Penelope Burk

Author | Researcher | Speaker | Fundraising Expert


Q: Hello, I have been reviewing your donor surveys for several years and thoroughly enjoy them. They continue to inspire me to make improvements so that our nonprofit can continue making a greater impact. Thank You.

I would like to know your thoughts on NP’s using donor giving levels. Are they more successful in converting a prospect donor to an actual donor? Are they more successful at increasing a current donors annual gift? Would like to hear your thoughts on donor giving levels.

A: Giving levels or societies have negligible impact on converting non-donors to first-time supporters. Our research has found that prospective donors consider giving to a particular not-for-profit for a good period of time (often years) before they take action. They are motivated first by the brand which helps them narrow their focus to an area of the third sector (children’s health, poverty, the arts, etc.), second by information on what the not-for-profit has recently accomplished and/or their current priority initiative and how it will make a difference, and third by word-of-mouth such as hearing good things about the organization from someone respected by the potential donor. Reputation (brand), case (what the NFP wants to achieve) and influence combine as a winning strategy for donor acquisition. Keep in mind that more than 70% of first-time donors make a contribution that is deliberately not generous within their own means, so don’t fall into the trap of making a judgement call on a new donor based on gift value. It is irrelevant. A donor-centered response to new donors will improve conversion rates of first-to-second gift supporters and raise average gift values higher among those who continue to give.  


Q: I'm wondering if we should be adding honorees to our database who a donor has donated in honor of. It is kosher to solicit folks who didn't seek us out, but were honored with a gift from one of our existing donors? I'm curious what the common wisdom is on this practice.

A: We do not have any research data on this issue specifically, but my view is that all ideas should be tested, and then you will know whether or not your idea should be adopted and expanded on a wider scale. I suggest you do a donor-centered test which adheres to the three things donors say they need in order to stay loyal and give more generously.

Step 1: Create a file of all or some of the honoree donors who have given over the past year and send them a communication that showcases what you have accomplished in that time with the gifts they made. This should not contain an ask, but you could include a link to your website that offers donors more information on your success, thanks to donors’ support. (BTW, in the future you should assign honorees’ gifts to a specific program or project right away and acknowledge that in the thank you letter you send to them so that these donors know they are funding something that is important to furthering your mission.)

Step 2: Sometime after sending this communication, solicit these donors with a specific ask that showcases either the program they are currently funding or another initiative that is important to fulfilling your mission.

Step 3: Send a very appealing thank you letter to all donors who give in response to this ask. Make sure you mark in your database that these donors are part of your “Honoree Test” or whatever you want to name the test group. Our latest edition of The Donor-Centered Thank You Letters Project provides some great examples of superior acknowledgements.

Step 4: At a later point in time, perhaps 6 months later, run a report that compares rate of renewal and average gift value among these test donors.

Step 5: Decide whether to continue the program, discontinue it or continue with modifications based on the test data results. Of course, everything you do in fundraising takes staff time and budget resources so you need to take that into account. Perhaps your test generate a few modest gifts; if so, you might decide that the investment/return on this initiative is not worthwhile. Or, perhaps it did quite well, in which case you might decide to sustain and expand the program if sufficient new honoree donors are generated each year.

You can design a test like this or one that compares a test group with a control group where the latter group does not receive the test modification. It is always advantageous to do this and the result, even if it is not profitable, is very worthwhile. Sometimes tests tell you not to do something which saves you time and money going forward. At other times, your idea could be the beginning of something exciting and profitable. Either way, testing is a smart business activity.

Q: I am trying to find research measuring the impact of donor touchpoints in order to ascertain what the field views as best practice. For example, I have always learned that donors should receive monthly, personal touchpoints from gift officers. I have no idea why some people say this and if it’s based on any data. Have you seen any research on this? Or on other types of touchpoints, like mailings or event invitations/attendance? I am interested in understanding the impact of touchpoints on retention and increased giving.


I can provide you with some data from our research studies with donors that might be helpful. Note that even the definition of “touchpoints” may vary within the industry, but I’m defining a “touchpoint” as anything you transmit to a donor or any communication you might have with a donor that is not an appeal. (By the way, acknowledgements or communications that include an appeal are interpreted by donors as solicitations because asks tend to overpower anything else you might be trying to say. So, if a “touchpoint” includes an ask it does not count.)

