4 Ways to Discover What Your Donors are Thinking

by Nate Andorsky



Wouldn’t you love to know what your donors are thinking?

What if you had answers to these questions:

  • Why did someone click on that link but not that one?
  • Ugh – what did we do to cause that person to downgrade their gift?
  • What do we need to say to get the kind of revenue that [enter nonprofit you’re jealous of here] is getting?

Getting inside the minds of your donors is incredibly important. It’s also quite hard.

Let’s talk about 4 ways to discover what your donors are thinking.

1. Get inside the minds of everyone.

Let me explain. Your donors are people, right? So doesn’t it make sense that understanding people better would help you understand your donors better?

I know that you’re a person, so you must understand people. And people differ so much – so your donors must be different from other kinds of people!

Sure – people vary a lot. But there are also a lot of tendencies shared by the vast majority of the human population.

You don’t need your own personal psychologist on staff to leverage a deep understanding of human decision-making in your fundraising campaigns and email marketing. You just need to get a good grasp of behavioral economics – the science of how humans make decisions.

To start getting into the good stuff about how you can use behavioral economics to advance your mission, I recommend listening to my episode of The Generosity Freakshow podcast. Our website and blog, www.creativescience.co/blog, also has some good educational resources, including a comprehensive playbook with examples of how nonprofits are using behavioral economics. I also do presentations and hold workshops so if you’re interested in having your whole team learn more, shoot me an email here: nate@creativescience.co.

2. Ask them.

Yes, website polls can be annoying. But if you want to know what your donors are thinking or feeling, there’s no better way to find out than to ask them. Consider deploying a 3 question poll on your website and carefully selecting questions that, if you knew the answer, would allow you to make actionable change to advance your mission. Remember that close-ended questions are much quicker to answer, so at least the first question of your poll should be close-ended to encourage a high response rate.

Adjust the timing of when your poll should pop up based on the questions you plan to ask. If you want to ask about if someone was able to find what they were looking for on your site, wait until they’ve been on your website for at least 30 seconds before the poll pops up. If you want to know one word they’d use to describe your organization and you want to know their first impression, have the poll pop up more quickly. You can also have a pop-up poll trigger as someone is about to leave your site, or have one pop-up after someone has completed a donation.

Questions you might want to consider include:

  • We’re curious, why are you visiting our website today?
  • What is one word you’d use to describe [organization name]?
  • How easily have you been able to find what you’re looking for?
  • What is one thing that almost stopped you from donating?
  • If you give to other organizations, what organizations do you give to?
    • Are we better or worse at expressing our appreciation for you as a donor?
  • What do you like the most about our website?
  • What do you like the least about our website?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how excited would you be if we offered [change you are considering investing in]?

3. Ask them, part 2.

So you don’t want to put yet another pop-up on your website. Or your website visitors aren’t usually donors, and you care more about what your donors think than about random website visitors. That’s fine! You can also ask your donors about their hopes and dreams in a survey that you email out to them.

A survey might be a better strategy than a poll for some organizations anyways, particularly if you’re more interested in what the people who get your emails think about you than what the people visiting your website think about you. Either way you’re only going to get input from the people who deign to fill out your poll or survey, so take all results with a grain of salt.

One benefit of a survey over a poll is that you can ask more questions. People will rarely spend 10 minutes filling out questions within a website pop-up, but some of them will spend 10 minutes filling out a survey you very nicely asked them to fill out. People love talking about themselves, so ask your donors about themselves and watch the responses rain down on you.

Some of the poll questions work for a survey as well. Other questions you might want to consider include:

  • What kind of website imagery is most appealing to you?
  • What do you most identify with? [provide a list of characteristics you believe may be motivating people to donate to you or otherwise get involved with your organization]
  • Questions that aim to elicit someone’s connection to your cause
  • Do you think our email communication with you is: too little, just right, too much?
  • How do you normally find out information about [organization]?
  • And then some basic demographic questions that can help you build out your understanding of who your supporters and/or donors are. You’ll want to choose demographic characteristics that are interesting to you based on your organization’s mission. Some options are: age, gender, state, educational attainment, geographic area (urban, suburban, rural), political affiliation, zip code, etc.
    • Note that if you collect zip code information it’s possible to use the average household income in a zip code as a proxy for that individual’s household income. They tend to be highly correlated.
    • Know your audience – be careful not to ask anything you think your audience may find invasive, racy, or unnecessary.

4. Participate in an empathy mapping exercise.

Identifying who your donors are and engaging in an empathy mapping exercise can move you leaps and bounds ahead with your donors. If they feel like you’re treating them as people (following NextAfter’s people give to people mantra), they are more likely to give you money. And if you have empathy for them, you’ll naturally treat them like people.

This post on Medium provides a great, simple overview of how to conduct such an exercise on your own. I recommend you download the 1-page canvas, print out copies for your whole team, and have your best facilitator dig into the empathy mapping process a little bit.

If you can use the process described in this blog post to identify your target audiences first, you’ll get a gold star. But if you’re short on time, simply spend some time with your team brainstorming who you want to do the empathy mapping process for. Are you mostly interested in donors or are there program participants, non-financial supporters, and other stakeholders who you want to be thinking more about as well?

Then hold a 90-minute meeting during which you break up into small groups to create an empathy map for a donor to your organization. Spend the last 30 minutes or so sharing out and deciding on any insights you want to incorporate into your development strategy. Pro-Tip: Providing lunch or snacks helps encourage participants to reciprocate your kindness by actively engaging in the activity!


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