3 Kinds Of Signals Donors Are Sending You

How do you know who your donors are and what matters to them?

Your donors are sending you signals all the time. Through their behavior, giving, preferences, and words, they’re telling you what’s most important to them and how they want to connect with you. In this week’s session of The Responsive Weekly, Bryan Funk and Megan Donahue discussed three types of important donor signals, and how to listen for them to improve your fundraising strategy.

Watch the Full Recording Here

Top Takeaways

  • Donor signals include the digital behavior you observe, the things they tell you in conversations, surveys, and interviews, and public information you can access via data appending.
  • Digital behavior includes website activity, online giving, email click-throughs, downloads, sign-ups, and more. Use a tracking pixel like the Responsive Listener to track web behavior, and your email provider to observe which subject lines, messages, and calls-to-action resonate with your supporters.
  • Feedback from your supporters is important. Use surveys and interviews to solicit their stories, ideas, and opinions.
  • Third-party data appends, like wealth data or social media information, can round out your picture of your supporters.
  • When you listen to your donors’ signals, you’ll be able to connect more meaningfully and make more relevant suggestions.

Episode Transcript:

Megan Donahue:

Hi everybody, and welcome to The Responsive Weekly. I’m Megan Donahue, and today I am joined by Bryan Funk. So change of plans. Hopefully you got the email. Our pals from DonorSearch couldn’t make it today. So instead Bryan and I will be talking about donor signals together. He stepped in and it should be a fun time.

So first things first, a couple of little housekeeping items. Set your chat pane to “Everyone” so that people can see your answers and questions in the comments or in the chat.  Our session will be recorded and a recap will be sent out tomorrow. No Virtuous demo today, but you can always schedule your very own demo anytime at virtuous.org/demo. We’re happy to show you how Virtuous works and how it can help you be a more responsive fundraiser. And finally, we’re glad you’re here. You could be anywhere on a Thursday and you’re here with us and we appreciate it. 

So, kicking off. Hi Bryan.

Bryan Funk:

Hey Megan. Happy Thursday. Happy to join today. A little bit of adaptability, a little bit of responsiveness, and excited to hop on to talk about donor signals today.

Megan:

Yeah, absolutely. Our original topic was talking about looking for indications of major gift prospects or ways to identify major gift prospects. So donor signals do still play into that, so we’ll talk about that a little bit too. But mostly we’re going to talk about listening. So we’ll talk about, first about the power of listening, then some of the kinds of signals you can watch for with your donors to learn more about them. And then as always, put your questions and comments and experiences in the chat so we can all learn together. 

So let’s jump right in. We’re going tolook at three kinds of signals, but before we do that, I’m going to take my screen share off so we can have human faces instead of slides.

Bryan:

Love it. Yeah, I mean, let’s jump in. Overall, at the bird’s eye view, you know, the three kinds of donor signals that we will talk about will encompass all of the information, the data points that inform what our donors care about, what they’re interested in, and most importantly, how do we connect with them and communicate with them in a way that’s contextual and relevant to their passion points and their connection points with your organization. And you know, the data shows that when we are more personal and more contextual to a donor’s relationship to us, the higher engagement we get from our donors as well as increasing lifetime giving with our donors.

Megan:

Absolutely. And it’s interesting, I was thinking about this because our starter question today was how do you know what your donors are most passionate about or what they care about? What’s important to them? And I said in the chat that if I’m being honest, a lot of the time in the past when I was asking this question, the answer was really “guessing.”  Not making random guesses. They were pretty educated guesses about what our donors cared about, but they were still based on me thinking, “Well, what’s going to be motivating? What’s going to be most interesting? What, what would I want to receive? Which is not always really the way to pursue that question because I might be different than a lot of my donors. Or we might have similar things, but if I’m guessing, I don’t really know. I like that John very simply put the answer in the chat of “Ask them.” Ask.

Bryan:

Yeah. And we’re also living in an age where, I’m also reminded of the Giving USA Annual Report that recently came out, and still to this day, over 60% of giving in the United States is supported by low to mid-level individual donors. And we usually do a really, really great job listening to and asking and engaging with our high net worth, high influence donors, which is also a pool that’s shrinking that we continue to rely on. And so how do we actually scale our listening? How do we actually give more time and attention and detail to, the average everyday donor, that is contributing to the majority of giving to philanthropy? Here in this day and age.

