National Survey of Botancial Garden Supporters and Membership Analysis

Project Outline and Key Questions

About the Supporter Survey and Membership Performance Analysis for Botanical Gardens

Across North America there are amazing botanical gardens celebrating and protecting the diversity of the natural environment.  And with the support of their members and donors, they are bringing much needed enjoyment, knowledge, and serenity to their local communities.

Individual supporters are an increasingly important financial pillar supporting botanical garden programs and facilities, but their motivations and connections are not always well understood.   Membership and fundraising programs are often designed around general assumptions about supporter preferences, but imagine how you could enhance your garden’s operations if you knew:

  • What your supporters think about your garden’s features, events, and plans.
  • Which components of your membership program are the most effective at inspiring new member acquisition, supporter renewal and member upgrade.
  • The stories in your newsletters and updates supporters find the most compelling.
  • Where future investment in your programs would yield the greatest financial return.

The National Survey of Botanical Garden Supporters & Membership is an exciting project designed to answers these and many more questions about supporters and membership so gardens can make informed and strategic decisions about their operations.

Gardens participating in the project will receive a wealth of information about their own supporters and membership program through two key activities:

1. Survey of Garden Supporters: A comprehensive survey of current and recent members and donors that gathers information about their perceptions, motivations, and future giving intentions. Here you will learn about your supporters’ priorities, the communications they value the most, and gain a deeper understanding of their potential.

2. Membership Performance Analysis: A multi-year evaluation of membership performance from database records that reveals the key trends affecting member support and what they indicate for the future.

In addition to the full analysis of your membership and survey data, findings will be translated into a series of informative and engaging reports containing practical recommendations for enhancing your current membership and development activities.

As this is a national study, participating gardens, will also benefit from a confidential comparison of their own data to national statistics, showing how they rank relative to their peers and revealing best-practices across the industry.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any additional questions about this project or would like to talk more about participating. 


Who can participate in this project?

All botanical gardens, regardless of the size, background, or history, are encouraged to participate. The more organizations involved, the better the outcomes and the lower the cost.
Based on similar projects, gardens with at least 5,000 active supporters (members and donors combined) are likely to generate statistically reliable survey results. Data may still be reliable with smaller supporter files, so any interested garden is encouraged to contact Cygnus so we can learn more about your program.

How will my garden benefit from participating?

Gardens who participate in this research will significantly increase their understanding of their supporters’ motivations, perceptions, and intentions. You will also gain a deeper insight into the key trends affecting membership performance and giving. Armed with the data and recommendations, you will be able to make more effective and strategic decisions about membership structure, program benefits, supporter communications and stewardship.

Results Reports:
Each botanical garden will receive several findings reports containing data about their own supporters and operations, including:
1. Garden Supporter Survey Findings Report: Results from the survey of supporters, accompanied by Cygnus’ observations and interpretations on the data.
a. Survey Data Report: Accompanying the findings are the aggregate data results to every survey question asked of their members, subdivided by meaningful demographic categories (e.g., age, membership history, etc.).
2. Membership Performance and Benchmarks Report: Key benchmarks and statistics on member activity, acquisition, retention, and upgrade.
3. Membership Analysis and Recommendations: An analysis of the membership program and recommendations for its enhancement based on survey and database information.
4. National Statistics Comparison Report: Confidential comparisons of relevant data from the survey and membership analysis to national statistics and/or a specific peer group of botanical gardens.

Findings and Recommendations Presentations:
Cygnus will deliver findings of the research and recommendations in-person or online to botanical garden staff.
The final date and structure of presentations is determined in consultation with each group, but at minimum we anticipate two 90-minute sessions: 1) An overview of survey findings for all staff interested in the project; 2) A deeper dive into the data for senior management focused on specific themes such as revenue generation, membership communications, and/or membership program changes.

What data must we share with Cygnus to participate?

To conduct the Survey of Garden Supporters and membership analysis, Gardens must grant us permission to contact their supporters and securely share with Cygnus:
• The current email addresses and preferred salutation of supporters so we can send survey invitations.
• The last five years of member / donor database records, so we can calculate performance benchmarks as well as determine who should receive the survey.
Cygnus will provide each organization with detailed instructions on how to gather and upload database records and has an experienced team who can answer most question about data transfer.
Any data you share with Cygnus will always remain your property and will only be used to support this research. More on data security and ownership is included below.