According to donors, the following activities exert a positive influence on donors when it comes to giving again and, in the case of some donors who give again, making a contribution that is more generous:

  • Thank you letters, when their content is original, personal and gracious and when promptly received. Among donors who had received a thank you letter that they described as “exceptional”, 45% said their decision to give again (either immediately or when asked to give again) was directly connected to this superior acknowledgement and 23% of those who gave attributed their decision to give more generously to the quality of the thank you letter they received.
  • Thank You Calls. In one of our best-known tests, donors who received a brief thank you call soon after making a gift, or listened to a voicemail, made gifts in the next appeal that were 39% more generous than the control group who did not receive a call. The test group donors remained loyal at a rate of 70% after six more appeals, even with no further thank you calls while the attrition rate in the control group was close to 80%.
  • Post-Acknowledgement Communications. Our research has consistently found that donors are more motivated to give again and give more generously if they are confident that their last gift helped achieve something important. So, it is not surprising, then, that 75% of donors in The Burk Donor Survey said that communications focused on results achieved in the program(s) donors were funding influenced them to give again; 64% credited stories about people helped by the not-for-profit  as motivation for repeat giving and 62% referenced receiving information on how the organization’s future plans (which donors help make possible) as influential.
  • Donor Recognition Events: Among donors who had attended a Donor Recognition Event within the previous year, 87% said their decision give again (either unsolicited after the event or when asked post-event) was influenced in whole or in part by the event itself.

In regards to the optimum number of touchpoints over a year, donors emphasize that they want to hear from you promptly when you have something new to say but that they stop paying attention if you say the same thing multiple times. (See my blog, Lift Your Finger Off That Send Button – for a fuller description.) So, if you are being advised that you should reach out once a month or on any prescribed schedule, that is not relevant because news does not happen with that kind of regularity. Donors tend to remember information that is important and written in a compelling manner after hearing or reading it once.

Finally, every donor is unique as is every fundraiser. As you get to know your donors individually, you will communicate more with some, less with others. That is absolutely OK as long as you feel that you are moving your relationships forward towards the next ask.

Q: I was just reading your blog post on communicating with donors on social media from 2011. With social media becoming more and more a part of our lives, I wonder if you might have any advice on setting up a social media stewardship strategy for major donors today? We are a large regional charity and would like to surprise and delight our donors on social. Thanks for your help!

A: We updated our 2011 research in 2016. The most notable difference was that, while the percentage of donors with one or more social media accounts did not change, the number who followed at least one charitable organization jumped from 43% to 80%. So, social media certainly became part of donors’ communications environment in that five-year period. You are right, then, to be focusing attention on social media, especially in relationship to how it might enhance your donor relationships.

For donors, exemplary stewardship means acknowledging them and their gifts in meaningful, personal ways and keeping them informed about how their contributions are making measurable results possible. The same needs have been expressed through our research by all donors, regardless of tenure or gift value, so I would suggest that your social media stewardship strategy not just be reserved for major donors. If you are worried about that, we have found that donors do not feel they are competing with each other. They tend to take a collaborative view of philanthropy, feeling that everyone who donates to charity deserves good information and considerate treatment.

Social media is a boon to modern-day communication because messages are concise. There was a time when donors would pore over eight-page newsletters and even lengthier annual reports, but not anymore. The best way to get your message across today is to be brief, focus on one thing at a time, and enhance your message with visual images. Social media is excellent for that.

Q: Is your research revealing anything about donors’ willingness to give to capital campaigns in the midst of – or hopefully coming out of – the pandemic? It appears that donors stepped up in 2020 to help not-for-profits with immediate needs and revenue shortfalls, but what about sustained, long-term campaigns? Is now a good time?

A: Our 2021 edition of the Burk Donor Survey is currently running and I may have more information in about a month. But, for now, this data from earlier editions of the Survey may be of interest. The percentage of respondents who reported giving through a capital campaign in the depths of the recession was 4% (as reported in the 2009 survey). By 2013, participation had improved to 15% and it was 23% in 2018. The exceptionally low number in the 2009 survey can be attributed not just to a lack of willingness on donors’ part but to many not-for-profits suspending campaigns or delaying their start for fear they would be unsuccessful.