Megan:

Right? And starting to build back that mid and lower-level base, as that’s a shrinking contingent. And we do need that support because, this is not to slam on major giving, major giving’s great, we all like that, but for most nonprofits, a lot of your individual giving will not be coming from millionaires necessarily. So finding ways to engage everybody across the database from millionaires to your $5 a month donor, and engaging with them personally is important.

Bryan:

Yeah, I actually spent the last two days at an offsite retreat with about 30 chief development officers, one of whom was a former fundraiser at St. Jude. And I didn’t know this statistic, but the average gift size, across all donors at St. Jude is a $35 donation. To which I said, “Wow, that’s incredible.” So we can see the power of the majority of donors that make up our giving database. We see the power of the collective, we see the power of the compound effect when a lot of littles come together to make a big difference. And we have insights and tools that can help us be able to, again, like Megan was saying, cultivate these relationships, with the majority of our givers

Megan: 

Right? So we know how this works in a major gift context, right? You go out for coffee and ask people, “Why did you give, what brought you to our organization? What are you most passionate about, about our cause, and you have a conversation and that’s how you learn. And then you can say, “Oh right, you told me that you love the ballet because you were a dancer as a child. And so I know later, “Oh, our children’s dance programs might be very useful, very intriguing to you personally as a donor.” So doing that at scale for everybody is a little bit different. We have to bring in some technology and tools because we can’t go out to coffee with every donor once we have, you know, more than, I don’t know, a hundred of them, it becomes impossible. So nobody’s suggesting listen to your donors one on one, individually, every single one of them, because we know you can’t do that. But using technology you can start to actually get those same insights at scale. So there are some signals that we wanted to talk about today. Three different kinds and you can kind of look at these as the things you observe, the things donors tell you, and the things that are public information.

So we could call that behavior, feedback, and data append. And each one of these is a tool you can [use], or an approach to learning more about your donors at scale, so that you can get that kind of insight on each donor without spending all your time doing it. So, behavior. Yeah. So that’s the first one I wanted to talk about.

Bryan:

Yeah, I was going to say, let’s play in the behavior sandbox. I think where I’d love to play with first is what are the digital behaviors that we can be looking at and tracking? And so the first place I go to, especially with my marketing hat on, is we want to be tracking and looking at, across our donor file, what webpages are our donors visiting? Where are they spending time on our website? What messages, what stories of impact resonate most with your donor base? Again, we want to look at our segmentation. We want to look at our donor personas and we can start to see trends, and by analyzing this data to see, “Oh, I can see that donors interested in this program care most about X and they want to receive messages and communications that are most relevant to that passion point.” So we can look at where do donors spend time with us online. We can even look at what are our email open rates? What are the messages within our email communications that convert the most, opens the most conversions, and click-throughs? What emails drive the most donations? These are all things that signal to us through our digital channels, what do donors care most about?

Megan: 

Right? You can start looking at things like what kinds of calls to action do people respond to and what kinds of programs are they most engaged with? And that gives you the opportunity then to segment further as you go along with your communication strategies so that you don’t have to send mass messages to everyone at a certain giving level.

Like the only thing that you segment by is “Is this a person who has the capacity to make a $10 gift or is this a person who has the capacity to make a hundred dollar gift?” They both might be very, very passionate about clean water, equally passionate about clean water, but they have different capacities for giving.  So if I say, “Well I’m only going to send my clean water appeal to people who could give me a hundred dollars or more, then I’m going to leave out the passions of the people who are making smaller gifts. Whereas if I start segmenting by their interests, by their passions, by what’s resonated for them before, then I can start engaging everybody.

