Important Questions to Ask Your Donors

Guest Post by Larry F. Johnston, PhD

Over 50 years in the field of development have taught me some very important truths about fundraising.

One of these I learned from the mining industry: “You’re either an inch from a million dollars or a million inches from a dollar.” When your time and resources are limited, it’s critically important to know where you are in the mine and where you’re digging.

Another truth I learned from that immortal sage, Yogi Berra. He once famously said, “It’s amazing how much you can observe just by watching.”

A related truth is, “It’s amazing how much you can learn from donors just by asking.”

The problem is that most fundraisers are neither good question askers nor good listeners. We’re generally too eager to do our spiel and get on to the next visit.

But unlike many people in the field of development, I’m not interested in merely getting a gift. I want to develop a mutually rewarding lifelong relationship with partners eager to help mend a broken world.

This entails knowing what’s most important to your donors and ministry partners, and that entails actually asking.

While my experience suggests that only a precious few organizations really do serious research to determine what the key drivers are of donor retention and thus lifetime value, this was the focus of my dissertation. Over decades of consulting internationally, I had seen countless millions of dollars wasted by organizations who were regularly hemorrhaging donors, yet relatively few had a sufficient grasp on why their donors were defecting, let alone what the associated costs were. I wanted to develop a process that could help stop the hemorrhaging.

Viewed through an economic lens, it’s clear that it often costs five to ten times to acquire a new donor what it costs to keep a current donor. And if you’re spending significant sums on new donor acquisition without knowing why your current donors are leaving, a good percentage of those funds can legitimately be considered waste. A substantial portion of your development budget may just constitute a donor recycling business.

Although the Donor Value Mapping process I developed combines a rigorous mix of qualitative and quantitative research, the good news is that development staff can fairly easily find out what’s most important to their donors by regularly and systematically asking some questions.

Answers will of course often vary by donor segment, and most critically these will vary with individual major donors, the ‘critical few’ (80/20 Principle) giving disproportionately to their numbers on your donor base.

Recalling one of my favorite bumper stickers, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” – and remembering that those involved in face-to-face relationship building with donors should have considerably more questions to ask.

Here are my ‘Big Three’:

1. What’s most important to you in your partnership with us?

My use of the word ‘partnership’ is intentional. Too many organizations view donors as little more than pocketbooks or pursues enabling them to do the organization’s work, rather than being an instrument or vehicle to accomplish what’s most important to the donor (always, obviously, within the context of the organization’s mission and vision).

In a crowded marketplace where donors have countless options for their charitable giving, many organizations would do well to execute a John the Baptist maneuver: ‘The donor must increase and the organization must decrease.’ (That is, who should receive the greatest recognition and appreciation for the good work being done.)

Needless to say, listen to these answers and keep a log of all responses, summarizing them until a clear pattern emerges. And remember, if you consistently scratch donors where they itch it’s a pleasant sensation. Scratch them where they don’t itch and you’re just annoying; they’ll find someone else to give to who might be paying attention.

2. How are we doing here? (The Golden Question)

Once they’ve told you what’s most important, simply ask them, How we doin’?

My research indicates that a handful of factors can constitute the lion’s share of donor satisfaction and thus donor retention and lifetime value, and savvy development staff should never fall victim to what I long ago labeled emphasyllabitis: the dreaded condition of consistently putting the em-phá-sis on the wrong syl-lá-ble.

A companion principle to the 80/20 Principle or the Principle of the Critical Few is the Principle of Concentration. Find out what is most important to donors and focus on these key drivers, refusing to get stuck in the thick of thin things or majoring on the minor. (Believe it or not, my research shows that even seasoned field reps with organizations that have hundreds of millions of dollars in annual income don’t really know what’s most important to their donors.)

3.  How could we do better? (The Platinum Question)

Smart organizations that understand the criticality of donor retention will not only seek to find out what’s most important to donors, in the interest of continuous improvement they’ll seek to learn from the donor’s perspective how they can continuously improve on delivering the most critical elements of the organization’s value proposition.

For readers old enough to remember her, I’ll say that I’m a proud graduate of the Mae West school of donor satisfaction. Why? Because the immortal Mae once said that “Too much of a good thing is marvelous!” In short, when it comes to donor satisfaction, moderation is a vastly overrated virtue!

In summary…

 While there are clearly more rigorous ways of gaining vital insights into what matters most to donors, many organizations will do well to simply begin asking smart questions and paying serious attention to the answers.

With a nod to Yogi Berra, it’s amazing how much you can learn just by asking questions.

Larry F. Johnston, PhD


Larry F. Johnston, Ph.D. is President of McConkey/Johnston International, Larry has over 45 years experience consulting with leading Christian organizations internationally. His doctoral dissertation resulted in the creation of Donor Value Mapping ® and Donor Value
Management ® , leading edge processes that enable  organizations to maximize donor
lifetime value by maximizing donor satisfaction, loyalty, and retention.  You can reach Larry @


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