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Donor Participation Project Resources

Leveraging Surveys to Build Donor Relationships Over Time

Nonprofit fundraisers know that long-term, generous donors don’t appear overnight.

It takes time and effort to build meaningful relationships that inspire major gifts.

According to fundraising expert Dr. Russell James, surveys can be an effective tool for developing these lifelong donor connections.

Rather than relying solely on emotional stories, long-term donor relationships depend on understanding supporters’ personal values and life journeys. Surveys are an efficient way to gain insight into many donors at once. Thoughtful questions can reveal how donors identify with your mission and what victories they hope to see.

For example, you might ask, “What values do you share with our cause?” or “If money were no object, what would you change about this issue?”

The answers provide a glimpse into donors’ autobiographical memories and passions.

With this knowledge, you can then frame your work as part of donors’ larger life stories. Describe how your victories over challenges reflect donors’ values and priorities. Show them that they are part of the story too. This approach transforms your appeals into tales of shared triumph that resonate deeply.

Rather than a single story, long-term engagement benefits from an unfolding narrative.

Dr. James suggests featuring a different aspect of your mission each month in direct mail or email appeals. For example, focus on education programs one month and community services the next. This helps donors appreciate the full scope of your work and how various parts reflect what they care most about.

Of course, the setting where you interact with donors also matters. Events, in particular, should evoke feelings of abundance to encourage generosity. While you need not be extravagant, a nice venue and quality experience signals to donors that they are valued and your work is meaningful. This warmth contributes to a long, fruitful relationship where donors give readily and often.

In summary, leverage surveys to discover your donors’ passions and values. Weave these insights into a sustained story of shared meaningful victories. Do this well and your donors will loyally support you for life. The key is knowing them profoundly through the gift of listening.

Surveys provide the questions; donors provide the answers.

View the full recording of this Donor Participation Project session with Dr. James in our Resource Library.

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