Bryan:

Yeah. I think my mind also goes through, I know that we talk about this a lot, Megan, but my mind also goes to what behaviors do we not see that help inform how we want to engage and how we want to build a relationship with a donor? The example that I love to give, it’s like one of my favorites, but it’s “Who visits our donation form but never gives a donation?” This completely changes the context in terms of donors that are potential donors or repeat donors that are abandoning a donation form. How does that inform how we want to create connection? This is a great signal and you know, it doesn’t mean that a donor necessarily doesn’t want to give. We live in a hyper distracted world and environment. So how are we helping bridge the gap between all the distractions? How does that inform how we want to build a relationship?

Megan: 

Yeah. And it’s interesting because those page abandons are such a high percentage of people who get all the way through. They click through on the email or the social media call to action or something. They’re all the way to the page and then abandon the gift. So you do know something about their intent: they were at least interested enough to check it out. And as you’ve said, often the reason is distraction or something like that. So if you can capture who those people are and observe that signal based on their behavior, you then have options for re-engaging them because you know something about them. And as you said, it’s often not that they went to your donation page and thought, “Ah, what an unworthy organization. I shall not give them money. I actually hate this cause that I thought was interesting.” That’s not what happens. 

I’ve started watching this behavior in myself since I became aware of the stats around gift abandons. And so many times it’s one little point of friction that my brain is like, “Oh, too hard. Solve it later. Oh, do I have to get out my credit card and type it in? Well I’ll do that later.” And so I’ve definitely been part of the statistic of people abandoning gifts, not because I didn’t care, but because there was one point of friction that stopped me. So looking at those signals and points of data, absolutely it would be useful for nonprofits to then send me an email, not necessarily an ask, and not necessarily a “Hey, you abandoned your donation page, What’s up?” Because I personally would start feeling a little bit stalked at that point. But it would be a really good time for me to get an email reminding me that that organization exists, after I’ve abandoned the page.

Bryan:

There are also signals that can help us look at, is our donation page optimized. So what changes can we make in the fields on our donation form? How do we change the visuals and the associated story that we’re trying to tell on that page? And then do you actually see an increase or decrease in conversions when you make those changes? So then we can continue to listen to the donor signals based upon this digital behavior that can help us be responsive to make tweaks and changes to our donation page. Right? So there are a lot of layers, which you can take this farther into your CRM. Do you potentially use segmentation or tagging based upon behaviors and then create workflows and communications based upon that behavior-driven data? We can even use, our current tools and technology to help us within our own systems, be able to connect more personally, with relevance to these behaviors. I think, Megan, before we jump on to the next donor signal, we’ve talked a lot about digital behavior, but I think that there are behaviors that happen in the real world around us offline just as much as they do online. So what are some potential offline behaviors that would be good donor signals or inputs for fundraisers to listen to?

Megan:

Yeah, I think also seeing, who attends events is a good one. Things like showing up, asking questions, who are your volunteers, things like that. These are all signals of interest that you can use because again, we want to take a broader picture of generosity and not just look at people’s monetary giving, but also looking at their volunteer giving. That can also be a signal of interest and intent and ways they want to engage. So yeah, I think there are some good things there as well.

Bryan:

Yeah, there are behaviors and asks and action points beyond giving like volunteering, right? How does the engagement within our volunteer base help inform like a behavior, a passion point, et cetera? 

Megan:

If you’re wondering “how do I track these things? How do I know what donors are doing on my website?” The answer there is tracking, tracking pixels or other forms of technology that help you see things. For email, it’s your email provider or program for what kind of metrics you can track, what you can see. For CRM, that’s where you see if you have the capabilities for tagging automations, workflows, things like that. 

Bryan:

John also makes a really good point. He said earlier in the chat that he’s creating a hybrid major gift program that leans into technology and the trend that they’re seeing is that people don’t really want to meet unless there’s a strong reason to ask. So I’d be really curious, John, if you want to drop it in the chat, what are some of the leading behaviors or indicators that you are leaning into that tell you maybe someone’s more ready for an ask than someone else? I’d be really curious at what you’re looking at. Super interesting. Thanks for sharing.