How can my garden shape the content / focus of the research?

We welcome and encourage input on the project at all stages.  As part of our preliminaries, Cygnus would like to interview 2 – 4 staff members from your Garden about your priorities for information and membership program history.  This helps us ensure that survey questions developed reflect your operational needs.


How are survey questions for members and donors developed?

Based on the review of your materials, staff interviews and membership data, Cygnus will develop a bank of questions that will uncover the thoughts, opinions, and future supporting intentions of your supporters. 

How many survey questions will there be?

Cygnus anticipates developing between 45 – 65 questions covering 4 – 7 key topic areas.

How long will respondents spend in the survey?

Most respondents will spend between 8 and 15 minutes participating in the research.

It is important to note that respondents will not see every question we create. Cygnus uses randomized and multi-staged survey deployment, tailoring questions based on respondents’ known experiences and backgrounds.

Can my Garden add its own question(s) to the survey?

Yes.  While it is important that many questions are shared between gardens so we can create comparative results, each organization can have a direct influence on the content of their survey during the interview phase.   

Should an issue or priority affect only one organization, we will draft specific questions to address that need.  While there are limits on how many questions the survey can contain and still be deployable, we will do our utmost to accommodate any unique requests for data gathering.

What topics will be covered in the survey?

Final survey questions are developed only after the material review and interviews with individual gardens are complete.  However, we anticipate the survey will touch on the following themes: 

  • Determine supporters’ attitudes, perceptions and intentions towards their botanical garden and its membership program.
  • Evaluate supporters’ connection to their garden and their awareness of its mission and work.
  • Identify supporters’ primary motivations and triggers for becoming a member, as well as the role membership benefits at different levels play in attracting and upgrading support.
  • Determine why some supporters lapse / intend to lapse.
  • Assess the desirability of membership benefits at different program levels, as well as test the potential addition of new benefits.
  • Evaluate supporters’ expectations for communication and appeals.
  • Determine the impact of the current communications / stewardship strategy on membership renewal, upgrade, and donations.
  • Quantitatively assess the philanthropic potential of supporters and their willingness to make additional contributions beyond their current membership level.
  • Measure the competition for charitable donors against other not-for-profits.
  • Gather key demographic and psychographic information about supporters and measure how they differ by membership level and/or program.

Do participating gardens have approval over the survey?

Yes. Each garden will have the opportunity to review written survey questions and test links to an ‘as live’ version so you can see the survey in action before it is deployed.
Gardens can suppress any question they do not wish asked of your supporters or if a question is irrelevant.


Who is responsible for deploying, managing, and monitoring the survey?

Cygnus will manage all aspects of survey creation, distribution, and monitoring. We provide a toll-free number and email address in the survey invitation letter where respondents can reach us if they have any questions or need additional support.

Do participating gardens have approval over survey invitation letters?

Yes.  Cygnus will draft suitable survey invitation letters and share them for approval prior to deployment.

Which of our supporters will be invited to participate in the survey?

Survey prospects are selected to ensure that key groups of contributors (whether by membership level or demographic category) are fully represented in the study.   As a result, we only determine the final survey prospect list after reviewing your member / donor database records.

Gardens have full approval over the survey prospect list and can request that any individual be excluded from the research (or even key individuals added).

Do gardens need to promote the survey to their supporters?

No, Cygnus will be responsible for sending invitation emails to members and donors.

However, gardens are encouraged to alert their members that a survey is coming.  Supporters who know about the research in advance have greater trust in the process and usually produce a higher response rate, meaning higher quality information for your organization.

What if respondents have questions / requests unrelated to the survey?

During surveying it is common that we will receive requests from participants not directly related to the research, such as questions about their membership or updates to contact details.  If we cannot resolve the question ourselves, Cygnus will share details with the project point of contact.  

How can we be sure respondents don’t answer the survey more than once?

Each respondent will receive a unique link for their survey which ties answers to that respondent. 

Will the results from the survey be statistically reliable?

The statistical reliability of results will vary from group to group based on the size of their member / donor file. The margin of error on the survey for organizations with at least 5,000 contactable supporters are likely to be at or near opinion poll level margins of error (roughly +/- 3% 19 times out of 20).
Gardens with smaller supporter lists are still likely to produce anecdotally meaningful data. Cygnus can provide additional guidance on survey performance after reviewing database records.

Will we know which supporters participated in the survey?

