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8 Tips for an Effective Online Survey

Lori Halley  15 April 2008  12 comments

Your organization may send out a feedback request with its appeals or reports to members. And perhaps you routinely ask those who attend your special events to fill out a quick survey. But if you need data quickly, or from a broader range of respondents, why not consider an online poll or survey?

Here are 8 quick tips to help you get started:

1. Identify your goals.

Online surveys can be an easy and cost-effective way to identify your constituents' needs and priorities, to learn what you're doing well and what could be improved on, and to gather any other kind of information that will help your group to further its cause.

What information do you want to get from your respondents? More importantly, what information do you really need? Keep a clear focus on the goal of the survey as you craft it.

2. Choose the right format.

Should you ask respondents to tick off a checkbox, or to write out a response in their own words?

Nonprofit consultant Paulette Vinette (How to Conduct Your Own Member Survey: Charity Village) notes that multiple-choice surveys will produce a group of responses that are easy to tally and compare. There may also be a higher response rate for multiple choice questions, as they are faster and easier for people to answer than open-ended questions that require more time and thought.

Some questions simply won't lend themselves to a series of checkbox choices, however. If you're looking for more detail than a multiple-choice format will allow, consider adding a text box to give respondents a chance to add more information. Or ask permission to do a follow-up interview by telephone if necessary.

3. Count your questions.

Time is a most precious commodity. Let respondents know what they're getting into, before they start the survey -- tell them how many questions you'll be asking, or give an estimate of the time needed to complete your survey.

4. Pay attention to privacy.

What's readily divulged by one person may be considered private by another -- sharing opinions and information can be a very personal matter. Honour that with a link to your privacy policy, and make it clear how and where and by whom the collected information will be used.

Offer your respondents the choice of staying anonymous, and/or the option of opting out from any question. If you want to maximize the response to your survey, do avoid an "all or nothing" set-up, where respondents must answer every question in order to successfully submit their response. A partial survey may not be as statistically useful, but to reject it could mean the loss of some valuable information (and possibly an active supporter) to your organzation.

5. Offer an incentive.

Acknowledge the value of your respondent's time with a small but meaningful reward. For example, TicketPrinting.com’s Raffle Survey offers a 10% discount on future orders and an entry in a prize draw. Respondents to NTEN's Rate Your CMS survey are given a copy of the resulting report. How might you reward your own constituents for taking part in a survey?

6. Post your survey.

See our list of Top 10 easy-to-use web poll and survey tools for ways to put your survey online.

7. Spread the word.

Start with your membership mailing list. How far beyond this you might want to publicize the survey will depend on the purpose, of course. A survey on membership issues or the business of your nonprofit will likely be limited to members only.

For a broader survey, however, you'll want to reach out beyond your organization's members to a wider audience -- and there's another good example of why a nonprofit should make a point of collecting email addresses on its website and at events!

Invite those on your "interested others" mailing list to participate in the survey, as well as your members, friends, and business contacts. Remember to include a short description of what you're trying to do and why it is important. Mention the incentive you're offering to those who take the survey, and ask your members and contacts to pass along your email to others who might be interested.

Put out the word in forums and online groups that are related to your cause. Browse through Google groups or the Open Directory Project as a starting point.

8. Follow through.

When you ask questions, your respondents have reason to feel they have a stake in the answers. Do post an update on your website or blog to report your findings. Share as much information as is compatible with your goals for the survey, and with the privacy policy you established for it.

Reporting the results of a poll or survey not only meets the terms of that (possibly unwritten) contract with your respondents, it can also generate more interest in the topic of your survey (and any reports you might publish as a result), and may help to build anticipation for any future polls and surveys.

Above all, reporting back is a way to show that your organization is accountable, responsive, and actively engaged with its members and constituents -- working in partnership for the good of a cause.

Lori Halley

Posted by Lori Halley

Published Tuesday, 15 April 2008 at 4:51 PM


  • Eleni said:

    Tuesday, 15 April 2008 at 2:05 PM

    Thank you very much for your helpful advice on online surveys. I was particularly interested in number 8.

  • Chris Garrett said:

    Wednesday, 16 April 2008 at 5:48 AM

    What a coincidence, I was writing a survey for a client when this appeared :)

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley said:

    Thursday, 17 April 2008 at 3:58 AM

    @Eleni, yes, the follow-through really is needed to 'close the loop' on a survey: and if readers know that you plan to report the results, it can give them another reason to return to your site, too.

    @Chris, glad to hear that we had good timing!

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley said:

    Thursday, 17 April 2008 at 5:04 AM

    And here's an interesting approach to survey results reporting: Citizen Schools and the Public Media Learning Library at http://plml.org/wiki/wikka.php?wakka=SurveyResults use a wiki to share the results of their Nonprofit Social Media and Web 2.0 Survey -- both as raw data and as a summary report. Beyond that, the wiki format allows them to continue to collect information: to broaden the initial survey with a follow-up survey, and to invite user contributions to building a "best practices" strategy for each of the major Web 2.0 and social-networking technologies they're looking at. This is one to watch!

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Thursday, 17 April 2008 at 9:44 AM

    The Survey sez....!

    This information is very helpful. I tend to think more about the technical side and less about the people behind the chads. Points 4, 5 and 8 are noteworthy.



  • Christoph Leser said:

    Monday, 05 May 2008 at 12:21 PM

    What survey tools does Wild Apricot offer?

  • Christoph Leser said:

    Monday, 05 May 2008 at 12:22 PM

    What survey functions/tools does Wild Aprioct offer?

  • Lori Halley

    Lori Halley said:

    Monday, 05 May 2008 at 12:55 PM

    Christoph, thanks for your questions.

    Have you had a look at our list of Top 10 easy-to-use web poll and survey tools for ways to put your survey online?

    See also Data Collection Made Easier with Google Forms and Spreadsheets for a more sophisticated option, if you need to set up a survey and collection the responses in a database.

    If none of these solutions meet your needs, perhaps you can explain in more detail what you're looking for in a survey tool?

  • Dmitry Buterin

    Dmitry Buterin said:

    Monday, 05 May 2008 at 1:05 PM


    Wild Apricot does not currently have any built-in survey/polls functions.

    This is something in our plans for the future.

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 24 September 2008 at 9:24 AM

    Are the people who are visiting your website really the audience that you're trying to target? The more

  • Jason King said:

    Tuesday, 02 June 2009 at 3:24 PM

    Most online surveys enable you to direct people to a specific page on your website on completion - that's a great way to give them further information now you've caught their attention.

    An incentive definitely helps. We offered an eee pc and got a lot of responses.

    And keep the questions simple, don't try to over-complicate things. Just because your survey software lets you set up a complex matrix doesn't mean you have to use that tool.

  • Wild Apricot Blog said:

    Wednesday, 02 September 2009 at 11:18 AM

    NTEN is offering a chance to win a free registration for the Online Nonprofit Technology Conference this month. It's not only a great chance for some lucky non-profit folks to get free professional development, but there's a quick lesson in online marketing

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