Improving your organization’s surveys

Have you been unimpressed by the results of past surveys you’ve sent to members, donors, sponsors and other constituents? Perhaps it’s time to start over and rethink your survey format and practices.

Make it well focused — and short

The first, and most important, task in creating a survey is to define its main purpose. What does your nonprofit want to learn from respondents? How will you use the data you collect?

From the onset, plan to develop as brief a survey as possible to meet your needs. Ideally, completing the survey should take no longer than five minutes. Online survey maker SurveyMonkey says six to 10 minutes is acceptable, but it sees “significant abandonment rates” after 10 minutes.

Online help and incentives

SurveyMonkey is one of the most popular online survey tools. For free, your nonprofit can create a basic survey with 10 questions and 100 responses. The company also has nonprofit templates that cover volunteer satisfaction, donor feedback, event planning and market research available. Some of the many other options available are Google Forms, SurveyGizmo and Typeform. Each survey tool has certain benefits in terms of pricing, creativity or the ability to analyze your results.

You also must decide if you should offer an incentive. According to research, people are significantly more likely to complete a survey if they’re offered a reward. And the response rate increases with the value of the incentive given. If you do offer a “perk,” choose one that’s appropriate.

Avoid jargon, a poor structure and bias

When devising your survey, speak the language of those who’ll be taking it. Avoid industry jargon and technical lingo, and don’t assume the survey taker knows the ins and outs of your organization or field. If you’re going to make an insider’s reference, explain it.

Your survey’s structure is important, too. Begin with a brief introduction that explains the survey’s purpose and importance. Then group similar questions together to create flow. Place easy questions at the beginning of the survey and put more difficult or sensitive questions at the end.

Your goal should be to engage the respondent through the entire survey, so try the following tips:

  • Present one idea per question.
  • Use closed-ended questions whenever possible. They’re easier for the survey taker — and for your nonprofit to analyze.
  • Keep rating scales consistent throughout the survey.
  • Give special attention to multiple-choice questions. For instance, provide respondents with all options for answering, including “not applicable” or “don’t know.”

You’ll also want to avoid building bias into the survey. Don’t lead respondents to answers you’d like to hear. Avoid loaded words and strong language, and consider seeking the services of a survey professional to ensure objectivity. Also remember that privacy is important to most people. Reassure respondents at the beginning of the survey or in a cover letter that their replies will remain confidential.

Testing and distribution

Try out your finished survey on staff or a small sample of your target audience. Time their responses and ask for feedback. You’ll want to learn if any questions were confusing.

Once the survey has been distributed, don’t hesitate to send reminders to potential respondents you haven’t heard from. According to some experts, sending several reminders significantly boosts response rates.

The results are in

A well-conceived survey will likely give you information you didn’t have before — and provide information you and other leaders in your organization can use in decision-making. So, contact constituents frequently and ask them what they think.