Hypothesizing what donors care about is a habit many fundraisers need to kick. And it’s not just fundraisers. Executive directors, board members, marketers and program staff indulge in this vice too.

In the quest nonprofits have to engage thousands of people in our work making the change we hope to see in the world, it’s easy—and dangerous—to fall into the trap of what we like to call theoretical, not practical fundraising.

In theoretical fundraising, we project ourselves (both demographically and behaviorally) onto donors; we try to “educate” donors about what they should care about without understanding why they give in the first place; and we talk at donors a lot and seldom listen.

We’ve found a way to shift from the theoretical to the practical with the goal of increasing donor loyalty and lifetime value. Enter in the Sea Change Insight Panel,™ a hybrid research and cultivation platform that offers monthly opportunities to gather actionable insights from donors while making them feel heard and valued.

We’ve launched Sea Change Insight Panels™ for National Audubon Society, Best Friends Animal Society, the ACLU, the Wilderness Society, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Doctors Without Borders, among others. But you don’t have to hire us. You can now create your own.

We’ve just launched a do-it-yourself guide that aims to put the power of listening in as many fundraisers’ hands as possible. Download a copy of the guide here.

But what will you learn about your donors to make it all worth it?

Here are 10 fundraising-boosting things you would know now if you had a Sea Change Donor Insight Panel.™

1. How are donor attitudes shifting based on current events?

Tracking donor feelings and attitudes can be especially important during major events and crises like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the aftermath of seismic Supreme Court decisions. Probing how donors are responding to current events is a rich area for exploration and organizations can respond by adapting messaging to better reflect donors’ feelings and expectations, almost in real time.

2. How do donors feel about new programs and priorities?

Organizations often test emerging campaigns and priorities with their Insight Panels—especially how salient those campaigns/issues might be for fundraising. Are you an international group starting a domestic program? You can explore how donors feel about that shift. Are you a conservation group wanting to emphasize climate justice? You can discuss that with donors too. Panel participants provide key feedback and/or early warning signs if programs/priorities feel out of sync with their perception of the organization.

3. Are there any differences in key segments including long-time donors, new donors, high-value donors or monthly donors?

Some donor segments—new donors and high-value donors in particular—can vary in terms of their attitudes and perceptions of your organization and how they want to engage with you. Tracking alignment and divergence between donor segments can support more nuanced segmentation tactics.

4. What are donors’ attitudes about elections? (which is especially important right now)

How likely are they to vote? What races are they watching most closely? How optimistic or pessimistic are they about the outcomes? Do they care more about voting “bad candidates” out or do they care more about voting “good candidates” in? What issues are driving their voting decisions? If you had a Donor Insight Panel, you’d already know.

5. How closely have they tracked your advocacy and programmatic wins or threats including legislation?

We follow these stories closely. But how closely have donors followed the Community Safety Act or the Inflation Reduction Act? How closely do they associate your work with the victories? How closely are they tracking your opponents like the NRA or the Oil and Gas lobby? If you had an Insight Panel, you’d know.

6. Why did they donate to you in the first place?

Remember donors mostly give to your organization not because you are awesome but because they are awesome and you are an instrument of their awesomeness. So how did they come to care enough about your cause to give? Donors love to tell that story and it’s an opportunity to help them feel seen and important.

7. What images do they associate with you and your cause?

We non-profit people are pretty left-brained folks, and it’s easy to forget that philanthropy is a fundamentally right-brained affair. When we think of right-brained we think of emotion and imagery. Asking projective questions, like what images donors associate with your organization can tell you volumes about how they see you.

8. Who are your competitors?

We know it’s frowned on in some circles to think of other organizations as competitors, but let’s face it, we do compete for donors’ dollars at least to some extent. We often ask ‘If [organization name] didn’t exist, who would you support instead?’ The answers may surprise you.

9. What do they think of your content?

What messages or stories resonate with them? By what channels are they connecting with you? Are they reading your impact reports? Some of our clients have completely redesigned their email cultivations with donor guidance. Both the process of asking and the resulting changes can foster deeper ties.

10. What brand attributes do donors notice/care about?

You know that new logo and tagline? Do donors even know they exist? Do they like them? Similarly, if you’re considering a name change for your giving circle, what will donors think? We’ve seen organizations avoid some mishaps simply by asking in advance.

The bottom line is that donors are in relationship to you, and relationship is a two-way street. A Sea Change Insight Panel™ creates a durable channel for doing more listening and less talking. That alone is a great value if you hope to keep the donors you have over time.

The stories they tell will warm your hearts. The information they provide will improve your programs. All you need to do is ask.