effort and “crawl out of the cave” in order to get a better understanding of the market by creating ways to hear our donors. Surveys and interviews are an excellent means to do this.

I also recommend involving institutional donors in various other ways: Apart from the obvious invitations to events and conferences, consider, for example, consulting them for evaluating your strategy or in the process of developing a new one. The idea is not to create a donor-driven, but a donor-conscious strategy. By involving institutional donors through surveys, interviews or strategy workshops, you not only strengthen the donor’s interest and understanding of your work but benefit from new ideas that help you think out of the box. At the same time, you gain valuable insight on your donors’ views and functioning. By establishing increased two-way communications trustful partnerships can be built. They are the prerequisite for NGOs to be able to openly discuss and raise true understanding of important issues that many donors cringe at, for example the meaning and importance of full cost funding or long-term support.



Beatrice Schulter is passionate about organisational development and change management. As Founder and Director of Roots to Rise, she works to strengthen the organisational roots of NGOs/CSOs by facilitating change processes, the development of strategies, and supporting governance strengthening. Connect with Beatrice on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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