July 17, 2018

Best practices for a successful nonprofit survey

Enter your details to sign up for NTEN updates. We'll send you about 3-5 emails a month and you can change your preferences at any time by clicking on a link in the footer of our emails.

First Name
First name required.
Last Name
Last name required.
Email
Email required. Invalid email address. You already have an account. Log in or reset your password.
Job Type
Please select a job type.

Nonprofits are used to making the most of their resources, and surveys are a perfect case in point. Once you’ve decided to invest time and possibly money in a survey project, you want to see results. No matter your purpose or audience, you can make the most of your effort with a few best practices.

Focus first

If you’re working for a nonprofit, you’re probably already well-versed in balancing the aspirational with the practical. “Wouldn’t it be great if…” gets many of us started, but the reality is that we also need to make do with what we’ve got as we keep building toward our dreams.

Starting a survey project often starts out at the aspirational level—wouldn’t it be great if we knew:

  • how well we’ve met the needs of those we serve?
  • how engaged our volunteers are?
  • how satisfied our donors are with the way we’ve used our resources?
  • how effective our programs are?

The list goes on. For a successful survey project, though, it’s important to narrow the focus. You can’t get all the answers you want from all the people you want to hear from in one single project. So, decide: What’s most important to learn right now?

Once you’ve clarified the main goal(s) that will drive this project, you’ll find it easier to formulate the right questions that will give you the answers you need. Plus, you’ll be able to trim those nice-to-have bits for later conversations, keeping this survey short and to the point.

Also: Make sure you’re identifying the right participation group. Who do you really need to hear from, and how can you reach them? Target your audience to make sure your message is relevant and engaging, and plan your distribution so you’re able to connect to everyone—through different channels, different languages, and even different time zones.

Mission mattersMelissa Krut quote

Now that you’ve identified a clear reason why you’re conducting this outreach, make sure it’s clear to your participants. Use every outreach opportunity to reinforce your commitment to big picture goals, and your participants will feel like they’re part of the solution. Help them understand why you’re asking for their feedback and how you’ll use it, and be genuine. Nobody wants to feel they’re being solicited—treat your participants like your partners.

You can also use the opportunity to inform them about successes and progress along the way. For example, instead of simply asking “Will you attend the next event?” with yes/no answer options, you might consider:

Our recent community picnic raised $10,000 for neighborhood literacy programs, welcomed over 4,000 guests, and was powered by the hard work of 50 dedicated volunteers. We’d love to have you join us next time! Can we save you a seat?

  • Yes, I’ll help out as a volunteer!
  • Yes, I’ll join as a guest.
  • No, thanks – maybe next time!

Make sure that your survey design is polished and professional so that your brand is clear in the minds of your audience—and so it looks good, too!

Use it or lose it

You’ve put the work in and earned a great big pile of data. Nice! But beware: There are two big risks that pop up at this stage. Don’t let either of these happen to you!

  • The data gets dumped in a dusty filing cabinet and is never seen again, so insights are never put into action.
  • Participants never find out anything about the results or follow-up action.

These issues can both lead to lower engagement from your stakeholders, decreased participation in your next outreach efforts, and even a more negative public perception of your organization. Consider this simple example of a thank-you message:

Thanks so much for your response! Once the survey is closed, our Volunteer Advisory Committee will review results and make an action plan to improve volunteer experience based on what we’ve learned. Stay tuned for report highlights and a look at our action plan in the August newsletter! Want to join the VAC? Contact DJ at dj@email.org.

Make a point to follow up and thank your participants. If you can automate this, great. Still, a quick instant thanks message doesn’t mean you’re done. Once you’ve reviewed your reports and decided how you’ll follow up, take the time to communicate. Once you’ve taken action, communicate! Ensure members of your community feel like they’re part of an ongoing dialogue and you’ll continue to keep them engaged.

Simple enough, right? Keep in mind that each survey outreach is another conversation with your community about your shared mission, and you’ll make it easier for them to join in.

Melissa Krut
Melissa is a writer, an educator, and an all-around success enthusiast. As SoGoSurvey’s Senior Director of Success, Melissa enjoys helping clients to connect with their own data in order to make smarter, more informed decisions. She draws from her experiences as classroom teacher, Peace Corps volunteer, trainer, and project manager to connect with clients from all around the world to improve their processes, simplify their data collection and reporting, and turn their insights into action. As a volunteer with multiple local nonprofits, Melissa is especially excited to connect with the nonprofit community. #SoGoGetExcited
Interest Categories: Evaluation
Tags: Communications, survey