Megan:

And you can be clever about this too. If there are things you want to know, you can create opportunities for supporters to send you that signal. So if you want to know, are people very interested in this program versus that program, you could try creating downloadable PDF about each one and then see who goes for what. That might be a good thing. This is completely and entirely me just making up an idea. Somebody test this out in the field, see how it works. But that seems like that could be an interesting thing for planned giving too. If you created a downloadable PDF that was gated so that you could collect an email address or that you could otherwise track, that would be a very strong signal that someone was interested. And then you could have the follow-up conversation in a warm way instead of a, “Hey, have you ever thought about making a will? Just wondering” kind of conversation. So testing, creating opportunities to collect signals that are most interesting to you or that you’re most curious about. Also a good way to get more of those signals. So that kind of naturally brings us to the kinds of signals that donors volunteer themselves or respond to when asked, which is the second kind. So surveys, interviews, all that good stuff.

Bryan:

Yeah. We often recommend that communication’s a two-way street and we can ask our supporters and donors for feedback. It’s a great way to engage them. Sometimes this is at scale using a survey, right? We often recommend that folks, at least every nine months, survey segments within their donor base to elicit feedback on their levels of engagement, extracting details about their story and connection with you. But also, I’ve even seen examples where, I know one fundraiser who actually when writing a new direct mail appeal called, one of their donors that often responds to direct mail appeals to get feedback on why they respond and actually ask them questions and involve them in the process of, “Hey, I’d like to actually show you the next appeal. What do you think? Like, how does this land with you?” It was like an incredibly powerful way to gather feedback directly from a donor as they were writing an appeal. Super powerful way to survey a donor’s point of view.

Megan:

That’s great. And I see there’s a great conversation happening in the chat about appealing to donors of different generations and what kinds of data points people are looking at. John said for looking at major donor data points, he’s looking at giving patterns, wealth screening, and with the help of Virtuous (Hey, thanks John!), and do they respond to personalized text videos, where they spend time on the website and those digital signals. So that’s great.

Bryan:

I also want to call out Kimberly asked a question about how do you build relationships with Gen Zers and Millennials? And Lisa’s follow-up is actually really interesting about their organization partnering with another nonprofit that shares the same mission, essentially doing a 50/50 fundraiser. A lot of times, especially with Gen Zers and Millennials, there is mission or cause alliance, but not necessarily always nonprofit dedication or alliance. And so you might see a donor that’s really passionate about a cause give to a range of different organizations. So this idea of actually teaming up,  seeing the opportunity to fundraise in partnership with another nonprofit, seeing it as an opportunity to reach more people, and raise more money instead of viewing it as competition is really powerful. It’s a great way to engage more folks in the community around your mission and your cause.

Megan:

Fantastic. So yes, so we talked a little bit about the things that donors tell you, and that also includes things that they actually just literally tell you. Like if you get a direct mail appeal response card with a note back on it of “I liked this, I didn’t like that,” or, you know, things like that, that’s information. That’s a signal. Sometimes, sadly the signal is that they put a nickel in your direct response envelope and told you to never write to them again, but still a signal. So making sure that those signals are captured in your CRM, in your notes. And not just the negative ones. If you are at an event and a donor mentions something to you about their interest, about their passion, about their story, making sure that information’s captured so that it becomes a signal instead of just a thing that happened to you one time and so that you can learn more whenever the opportunity presents itself. 

Surveys and then interviews like you were talking about with the direct mail appeal. Or even if you just say “I’m going to take a representative number of people from each segment that I have in my upcoming appeal, and just ask them, what’s the most important thing to you about this cause or this organization?” And then, sneaky communication marketing tip: using some of that language in your appeals and in your campaign materials so that you are speaking directly to them in their language, in the way that resonates with them, is a good way of taking those signals and then using them to further refine your strategy.

Bryan:

Another point I want to make on John’s last comment is surveys can also give us the opportunity, we can do it through surveys, but we can also do it by listening on the different channels that we communicate, like paying attention to where your donors respond the most. So we can also thread this into how does a Gen Z donor want to connect with a nonprofit versus a Millennial? You know? Like you might see that SMS text as a channel is more effective for a different generation than another, versus email, versus direct mail, versus using video. So we can also look at our channels as signals and inputs to help inform where a donor actually want us to communicate with them.