Yes, we will provide Gardens with a list of survey participants at the end of the research. We will also provide Gardens with a list of suspected defunct or inactive email addresses for record update purposes.
Please note that surveys are confidential. This means Cygnus is unable to reveal the specific answers of a given respondent. However, we can and will tell you what supporters of a particular demographic composition (e.g., women, men, new members, members at a given level, etc.) said.

How are results segmented?

Survey data will be segmented based on several demographics and membership history categories to reveal the similarities and differences between different groups of supporters.  Final data cuts will be determined with the support of participating botanical gardens, but are likely to include age, gender, residency, financial capacity, membership level, acquisition date, and so on…


Will botanical gardens’ supporter records be used for any other purpose?

No.  Cygnus will not use supporters’ records or contact information for any purpose other than the execution of this research.  We will never contact your supporters for any reason except executing this study. 

Data records are never shared with any third party and all identifying information is stripped from the data at the end of the project.   Cygnus is pleased to sign data confidentiality / non-disclosure agreements with any botanical garden that desires one.

Does information shared by botanical gardens for this research remain their property?

Yes.  Any data, materials, or samples you share with Cygnus, remain the property of the originating garden.  Cygnus does not have any rights to that information and will not use it for any other purpose than this research.

How will you protect botanical gardens’ data?

All data and supporter records shared with Cygnus will be stored on an encrypted server.

Who owns the research when it is complete?

Reports for each botanical gardens become their own property at the conclusion of the project.  All individual reports are confidential and will not be shared with other organizations. 

Cygnus will retain ownership of survey questions, as this is necessary so we can replicate the research across groups. 

Cygnus will also retain ownership over the datasets generated by the project as well as the aggregate anonymized data reports.  This is necessary so we can conduct comparative analysis and share aggregate findings with industry bodies such as the American Public Garden Association.   


How will Cygnus coordinate with botanical gardens during the project?

Each botanical garden should appoint a representative who will serve as a point of contact for the project.  Ideally this individual would have adequate knowledge of current membership practices and the ability to extract (or oversee the extraction) of the database records for surveying and analysis purposes.  This individual will also be the recipient (and guardian) of all project reports at the end of the project.

Of course, this representative is free to deputize or appoint other staff members to gather materials and provide feedback, but it is helpful for there to be a single individual through which all communication will take place.

How much time will my organization need to devote to this project?

Cygnus strives to ensure the project has a minimum impact on your daily operations.  Tasks are spread out over the course of the project and can be delegated to different staff members.   

Based on similar work, we estimate the following time is required to complete key tasks and participate in report presentations: 

  • Participating in an interview with Cygnus about information needs / research priorities (45 minutes per interviewee).
  • Providing samples of current membership materials, and other relevant communications and stewardship documents (2 hours).
  • Extracting database records and uploading to Cygnus (3 – 4 hours).
  • General planning and feedback meetings (2 – 3 hours).
  • Attending presentations and discussions on report findings (2 – 4 hours per staff member in attendance).


How long will the project take?

The entire project will run from November 2023 until June 2025.   Each botanical garden will be “active” within the project for a period of 20 – 22 weeks, during which Cygnus will analyze their database and survey their supporters.    

A general project timeline can be viewed by downloading our printable PDF file above, which briefly summarizes the various stages of work. 

Can I choose when my garden’s survey is deployed?

Yes.  It is important that gardens can choose when their survey is administered so it does not interfere with any other major events, appeals or activities. 

Surveys can launch anytime from January 2024 to June 2025.  Surveys are typically ‘live’ for a period of four to six weeks. 

When will finding reports / presentations be delivered?

The start and end dates for your survey will determine when reports will available.  Typically, Cygnus can deliver an organization’s full results and analysis as soon as six weeks after surveying finishes.  

Full comparative results across all botanical gardens will be available at the end of the project once all gardens have completed their participation.

We are happy to coordinate the delivery of results to coincide with any pre-planned staff retreats or conferences. 


What is the cost to participate in this project?

The project fee varies based on the number of organizations participating. The more botanical gardens involved, the lower the cost for everyone.
The fee schedule based on participation rates is as follows:

Number of Gardens Participating Fee Per Organization
5 $42,000
6 $36,750
7 $32,850
8 $30,000
9 $27,750
10 $26,000
11 to 15 Fee continues to reduce by $1,000 per additional organization
16 or more $20,000

Please note, your garden can express interest in the project without paying a fee. Fees are only payable when your Garden formally agrees to participate. Please see the section on Registration and Expressions of Interest for more information.

