How Community Foundations Use Donor Perspectives to Improve Their Work

While donors are the lifeblood of community foundations, at times it can be tough to know exactly what they want from their foundations.

For two leading community foundations, learning about their donors’ views from a comparative survey served as a catalyst to get both their donors and their board members more excited and involved in foundations’ work. What’s more, survey results led both foundations to take new steps that they believe will bring in donors who will be actively engaged with their foundations, according to the community foundation leaders who spoke at CEP’s 2011 conference in May.

CEP’s Donor Perception Report (DPR) is a confidential survey that asks donors’ perceptions of the strengths and areas for improvement of the community foundations they fund. The DPR provides foundations with findings not just on their donors’ perceptions but on how they compare with other community foundations.

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation commissioned the DPR in 2010 after trying four other donor surveys that did not yield the information that leaders needed, said Kathryn E. Merchant, president and CEO of the foundation. In the previous attempts, the foundation struggled to get good, objective information from a source that understood community foundations, Merchant said.

“The first [donor] survey we did ourselves,” she said. “People didn’t think the credibility was strong. Then we went to the other extreme and hired a market research firm, and they didn’t get our business.”

For the DPR, CEP surveyed the community foundation’s donor advised funds (755 via email and traditional mail) and received a 34 percent return rate. The foundation found that it rated highly on donor satisfaction and willingness to refer others to the foundation compared to 13 other community foundations.

“When [CEP] presented the report it was our best board meeting ever,” Merchant said. “The board was so excited to have this information…The board was excited to learn: (a) about our good report card; and (b) about the areas where we could possibly improve because they were so clear and excited about the journey we were going to take…The whole organization is getting a buzz from this one survey. Had I known, I would have begged CEP harder to do this sooner.”

The foundation also learned that fully 72 percent of its donors would like to be self-sufficient for their giving decisions, relying on the foundation primarily for management and facilitation of their funds.

“That tells you a little bit about what you have to do in upping your game in your self-service tools,” Merchant said. “We had been working on that in a slow paced way. We decided that 2011 is the year that we really need to bring that home.”

The DPR also told the foundation that some donors wanted much more involvement. For the past several years, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation has categorized its donors into one of three tiers with tier one donors as the most highly engaged, tier two has somewhat less involved and some wanting to get more involved, and tier three as the donors satisfied with the self-service aspect. The DPR revealed that some of the tier two donors wanted more engagement with the foundation, more site visits to nonprofits, and other ways of connecting. As a result of the survey, the foundation formed a task force that included donors and began looking for ways to engage those donors and address other DPR findings, Merchant said.

“We’re thinking about making it easier for donors to go from tier two to tier one,” Merchant said. “I do wine tastings for my donors now.”

(Merchant is also a certified wine professional.)

“This is the hit of the universe,” Merchant said. “This is just a fun informal setting where we get to talk about the community of donors because we didn’t really get that before. The biggest gift in the DPR is to see what the donors think in a clear-eyed way and understand the nuances of how you might approach coming a little closer to getting people what they need.”

The DPR also revealed that The Greater Cincinnati Foundation had twice as many donor advised funds for each staff person assigned to donor relations as did the comparative foundations. Merchant used that information successfully to make the case to her board that the foundation needs to hire another staff member in donor relations.

The Rhode Island Foundation used the DPR in conjunction with other CEP tools, including the Grantee Perception Report®, the Stakeholder Perception Report, and the Applicant Perception Report, to get feedback from a variety of key people and organizations, said Neil D. Steinberg, the foundation’s CEO.

“The single most significant finding [from the DPR] was that our donors of today are not our donors of tomorrow,” Steinberg said. “If we wanted to grow the foundation, if we wanted to have an impact, if we wanted to raise our visibility and leadership, we had to reorient how we would [cultivate] donors.”

As part of that work, the foundation looked outside the usual applicants when it had an opening in its development team. Instead of hiring a fundraiser as is typical for community foundations, the foundation hired a senior private banker who had worked in wealth management. She had ties to some of the wealthiest individuals in the state who may not have known about the foundation, Steinberg noted. The foundation also started connecting potential donors with its program officers more.

“Our best fundraisers are our program officers,” he said. “If someone says they are interested in the arts, we put them with our program officers and we wow them with what we are doing in arts organizations.”

Through the DPR and other CEP surveys, Steinberg said that the foundation began to address a potentially serious problem. When donors die and leave their estate to their children, those offspring, who are often living in another state, may want to use the money to support causes where they live rather than Rhode Island.

“We are now having a dialogue with donors when they open funds, which is usually when their kids are young,” Steinberg said. “We will describe the situation of money going outside of Rhode Island and ask them where they want their money to go. They will often write in the document that 50 percent of the money goes to Rhode Island. We didn’t know to do that before,” he said.

“The real crux of what we are doing is changing the dialogue,” he said. “We are getting to know our customers better.”

Susan Parker is owner of Clear Thinking Communications.

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