Learn from Experiences (and Build Stronger Relationships as a Result)

Whereas most nonprofits send the same old mail to each and every donor (a newsletter, an annual report, a solicitation), the “learn from your experiences” organizations send out something different: they survey their donors.

“I have limited time. I signed up because the topic resonated. But then I hear a guy with 3 years experience talking about how fortunate he is is to be working with these other people. I signed up because of the topic. Because of the organization. I don’t need or have the time to listen to someone make excuses for his lack of experience. I do not need a justification to listen, I already made a commitment of time. Just start the webinar. Share the information. I am gone.”

Damnit, damnit, damnit.

That’s all I kept thinking as I read the review.. How did I mess this one up so badly?

I scrolled through a few more of the post-webinar survey responses…

“This was a refreshing approach! Thank you.”

Okay, that’s better. Let’s read one more to quell my fears.

“It’s possible this presentation had some good meat, but I tuned out after the long intro and the monotonous delivery appeared to have little to engage me.” Ouch.

Ah, the excitement of reviewing post-webinar survey responses never gets old. The mixture of positive and negative feedback is always a roller coaster ride. Some audience members will sing your praises, while others will, well, you know…


Earlier this year I conducted a webinar with over 900 registrants. I was ecstatic. The only issue was that afterwards the survey responses proved that it wasn’t my best showing.

There will be those times when you’re not on your “A” game (when you don’t prepare adequately, you feel a little under the weather, etc.), but to minimize them, you need to take steps to improve — and fortunately for me I had these survey responses from participants to learn why this presentation wasn’t up to my standards.

I decided to take it one step further, though, to try and really learn why this particular webinar didn’t resonate as well as others I’ve done in the past. I decided to email everyone who left a negative review. I reached out to anyone who responded “1” or “2” to the post-webinar survey question that read, “On a scale from 1 to 5 how valuable was this presentation?”. No, I wasn’t trying to shame anyone or seek revenge, far from it.

The email I sent looked like this:

Why did I do this? Because I knew I needed to learn from the experience. If Renee thought the presentation was a poor value and she could tell me why, then I could understand what may have been lacking, consider it, and incorporate it in my future webinars. Without Renee’s feedback (and that of many others), I wouldn’t be able to learn constructive measures to improve my presentation. If I didn’t listen, I’d likely continue to produce presentations that aren’t of the utmost value.

That would be foolish and it wouldn’t reflect well on me or my company.

What does my anecdote have to do with you? A lot, I hope. We all have opportunities to learn from our experiences, and I’d venture to say most of us take advantage of those situations when they arise. That’s the key phrase though, “when they arise.”

Some people (I like to consider myself part of this group) go one step further — they seek out those experiences, they try to put themselves in vulnerable positions so that they can keep learning from them.

How does this mindset apply to you, a development professional? It has applications in each and every one of your interactions with donors. Think for a moment about your organization’s donor retention rate. You don’t need me to remind you that as a sector, our measurement of donor loyalty is decreasing year-over-year. Last week’s blog post about 2018 benchmarks drives home how important it is to make a concerted effort to boost retention rates.

It’s my hope that having a mindset geared toward learning from experiences — especially failures — could potentially reverse this trend. How could it? Simple. Most nonprofits are alike in the way they treat their donor base. But, an organization with a “learn from experiences” mindset treats their donors a bit differently… What do I mean?

Organizations that seek out feedback and input employ useful tactics to collect information from their constituents. Whereas most nonprofits send the same old mail to each and every donor (a newsletter, an annual report, a solicitation), the “learn from your experiences” organizations send out something different: they survey their donors.

Could surveying donors boost retention?

This is a loaded question, and unfortunately I don’t have an answer based on exact data right at this moment. Currently our team here at Fundraising Report Card® is mining our database to try and answer this question.

Does surveying (and learning from your organization’s experiences with donors) have a positive effect on donor retention? Later this year we should have a conclusive answer to that.

Yet from a theoretical standpoint, you’d think it would. Think back to my webinar anecdote. Of the 28 people I emailed, 17 responded to me. Of the 17, I ended up having prolonged, engaging and insightful conversations with about half (8) of them. From the 8, I ended up with 6 new LinkedIn connections, and 1 product demonstration for MarketSmart’s services.

Here’s what I’ve gained by simply reaching out for more feedback: Six new people to interact with on the world’s best known social media platform for professionals, the facilitation of a connection between a nonprofit fundraiser in need and a company who can help, and a wealth of knowledge about what I can do to make my webinars more valuable for all of you wonderful people. Not too shabby.

What could this mean for your organization? Not everyone will respond to your survey, but those who do are expressing an interest in talking to you, or at the very least, offering their opinion. Your donors, just like the unhappy webinar attendees, want to communicate with you — they want to be heard and know they’ve been heard. It’s our responsibility to facilitate that. On a small scale I was able to do this with a short, one-to-one email. Your organization is likely too large to do that. This is where a survey comes in.

Will a donor survey boost your retention rates? That has yet to be confirmed. But will you learn a lot about why your supporters give, how they interact with your organization, and most importantly, why they care? That’s guaranteed.

My advice is to give it a try. It can be a harrowing exercise, but once you recognize the benefits of engaging others to help learn from your experiences, you won’t want to stop.

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