The Burk Donor Survey: How Donors Manage Philanthropy in Changing Times

Greater Giving recently sat down with renowned author and researcher Penelope Burk to ask her about changing trends in philanthropy.

Burk is President of Chicago-based Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., a firm that specializes in conducting research with donors regarding what they need from the nonprofits they support.

Burk definitely knows of what she speaks. She is the creator of the Burk Donor Survey, conducted annually to measure how donors manage their philanthropy during changing times. Burk also wrote Donor-Centered Fundraising, widely regarded as the authoritative text on how to sustain donor loyalty and win increasingly generous gifts.

Q: If you could speak directly to donors about the survey, what key piece of information would you share with them? What do they (as donors) gain from participating in the survey?

Burk: Donors don’t have a source (other than research) to use to measure their attitudes compared with other donors. Every donor gives in an isolated environment, so the Burk Donor Survey is a great way to get the bigger picture. The survey is anonymous and survey participants receive the survey results for free. Even though 10,000 to 25,000 donors participate, we find that only one-third to one-half of the participants will bother to get the report.

Yet the report can give them valuable insight. For instance, many donors are surprised to learn that other donors stop giving because of over-solicitation. The report allows them to see the majority viewpoint on certain issues that donors care about, some of which are surprising. By using the survey results, donors can gain confidence in knowing they manage their philanthropy well. It gives common and practical knowledge about the collective willingness to give back to the community, all with meaningful and measurable results.

Q: As a professional researcher, how can fundraisers better survey and research their donors?

Burk: The survey can measure lots of things fundraisers can’t. And there are quite a few things that our survey asks anonymously that fundraisers simply can’t ask. When nonprofits have useful information, they can make the necessary changes and make plan adjustments to raise more money. For example, the survey measures donor opinions regarding things like how soon the non-profit asks for money again. Many nonprofits will send a thank you for a donation, and as part of that thank you note, will ask for another gift. Some donors will send money again while others won’t give again because they were asked again too soon. We measure this, and it allows nonprofits to make more informed decisions regarding forfeiting short-term gains for longer-term gains.

Q: Donors have significantly changed the ways they give over the last few years. What is the biggest change the survey has noted and how can fundraisers face this challenge?

Burk: These days, donors are supporting fewer causes, but they are not giving less money overall. In fact, if your organization is one of the few they are supporting, you may get a larger gift. The competition is also getting more intense; there are so many more charitable organizations these days.

We also learned that while about 70% of people were giving to charitable causes, that number has dropped to about 54%, because the middle class is shrinking and poverty is increasing. Our results definitely show an increased polarization – people are either very rich or very poor.

We have also seen that over the last decade or two that getting donors to give that first time has become much more difficult. The desire to begin gifts has definitely diminished.

Q: You’ve played a large role in challenging fundraisers to change the way they establish and maintain relationships with donors. What one change do you wish all fundraisers would make to positively impact their donor relations?

Burk: Before you build your coffers, you must build good relationships with the donors. In the long run, an organization will definitely make more money. Furthermore, you will gain a lifelong supporter of your organization. Even if the donor one day can no longer make a monetary donation, that person will likely greatly benefit your organization in other ways.

When you ask for money, donors want to know specifically what will be accomplished should they decide to donate. Also, donors don’t like to give to unrestricted or general funds. The appeal to a donor is that they want to give to a specific cause or campaign or capital project. Donors want to also know the direct results of the funds they gave.

Q: What do you see as the legacy of the donor survey? Do you plan to continue the survey in perpetuity?

Burk: I do plan to continue to conduct the survey as an annual survey because honestly, it provides a great snapshot of American philanthropic life. Many donors respond to the survey; they give in many different ways and at many different stages of philanthropic life. Having the series of data helps nonprofits compare giving last year with the year before, and it can be very helpful to identify trends in giving that start small but can become dramatic over time.

For example, we saw the trend that for donors under age 35, their giving is low gift values for their first seven years out of college, due to student debt and underemployment.

The survey also asks donors to look forward regarding how they intend to manage philanthropy over the next year, and that can help fundraisers take advantage of trends and donor intentions going forward.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Burk: Our survey results have lots of data and there are lots of ways to look at that data. The bottom line is that we need to use the data we have collected. It is at our fingertips, and the more donors we have, the more partners we have in our nonprofits.

The survey for 2019 will launch the first week of October. Our partners get the results for free in written report form and in webinar form. The benefits are great!

Share your thoughts