Are these surveys (A) very useful (B) somewhat useful (C) ignored?
October 15, 2013 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Is there any point to filling out surveys from non-profits?

I keep getting surveys along with donation requests from non-profits and political organizations. Do the organizations actually pay any attention to the answers, or are they just an elaborate fund-raising tactic? If the organization actually pays attention to the answers, how much do those answers inform the organization's mission?

I'd greatly appreciate answers from people who have actually worked at non-profits and seen how their organization deals with these surveys.
posted by kristi to Society & Culture (15 answers total)
They absolutely do pay attention to the surveys. From my experience, they directly went into statistics for the annual report. Depending on what the survey is asking, the answers will often be included as data for grant proposals as well.
posted by Think_Long at 9:10 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

In the past I have worked for companies that have done data management and surveys for commercial, non profit, government, and the education market.

No one is paying that kind of money for surveys and ignoring the data.
posted by PlutoniumX at 9:14 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't work at a non-profit, but the work I do for my organization is, in large part, sending out surveys to our customers through many different channels. I use the crap out of these surveys. They inform all aspects of our business, from website design to product offerings to marketing techniques, and everything in between. They're not the be-all end-all decision maker, or anything, but they're incredibly useful. As for "how much do those answers inform the organization's mission", it depends a lot on who is up which chain, and how much they believe in survey responses, and how much can be changed as a result of them -- it's not uncommon for a company to be 100% aware that something is not as well-designed (in whatever sense you want that to mean) as it could be, and that it's costing them something, but there are other reasons that it is not changeable.

My group puts a lot of effort into our survey writing -- makings sure our questions are asked well, and knowing why we ask them -- and we spend a lot of time reading the responses (I read every single free-response answer on the many surveys I send out -- thousands per month). BUT, a lot of companies aren't that conscientious. They send out surveys because they told some stakeholder they would. They have people who don't know what they're doing write them, and don't think about what they'll do with the responses once they get them in advance. I've looked at enough surveys that I can often tell whether it was put together thoughtfully or not, but it's not always obvious, and there may be really strange, specific pieces of information that they need to know for some reason.

Also, don't think these two things: "Do the organizations actually pay any attention to the answers, or are they just an elaborate fund-raising tactic?" are mutually exclusive. It is very possible for the surveys to be incredibly useful to the organization, and for it to help with engagement and fundraising. It's not necessarily bad if that's the case. We have occasionally used surveys as an "excuse" to contact our customers. We still put effort into making it a good survey, and thinking about what we can learn from it, and we have learned a lot, but yeah, the survey was definitely dual-function in that respect.
posted by brainmouse at 9:21 AM on October 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I work for a non-profit that helps immigrants and refugees. We do read all of the surveys that come to us after a workshop or an activity (a job fair, for example). We're small scale though, we don't have to hire a company like PlutoniumX worked for.

So we do read all the information and take suggestions into account when we do the same thing the following year. Even if we didn't, the client feedback would help us justify our continued funding from government and other sources. I think that if you think an organization does work that is worth supporting, even if you don't give money, filling out a survey is a good thing to do.
posted by beau jackson at 9:46 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I worked for a nonprofit that used surveys after week-long nature/residency programs. The feedback was definitely considered, weighed, and acted upon. The nonprofit also did a ton of fundraising, but it was kept separate from the feedback.
posted by mochapickle at 10:14 AM on October 15, 2013

Surveys included with direct mail solicitations are typically an example of what the direct mail industry refers to as involvement devices. At best, the data might be useful to the nonprofit- at worst, they're a form of push poll. In any event, the main goal is to engage the recipient, making them more likely to send money.
posted by zamboni at 10:40 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recently used an online survey system for a non-profit that I volunteer with to solicit feedback about an event we hosted. It never occurred to me that this could be a means to gauge likelihood that people would donate more. Even as I think of that angle I'm not comfortable pursuing it in any meaningful way. I will say that the responses are helping craft our plans for the event next year, so in my one experience I see the survey being used by the organization. Of course no one has any moral obligation to take a survey and you shouldn't feel bad if you don't want to do it.
posted by dgran at 10:49 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It depends a lot on what you mean by "nonprofit" and "political organization." As zamboni says, some of them are just an engagement tool.

