Our recent how-to workbook on creating your own insight panels of donors lays out a blueprint for building a community of donors. The overarching goal of these communities is to establish ongoing two-way communication between you and those who are supporting you. The workbook shares the recipe Sea Change uses to create, run and support insight panels, and for smaller organizations the way we do it might seem complex and costly.

So what if you’re a small organization? What if your development team is you and a part-time admin? We believe that you too can play, and below are some hacks that will let you gain many of the benefits of an all-singing, all-dancing insight panel without breaking your bank.

This Part One of ‘Insight Panels for small organizations’ offers a simplified approach to the strategic issues and mechanics. Part Two will offer guidance around specific questions you might want to ask.

Hack #1: Remember your ‘why’

The purpose of these panels is to give your donors the opportunity to express themselves as individuals and to tell you what they want, like and care about. Anything that accomplishes that is forward progress. We always start the process with four overarching goals in mind:

  1. Make donors feel seen and heard;
  2. Gather strategically important information;
  3. Provide a hook for additional stewardship touches; and
  4. Deepen donors’ sense of connection and commitment to your cause

Even if your only why is #1, make donors feel seen and heard, it can be a step toward achieving the aspiration of goal #4, deepening donors’ sense of connection and commitment

Hack #2: Make a commitment

If you don’t really care about your donors’ thoughts and feelings, don’t start. More than ever donors are wary of faux engagement, like donation appeals masquerading as surveys. In our research donors frequently say they feel like they’re treated as ATMs by the causes they support.

Check yourself. Is your curiosity about your donors genuine? Are you prepared to devote a bit of time and attention to what your donors have to say? We are convinced that establishing authentic communications with your donors will contribute to your fundraising success. But if that just doesn’t feel like a priority right now, that’s totally ok.

Hack #3: Keep it simple

You can gain many of the benefits of this approach by simplifying. Here are some ideas for right-sizing the insight panel for a small organization.

  • Don’t recruit. We generally invite donors to take part in the insight panel and only survey those who have opted in. That’s a time-consuming and complicated process and for a small organization probably not a great use of time. But here’s a secret: Most donors like to be surveyed, as long as they think you’re really listening. So you can forego the recruitment phase and just survey your entire donor email list on a regular basis.
  • Do it every other month. We think regularity is important; it builds donor confidence that you’re really listening. The panels we run receive a survey every month. But if that cadence is a deal-breaker, we think every other month could work. Certainly, a bimonthly cadence is better than not surveying at all.
  • Don’t segment. We generally segment the monthly surveys by important audiences, like monthly sustainers, midlevel donors, planned givers, or new donors. That’s a lot of work both in terms of setting up the email send and analyzing results. The benefits of segmenting are significant, but if the workload is too much, skip it.
  • Use Google forms; Sea Change uses the pro version of Surveymonkey, which lets us do all kinds of tricks including skip logic and cross tabulation. It’s expensive and there’s a learning curve. So why not just use Google forms? It’s free, easy to use, and it’s good enough for many purposes.

Hack #4: Report back simply, authentically, and consistently

Reporting back to your donors is crucial, but it doesn’t need to be a huge lift. A brief email sharing what you learned and how you might use the information will suffice. You don’t need to report back everything, just the essentials. For extra credit, include a couple of direct quotes from any open-ended questions you’re asking.

This is important: Report back on the same cadence as you survey. If you are surveying every other month, report back every other month. That’s how you hold up your end of the conversation.

Hack #5: Use survey results to foster a culture of philanthropy at your organization

Share the survey results with your colleagues and invite them to pose questions for future surveys. That can go far toward helping everyone see donors as stakeholders in your work.

There are many good reasons to do all the elaborate things we do when running an insight panel. But you can gain some important benefits by doing it on the cheap. We have no doubt that a shoestring effort, if authentic and regular, is way better than no effort at all.