Friday, October 31, 2014

Unleashing the Power of Focus Groups: How to Find Out What Your Donors are Saying About You

If I asked you what people really think about your organization, would you be able to answer?

To successfully raise money from donors, you have to be able to connect with donors where they are. You have to be able to speak in a language that relates and resonates with donors. But before you can do this, you need to understand how your donors feel, think, and talk about your organization.

Earlier this month, we posted about how focus groups can give you this information. A focus group is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a small group of people whose opinions about something are studied to learn the opinions that can be expected from a larger group.”

So, how do you hold a successful focus group?

We recommend following a 10-step plan from Judith Simon Sharken’s book The Wilder Nonprofit Field Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Groups. In this blog post, we’ll tell you how we carried out the first 5 of these steps when Giving Focus held a series of focus groups last month at Pines Village Retirement Communities in Valparaiso, IN.

The first 5 steps are:
  • Define the purpose 
  • Establish a timeline
  • Identify and invite the participants
  • Generate the questions to be asked
  • Develop a script (we preferred to use an outline)

What do you want to achieve by gathering data through a focus group? Why do you want to know this data? A purpose statement should clearly answer these two questions. Our purpose statement for the Pines Village focus groups was to understand what makes Pines Village special and what makes it stand out from other retirement communities. We wanted to know this so that we could talk clearly and compellingly about Pines Village with donors in ways that would connect with them emotionally.

We established an 8-week timeline that broke the entire process down into small tasks, detailing who was responsible for doing what and by when.

Giving Focus then worked with Pines Village managers to come up with a list of people to invite to the focus groups. One month in advance of the focus group dates, we sent out invitation letters and followed up with phone calls. Once we had a list of confirmed RSVPs, we made reminder calls to everyone about 2 days before the focus groups were scheduled to take place. Note: As a general rule, keep the number of participants per focus group between 6 and 12.

Next, we came up with our list of questions. Focus groups should never exceed 2 hours, so we decided on a duration of 1.5 hours. We found that we could fill (and not exceed) this time slot by asking 6 questions. It’s good to start with a “warm-up” question and then build to more serious questions that get to the heart of what you really want to learn. Here are the questions that we asked:

  • What is your Pines Village story?
  • What are Pines Village’s greatest strengths?
  • What are some of Pines Village’s areas of weakness and opportunities for change?
  • Can you give three adjectives that describe your experience with Pines Village?
  • If a person approached you about making a charitable gift to Pines Village, what questions would you have for that person?
  • If a person asked you why he or she should support Pines Village with a charitable gift, what reasons would you give? 

While Sharken suggests writing and following a script while conducting focus groups (so that each focus group is run similarly in order to ensure reliable results), we felt that a script would take away from the our ability to connect with participants on a personal level. We used an outline instead and this worked great for us! 

Stay tuned for our next post  where we’ll share the next 6 steps with you… and if you want us to work with your organization, please call Andrea.

Simon, Judith Sharken. The Wilder Nonprofit Field Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Groups. Saint Paul, Minn: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 1999. Print.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Would You Pray for a 98-Year-Old Nun? How to Make Emotional Connections With Donors

Sr. Johnilda spent her life raising children in orphanages. Now 98, she keeps in touch with some of these children who are now adults. Some of them still call her “Mom.”

Wouldn’t you want to help Sr. Johnilda spend her final years in dignity and basic comfort? 

Recently, Giving Focus worked with the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ on a direct mail appeal asking for prayers and financial gifts to maintain the dignity and basic comfort of sisters in retirement. Before writing the appeal, we sat down with 30 retired nuns and listened to their stories. For two hours, the sisters told us stories of how they gave their entire lives to help other people. We then shared these stories in the solicitation letter so that potential donors could get to know and connect with the women that they were being asked to pray for and make gifts to.

When writing a solicitation letter, tell your readers a story about someone real who will benefit from their donations. This will create an emotional connection between your organization and your donor, making your donor more likely to give.

Solicitation 1 

“Please consider making a gift to our organization because we offer the best programs and services in the area.”

Solicitation 2 

“Last week, Susie went to bed on a full stomach for the first time in weeks because of a gift from someone like you. Please consider making a gift to our organization so that another little child like Susie doesn’t have to go to bed hungry.” 

Feel the difference?

The emotional connection offered in the second solicitation makes readers aware that there’s a need for their support. “Awareness of need is the first prerequisite for philanthropy,” state RenĂ© Bekkers and Pamala Wiepking in their article identifying the mechanisms that drive people to give to charity (Bekkers & Wiepking, 2011). The article explains how awareness of need is an emotional response that’s basically beyond the control of donors. Awareness of need is experienced before the donor even begins to consider the pros and cons of actually making the gift. 

Studies also show that knowing a beneficiary motivates people to make charitable contributions (Polonsky, Shelley, & Voola, 2002; Radley & Kennedy, 1995). 

How can you make potential donors get to know your beneficiaries? Tell real stories. 

Telling stories about real people who directly benefit from charitable gifts makes donors understand why their financial support is needed. Interview your beneficiaries, listen to them, and share their stories in your solicitation letters. Becoming familiar with a charity’s beneficiary – not the programs or services offered – increases a potential donor’s perception of need, which in turn increases the likelihood that he or she will give.


Bekkers, RenĂ©, and Pamala Wiepking. “A Literature Review of Empirical Studies of Philanthropy: Eight Mechanisms That Drive Charitable Giving.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 40.5 (2011): 924-973. 

Polonsky, Michael Jay, Laura Shelley, and Ranjit Voola. “An examination of helping behavior—Some evidence from Australia.” Journal of Nonprofit and Public Sector Marketing 10.2 (2002): 67-82. 

Radley, Alan, and Marie Kennedy. “Charitable giving by individuals: A study of attitudes and practice.” Human Relations 48 (1995): 685-709.