Do You Know More Than Your Donors’ Names?

Pile of colorful paper notes with question marks and magnifying glass. Closeup.

By David Deschenes

It is the new year. This means a brand new period of looking forward and planning for success. I hope that 2020 brings you all that you ask for and more. But before we look forward, I’d like to take a quick look back.

This past December, like all Decembers, my mailbox was bending to capacity with mail. LOTS of mail. Holiday sale flyers that reminded me of the shopping I hadn’t done yet, holiday cards from friends and relatives that reminded me of the family card we didn’t do this year (again), and bills (oh, the bills). Then in equal number to all of the aforementioned pieces, there was an ever-present pile of year-end appeals from every organization known to man, woman and family pet. All addressed to me. David. But while they used my name, I felt that most didn’t really know me. It would impress me as a donor if any one of these organizations asked me directly. “Hey, David. What are your interests? What do you want to know?”

Reach Out to Learn About Your Donors

There is no better way to learn about your donors and their interests than to hear from them directly. The effect of reaching out to your donors has a double positive effect: you get to know them, and they’re impressed that you’re asking.

An effective way to gather information across many of your donors at once is through online surveys. SurveyMonkey is a popular platform that is free to use for smaller organizations. Following are some suggestions on effective use of surveys:

  1. Brainstorm with your staff and volunteers to determine what you want to know from your donors.
  2. Make your surveys short & sweet: 5 to 10 questions at most. This will ensure that more people actually finish the survey.
  3. Include both quantitative and qualitative questions. Quantitative allows for quick answers on very specific things. Qualitative lets the donor do the talking.
  4. Schedule surveys to go out at a time you know your donors won’t be receiving a lot of mail (this also provides time to engage your donors outside of the appeal season).
  5. Look for trends in your results. Are there common interests being communicated? Are you finding that many don’t know about what you’re asking? SurveyMonkey automates a lot of the data results for easy interpretation.

Use this data to form your messages. Is there more or less interest across your different programs? Are you finding that people generally aren’t aware of your services or the issues you address? Are you communicating too often or not often enough? What exactly do they want to hear about?

In the Meantime . . . the Here and Now

While you’re gathering your data through surveys, find your stories within – the real-life stories of challenges and successes. Interview your clients, staff, and volunteers.


Talk to staff at your programs to find out if a client is willing to share their story. What were their challenges and how did your organization help them? Donors want to know your using their money responsibly, but they also want to hear from those being helped. And if you can use a photo of the actual person, you’ve made an immediate connection as soon as they’ve opened your appeal.


Why do they do what they do? What drives them to help others? Is there a story about a special connection they’ve made with a client or their family?


Why did they pick your organization to donate their time and talent? What has been the greatest challenge of volunteering? What exactly are they getting out of it?

The messages you convey through your appeal letters, brochures, and online need to resonate with your donors. They need to know that you’re using their name not because they checked a box that pulled it from a database, but because they really know you. Anyone can throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. But a true chef knows exactly what kind of ingredients to use for the best results.