Does this fee include all associated costs?

The project fee includes all costs associated with executing the project, including survey development, deployment, analysis; membership analysis, recommendations, electronic delivery of reports and presentations.

The only exception is a travel reimbursement should you organization prefer an in-person presentation of your findings.  Cygnus charges air travel and hotels at cost.    

When is the project fee due? Can we spread the cost of participation?

In general, Cygnus asks for a 10% deposit when confirming participation.  This is expected to be due between May and November 2023.  The remainder of the fee is usually split into thirds based on when your survey deploys. 

Cygnus can provide flexible terms for organizations wishing to split payments throughout their fiscal year (and even possibly across the next fiscal year) depending on your desired survey and reporting dates.  Please do not hesitate to speak with us about a preferred payment schedule. 

What happens if more botanical gardens join after we’ve paid part / all our project fee?

Cygnus will either reduce your next installment or send you a refund for the difference.  You will always benefit from more groups joining. 


Can my botanical garden express an interest in the project without committing financially at this time?

Yes, absolutely!  If you are interested in participating but not yet certain if your organization can commit, please let us know.  We will not ask groups to formally committing to the project until November 2023, by which time we expect to have a much better sense of final numbers and costs. 

Are there advantages to registering / expressing interest early?

Yes, groups that register earlier will benefit from:

  1. greater input and influence over survey questions and the overall focus of the research. While Cygnus is happy to add additional survey questions at any time, a core group of questions needs to be solidified early in the research to create the national data set.  Once fixed it cannot be changed, so gardens who register early in the project will be able to help direct the national questions.
  2. more flexibility in getting supporter records to Cygnus. Early registrants will have more time to prepare and schedule key activities like interviews and data extractions.
  3. more choice in selecting dates for your survey’s deployment.

    While Cygnus will try and accommodate the wishes of all gardens, logistically we cannot have all botanical gardens launch their surveys simultaneously.  Priority in survey deployment will be given to organizations in the order that they expressed interest in the project.

You can always express interest in participating in the project without making any financial commitment.

My organization is considering participating. What are the next steps?

If you are considering or interested in participating, please send an email to Jeff Dubberley at Cygnus Applied Research:  Cygnus will reach out to you to discuss any requirements or questions you may have and general preferences for your project timeline.

There is no cost associated with expressing an interest in participating and you can withdraw your interest at any time. 


Who is Cygnus Applied Research?

Cygnus Applied Research is an international consulting firm that specializes in conducting member and donor research.  Founded by Penelope Burk, author of Donor-Centered Fundraising, Cygnus has conducted research into the thoughts and preferences of hundreds of thousands of supporters over the last twenty-five years.  We have produced numerous publications and research articles on development donor relations and conduct national surveys on fundraising.

As a firm, we have surveyed and analyzed the giving intentions, preferences, and behaviors of thousands of supporters on behalf of dozens of leading non-profit institutions including, Harvard Business School, Adler Planetarium, ALS Association, American Red Cross, Georgetown University, Lurie Children’s Hospital (Chicago), the March of Dimes, University of Wisconsin, and the YMCA of the USA as well as numerous other museums and cultural institutions. 

Why is Cygnus qualified to run this project?

Cygnus has previously conducted several membership audits on behalf of botanical gardens, including Missouri Botanical Garden in 2014 and 2017 and Naples Botanical Garden in 2018 and 2021.   We have a strong understanding of the research and membership data that would be of high value to botanical gardens, a proven track record of gathering information for this community, and a demonstrated ability to transform this information into meaningful recommendations.

Cygnus staff also possess more than 20 years’ experience conducting research across allied organizations who come together under a common research initiative.  We are experts at distilling data so that it is meaningful for both individual participants and the collective group of gardens.

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For additional information about the project, its methodology or to express interest, please contact us here:



Donor-Centered Fundraising
Backed by dozens of studies with tens of thousands of donors, Donor-Centered Fundraising is the authoritative text on why donors stop giving and what it takes to keep them loyal and giving more generously in a changing giving environment. The book clarifies what donors want, but seldom get, and how a donor-centered approach to acknowledgement, communication and recognition raises much more money. Donor-Centered Fundraising is full of vivid samples and eye-opening anecdotes, plus it’s a delightful and compelling read.

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