Heads Up, People: Average Donors Are Doing More Research—Starting With Your Website

We spend a lot time at Inside Philanthropy scrutinizing the motives and strategies of foundations and top major donors. Yet, as everyone knows, it's actually ordinary people who contribute the bulk of charitable dollars in the United States, and so it's pretty darned important to know how these everyday philanthropists think. 

Which is why we're thankful for researchers like Penelope Burk, who leads Cygnus Applied Research. For the past seven years, Cygnus has administered surveys to a broad sample of American donors, seeking insight into who gives, why they give, and how giving trends are changing. Over 28,000 donors responded to this year’s survey (administered in spring 2016), and a report of the results is available for purchase at Cygnus’ website. An executive summary can be had free of charge.

The results point to several themes. For one thing, it seems like a certain “choosiness” is on the rise, especially among donors now maturing into their prime giving years. The survey’s oldest donors, Cygnus reports, supported an average of 14 charities last year. Middle-aged donors supported nine, continuing what Cygnus calls a long-term trend toward donors getting more focused in their giving. (As an aside, backing nine charities still sounds like spreading the gravy around too thinly to us, but we get it: Saying "no" is hard.)

In addition, the percentage of respondents who conduct “in-depth” research before they give, particularly through an organization’s website, has steadily risen from 59 percent to 78 percent over the past seven years.

And how are donors doing this research? Well, one major stop for donors in investigating any nonprofit is—unsurprisingly—its website. And the content of that site can make a big difference in whether they give. "Donors are seeking specific information on not-for-profits’ websites, and they are more influenced to give when they can find that information quickly and when it is evidence-based," said the Cygnus report. "Insufficient, hard-to-find or ineffective information on websites can also cause donors who were originally inclined to give to back off."

The no-brainer takeaway here: if your nonprofit wants to rake in gifts, your website better not suck. 

Charity rating agencies are also becoming a more popular tool, the survey found, but less than half of respondents said they've used them to research nonprofits. Interesting, right? Either donors still haven't gotten hip to these resources, or feel that the metrics ratings agencies tend to rely on aren't so helpful. 

As a means to communicate with donors, direct mail is still important, but a word of warning: Being overly solicitous (especially for repeat donations) and including unwanted “trinkets” in mailings can annoy the very people you’re trying to impress.

Returning to the digital front, the survey found that social media is an important tool for donor and community engagement, but it also found that this avenue doesn't bring in a lot of donations directly.(Just 10 percent.) What social media is good at is helping donors and volunteers feel more connected to the cause. The takeaway here, it seems, is to use social media in an informational rather than overtly persuasive way: Give regular updates about what you're doing and fully explain where donor money is going.

Finally, what about overall generosity and trends in giving? Good news here: Things seem be holding steady on that front, with most donors planning to give the same amount this year as last, and nearly a quarter planning to giving more. Very few said they'd give less.