When to believe what donors say

Perhaps you heard the good news: in an April 14-28 Gallup poll of donors, 27% said they would increase their giving this year and only 7% said they would decrease it.  Or the BBB Wise Giving that said 31% would give more and 18% would give less.

Or you heard the bad news: an April Dunham and Company poll of donors found that only 17% would give more this year and 25% would give less (with 20% saying they would stop giving until the economy was back on track).

Or you heard the mediocre news: A Fidelity Charitable survey found 23% would give more, 23% would give less. 

In other words, put your chip on a roulette number above five and you have the percentage of people who say they are likely to increase or decrease their giving this year.

Who the heck can accurately answer this question?  If 2020 has taught us nothing, it’s that plans don’t survive contact with the enemy.  Who among us is doing exactly what we thought we would be doing in January?  And what does that say about donors’ ability to project what they would be doing for year-end giving?

There’s another, more fundament problem with this, however.  What people say they want to do and what they actual do are two very different things, even in times when you can’t get bingo with either frogs or locusts on your Plagues Bingo card.

We humans are bad at projecting what our future selves will do; we think Future Us will be good where Present Us has not been.  We lack metacognition; when asked why we do something, we answer with why we think we do something.  We’re trying to be helpful, but the two aren’t within a country mile of

And we don’t tell the truth to people who survey us.  We don’t lie, exactly.  But we do tell survey takers, real or virtual, what we think they want to hear unconsciously.  This is called the social desirability bias.  So when you ask people about their giving, about two-thirds will overstate it.

But there are good surveys that don’t ask what people can’t or won’t answer.  They ask about what a person’s experience was.  You know, for example, whether it was hard to find the memorial donation part of the web site.  And you want to tell someone so that it can be fixed if it needs to be.

You also know about yourself.  And people love to talk about themselves.  They will tell you if they prefer cats or dogs, what communications they like to get, and whether they’ve had cancer.  That is, they’ll tell you if you ask and if you have a reason to know.  They’ll tell an animal shelter about cats and dogs and a hospital about their cancer history, not vice versa.

Surveys that ask things people can and will answer accurately are essential to keeping your relationship with donors growing.  With their gift, they’ve put a dollar value on their relationship with you.  If you want to keep and increase that dollar value, you must move the relationship forward.  That comes from a deeper understanding of who the donor is and customizing the experience to that knowledge.

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