While both the recession and the current pandemic are/were global catastrophes, they have/had different implications for donors. The recession attacked investment value, hurting the prime donor demographics for capital campaigns. In contrast, investment value has grown during the pandemic (though that bubble could burst at any time, of course). Additionally, while many people lost their jobs in 2020, others are employed full time while enjoying reduced living expenses.

The caution I would offer to anyone considering a capital campaign right now is this: your case for support needs to be very sensitive given the tragic circumstances that many people are enduring. We found an interesting parallel during the recession where donors were reluctant to participate in lavish fundraising events that underscored their own good fortune when so many people around them were suffering. The optics really matter, so be careful.

Q: I recently took your webinar, What Donors Are Saying about Bequest Potential. It was excellent. Thank you. You mentioned that donors are not particularly motivated by donor societies. Were you referring to the annual fund giving levels that organizations often use or the heritage-type of societies for those who have left bequests? We are planning on setting up a Heritage Society so we can keep them well informed and close to our school.

A: Most of our research on the influence of honor rolls, gift levels and giving societies has been conducted with donors giving to annual fund and capital campaigns. Both our national research studies and research projects conducted with individual clients have produced similar results over 20 years. The majority sentiment by far is that having their names published in any form has no impact on donors’ current and future giving decisions. Even in capital campaigns, where major donors could have their names permanently affixed to a donor wall, the possibility is influential for only a small fraction of donors.

In our most recent research, only 18% of respondents with one or more bequests said their names have been included in a recognition society of some kind. That relatively low number is due to the fact that the majority of donors never discloses gift commitments to recipient charities. So if you are establishing your Heritage Society for the purpose of keeping bequest donors informed, it will not address the needs of the majority of your donors who have named your organization in their wills. Whether they disclose or not, I assume your objective is to make sure they don’t take you out! Donors in our survey who had removed one or more bequests had several reasons for doing so, but “the not-for-profit failed to recognize me” was not one of them.

Creating and sustaining any kind of giving society is time-consuming and susceptible to errors that intrude on your effort to build good relationships with your donors. It is important to take investment/return into account when deciding how to allocate professional staff time and budget resources.

Q: We are putting together a "legacy matching" campaign = tell us you have included us in your will/estate and a donor will give us $x now. We'll run the campaign for 11 months and have a goal of bringing on 20 new legacy circle members (what we call people who have included us in their plans). Have you collected information from donors that relates to this type of campaign? I recently participated in your planned giving webinar and found that very insightful. Your data on donor societies doesn't bode well for this type of campaign, yet many non-profits have had a lot of success with this approach.

A: The matching gift approach is an intriguing marketing angle for promoting planned giving, so thanks for letting me know about it. Though you mentioned that the data I presented in the webinar would speak against this idea, we have not asked prospective (or committed) planned gift donors how they would react to a matching gift campaign.

My only caution is that becoming aware of donors who have already included your organization in their wills is different from actually convincing donors to put you in their wills in the first place. But perhaps the matching gift program could help with both.

Q: In these extraordinary times, is it OK to send a thank you email to donors rather than a letter in the mail?

A: While our research confirms that a thank you email is OK with the majority of donors who give online, these anxiety-ridden times offer fundraisers an opportunity to do something special for donors who have just done something special for you. At this singular moment in history, personal thank you’s that read and feel like you made an extra effort are especially appreciated by donors. Sending a thank you letter in the mail, especially one that is hand-written, says to donors that they are on your mind. And, unlike emails, mailed letters, if they are Donor-Centered, are read over and over again and kept for future reference. Of course, personal thank you’s are even more coveted by donors when signed by someone influential in your organization, such as a board member, the CEO, or an individual who represents your mission at the highest level (a professor, physician, or artist, for example). Don’t have time to do this with all your donors? That’s actually an opportunity to test one approach against another. Send some donors who gave online an email thank you and others a personal letter in the mail, such as I described. Record who got which kind of acknowledgement, then compare the two groups for renewal rate and average gift value increase in your next campaign.

Editor’s Note: We just published Donor-Centered Thank You Letters, a collection of acknowledgement letters to inspire your creativity. More information on this new publication can be found here.

Do you have a fundraising or management question for Penelope? If so, submit your question in confidence below.


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