But I've worked in nonprofits (educational and cultural) my entire career, and have never run a survey like that, though I've run probably several dozen over that time. We really do use and need our survey data. We report on it to funders and grantors, use it to show impact and efficacy, or use it to shape the development of future programming. As brainmouse notes, conducting proper surveys is expensive specialty work, and time-consuming to boot, and we'd never waste the resources to do a fluff or fake survey. But a big organization that does massive-scale fundraising, like a disease or aid charity, might use surveys as part of their fundraising strategy.

I think you could tell the difference largely by the content. A survey someone intends to use will probably be a bit more dry than a survey designed to engage you with excitement/outrage/opinion-seeking.
posted by Miko at 10:52 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Depends on the organization. I worked for a blood bank, and we had surveys but they were very un-scientific, and in the "customer service" meeting they pretty much just mocked any suggestions. That had a lot to do with the culture of the organization, however.
posted by radioamy at 10:59 AM on October 15, 2013

Best answer: I'm an online strategist for a nonprofit. We absolutely do use the answers to those surveys.

Not all groups do - for some it's an engagement device - even more frequently, it's a way to see if you're still "paying attention." ie, if you've been on their list for months and haven't taken any actions or donated, they want to see if you're still at least reading the emails - if not, they may remove you from their list. But even when an email is being used for that purpose, it doesn't mean that they aren't ALSO using the info they collect.

BTW, our surveys are typically not "dry" in the sense that they seem like the kinds of surveys that research firms put out, because we WANT to make them engaging so people will take them. So a survey being non-dry does not mean it isn't legit.

IME, advocacy groups are likely to use the survey info - actually uses survey results to figure out what their membership wants them to work on, and adjusts their priorities accordingly. Most organizations aren't that democratic, but it's in an advocacy organization's interest to keep their members interested and engaged.
posted by lunasol at 11:05 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm on the board of an arts-related non-profit. We use the demographic data from our audience surveys to report to our funders on the kinds of audiences we serve. It's core to our mission to serve diverse audiences, so our funding is often contingent on that.
posted by judith at 11:16 AM on October 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These answers are amazingly helpful - thank you! - and I would love any further answers.

Just one point of clarification: my question was prompted by physical, paper surveys included with physically-mailed donation requests. Info on electronic solicitations and surveys is great and appreciated, but the surveys I'm getting are on paper.
posted by kristi at 11:44 AM on October 15, 2013

Best answer: I think you might have a hard time getting an answer about the specific survey you have in front of you. In my mind, putting a specific "ask" for a donation along with the survey return adds to the "hmmm, how are they using this survey" musings. But there are also more innocuous reasons; perhaps the organization has really high response rates to its annual end-of-year appeal, and is including the survey there to improve response rates.

I feel that donor/member surveys are very much part of a nonprofit's toolbox to assess how it's meeting the needs of its members or the desires of its donors.

And I can tell you that as a board member of a nonprofit, I've requested that "my" nonprofit survey certain (very targeted) areas to gain some quantitative data regarding how the organization is doing. And that at both the Board and staff level, we've really closely looked at those responses.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:08 PM on October 15, 2013

Best answer: Physical paper surveys with donation requests were, at least at my last nonprofit, completely bullshit and were discarded if they came without a check. If they came with a check, they would only be scrutinized if the check was for a high sum and then they went in that person's donor folder. It was an attempt to see who answered/ pretend like our donor's opinions actually were used.
posted by corb at 6:19 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you very much, everyone - I was really tempted to mark every answer Best Answer, but I ended up marking the ones that seemed best of the best to me.

Brainmouse, about this:

Also, don't think these two things: "Do the organizations actually pay any attention to the answers, or are they just an elaborate fund-raising tactic?" are mutually exclusive. It is very possible for the surveys to be incredibly useful to the organization, and for it to help with engagement and fundraising. It's not necessarily bad if that's the case.

I completely agree. I've been getting a LOT of surveys lately, though, and it just made me wonder if they're ONLY being used as engagement devices. Based on all the great answers I've gotten here, it sounds like the answer is "it depends", and especially "it depends on the organization" ... but it's helpful for me to know that they are, sometimes, read and used by the organizations who send them.

Thanks all!
posted by kristi at 11:23 AM on October 17, 2013

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