Megan:

Right. And I think that’s making the really a good case for looking at those signals, because you might be able to make some generational or demographic best practices, see some trends, but you want to make sure you’re actually looking at the data you have from your donors, because you may find that your people who are 60 plus really only want text messages. So if you jump in just thinking, “I bet older folks don’t, don’t do this, or younger folks only want this”, then you risk missing people. But if you have actual information from your supporters of how they want to be communicated with, whether that’s answering that question on the survey, or you notice, “Wow, they never pick up the phone yet, they always answer my texts.” So that you can make sure that you are really tailoring that to your donors as they are, rather than making any big jumps about what they might like.

Bryan:

That’s great. And the time is going by quick. So I’m going to transition us into the third donor signal, which is public information and data appends. So there’s a lot of third-party data that we have access to that can give us more information about our donors. And that’s everything from their social media profiles, publicly available real estate data, corporate filings, public giving data, and a ton of other online sources that will help just enrich the perspective and view that we have of our donor file and the segments within our donor file.

Megan:

Absolutely. And this is very interesting and it’s nice that there are now tools to help you do this automatically, like DonorSearch, some other things, where wealth screening used to be a really intensive research process, or in my case some really random Googling where I discovered things like, “Oh, a person who’s making a hundred dollar gifts at our organization is making $10,000 gifts at another organization. Whoa. Okay. Different information.” So being able to have that just immediately appended to the record to say, “Oh, okay, I know because of their charitable giving history elsewhere, because of political giving, or real estate holdings, or any number of things, this person might be a major gift prospect.” Granted, that tells us about capacity and general philanthropic intent. It does not necessarily follow that they will then make a giant gift to you, but knowing that they have the capacity may make you want to change your strategy.

Bryan:

As you think about the ability, there are tools that will give you the ability to scrape social profiles and will give you the ability to know who are the influencers in your database. If you’re going to launch a peer-to-peer giving campaign, you can use this third-party data that can help identify who are the largest influencers that are actually a more impactful peer-to-peer fundraiser for you as opposed to maybe being a donor. The exclamation point at the end of this is that at the end of the day, all of these three areas of signals help allow us to better listen to our donors, which then helps us to more relevantly connect. And that is the heart of responsive fundraising.

Megan: 

Absolutely. Great. I’m seeing some great anecdotes about generational uses of different tech. Great point Kimberly, that the Silent Generation has more time to check out new tech. I see some people saying that they’re finding that their older donors are not afraid of technology. So yeah, again, this is about being responsive, about seeing where people are engaging, how they want to engage, and then offering them more of that, making relevant suggestions like you said, Bryan. So this is a great way to be more responsive, to start with listening in all the ways you can. 

So this time just flew right by, we have two minutes left. It always does, but today, particularly quickly. So listening to your donors is important. There are lots of ways to do it. I’d be interested to hear if you try anything new this year-end what you find out. I’m always open to receiving your emails, et cetera.

This week I will answer the “What does generosity mean to you?” question. I’ve been thinking lately about all of the ways there are for people to be generous. And one that really stuck out to me is I was having a problem and a friend of mine had this same problem last year. She offered me, “Ask me anything. Ask me anything you want to about this problem. Nothing is too personal, nothing is too difficult. Just take my experience and use it as much as you can.” And I thought that is incredibly generous and it made me think about the broader context of generosity. There are so many ways that we can be there for each other, that we can offer things to each other. So that’s my generosity thought of the week.

Next week we’ll be talking about matching gifts at year-end. Another way for people to be generous, corporate matching gifts are popular with donors if they actually take advantage of them. Grace Green will be coming on from Double the Donation to talk with us about how to make the most of those opportunities, make sure your individual donors are aware of matching gift opportunities, and how to really get the most out of that this year-end.

Thank you all so much for joining us. No demo today, but again, if you want a demo of Virtuous, that’s just at virtuous.org/demo and you can get a one-to-one demo as soon as you like. Bryan, thanks so much for joining us.

Bryan:

Thanks for having me. Y’all. Happy Thursday. Thanks for joining, and big appreciation for all the great work that you are all doing on behalf of your mission.

Megan:

Absolutely. We’ll see you next week! 

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