Design Surveys That Donors Will Answer

A learning organization is one that systematically collects and responds to what donors and beneficiaries have to say,

A learning organization is one that systematically collects and responds to what donors and beneficiaries have to say, and then acts on that information. Surveys and questionnaires are wonderful tools to collect that information. Surveys are used extensively in the private and governmental sectors. Although many nonprofits are using surveys, many are still a little reluctant to use them.

An organization-wide donor survey can reveal a lot of wonderful nuggets of information that can then be used to drive program, marketing, and fundraising strategy. When it comes to legacies, a survey is a quick, simple and cost-effective way to gauge donors’ knowledge and interest in considering leaving a bequest. In fact, it’s the starting point in building a legacy pipeline.

However, there is a science and art to crafting a good survey that will motivate donors to respond. The intention and desired outcome has to be extremely clear before starting to craft the questionnaire. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Set a clear goal for the survey

Nothing confuses respondents more than trying to answer a survey where there is no clear goal and objective behind the questionnaire. For instance, sending a survey to gauge donors’ knowledge about gifts in will but then asking questions about program-related priorities for the future. While trying to clump a bunch of questions into one survey may seem like a cost-effective way to gather a lot of information at once, it will actually confuse respondents. In this case, it’s best to conduct a larger charity survey rather than a legacy-focused one.

Pro tip: write out a clear goal and for every question you draft, ask yourself “are the answers to this question getting me the information that will help me reach the goal?”.

  • Allow for a couple of demographic questions at the end

Imagine you’re at a cocktail party and someone strikes up a conversation by asking your age and marital status. Yikes! The same logic applies to surveys. Treat the flow of your questions as a conversation, keeping the first questions light but straightforward and slowly move to more personal questions, and ending with a few demographic questions.

Pro tip: for a legacy survey, the first question could be a general question that puts the donor at ease and makes them reflect on why they started donating to your charity. However make sure it’s a multiple choice question, with the possibility to provide more qualitative details.

  • Keep it short and to the point

Unless you’re a government agency doing a mass census survey, you shouldn’t need a 50 question survey! A survey with approximately 12 questions should suffice. Can you go over 12? Yes of course, there’s no “rule” but make sure every question counts. Don’t forget that donors are doing YOU a favour by responding to the survey. And besides, you will increase your response rate by keeping it short and to the point.

Pro tip: map out all the questions you want to ask, then evaluate them based on your survey’s goal. Whatever doesn’t meet the goal gets tossed out. Refine every question until you have your 12 questions.

  • Ask closed-ended questions

Closed-ended questions such as multiple choice or checkbox questions make it easier for respondents to answer. Don’t forget that anything that appears to require thought and reflection will appear to require more effort and therefore, respondents will likely avoid. Closed-ended questions also provide you with quantitative data that you can use in your analysis. 

Pro-tip: you may also want to consider using a mix of closed-ended and open-ended questions for a question that requires more details.

  • Remain objective

It can be easy to ask questions that may lead respondents in a certain way. Doing so will not reflect the person’s true perspective which then will not provide you with the insights needed to reach your goal.

Pro tip: instead of asking “which of these exciting legacy society benefits do you prefer”, ask “please identify which of these benefits offered to legacy donors do you prefer”. 

  • Avoid double-barreled questions

One question – one answer. No more than that! Double-barreled questions are questions where you ask two questions into one. This confuses the respondent because they won’t know which part of the question they must answer. Be specific and intentional.

Pro tip: avoid asking something like “would you consider and have you left a gift in your will to ACME”. Instead, ask “have you considered leaving a gift in your will to ACME” and then ask “when thinking about leaving a charitable gift in your will and ACME, which of these best represents your current position”.

  • The accompanying letter

Take the time to craft a thoughtful accompanying letter that explains the goal of the survey and the purpose for which the information will be used. Don’t forget to reassure donors about privacy and confidentiality matters.

Pro tip: if you decide to offer an incentive to survey respondents, don’t forget to mention it in the letter. Be creative and offer something that is mission-based and of value such as a special behind-the-scenes experience or a special invitation.


The list could go on but if you follow these guidelines and tips, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a wonderful survey. Of course, the learning should not stop with just the surveys. They are simply tools to get one perspective. Listening, engaging, and paying attention to our constituents’ behaviour will provide us another perspective that cannot be captured by surveys. 

If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind surveys and questionnaires, here are some additional readings:

Asking Questions: the definitive guide to questionnaire design by Norman Bradburn, Seymour Sudman, Brian Wansink.

Designing and Conducting Survey Research by Louis M. Rea, Richard A. Parker.

This blog post by Kevin Schulman over at DonorVoice.

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