10 Dos and Don’ts of Conducting Survey Research

This post originally appeared in the Nonprofit Hub Magazine May/June Magazine. Sign up to receive our free bi-monthly magazine with content from nonprofit industry experts here.


You’re a nonprofiteer on a mission, and a lot of the time that means learning new tasks as they come at you. If somebody told you that improving your organization was as easy as finding, tracking and utilizing the right data, wouldn’t you do it?

Ted Lannan is the former senior marketing research analyst at Inceptia, a nonprofit organization providing expertise in a variety of higher education topics. We chatted with Lannan to get his best tips for nonprofits to succeed with survey research. Check out his 10 dos and don’ts to take your nonprofit survey research to the next level.

1. Don’t Spend a Ton

If you’re avoiding survey research tools because you think you can’t afford them, think again. Plenty of tools exist that have the functionality you’ll need to succeed. For example, Lannan suggested SurveyMonkey, which ranges from free to very inexpensive to use. Plus, it comes with additional resources and survey templates for nonprofits to utilize.

2. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The great thing about living in the information age is that you can find the answer to just about anything on the Internet. That means starting from scratch probably isn’t necessary. Do some research online to find out if somebody else has done a similar survey. If so, see what you can borrow or repurpose with some of the questions.

3. Do Actually Use the Results

This one seems like a no-brainer, but surprisingly, it’s not. Some organizations go through the effort to collect data to make their organization better, yet they don’t take time to do anything with it – or they underutilize what they’ve collected.

Lannan suggested to take the time to set goals and understand why exactly you need the data before diving into the survey and research gathering.

4. Do Keep it Simple

It’s time to separate the “need to know” from “nice to know.” Survey questions that are worded poorly or surveys that contain unnecessary information will send your participants running in the opposite direction. If you have some additional room, feel free to add in “nice to know” questions – but first, separate out the most important.

5. Don’t Make Your Survey Too Long

It’s hard to believe that people have short attention spans. Wait, what were we talking about again? Right—surveys. Anyway, you’ll lose participants if your survey takes much longer than five minutes with a maximum of 10 minutes to complete.

6. Do Test Your Survey

This is a great way to figure out if you’re within the 5-10 minute frame. Plus, testing your survey is a way to see if you’re generating the types of responses you were hoping for. It’s amazing to see how often what you ask is perceived differently than what you were hoping for. Testing your survey will help eliminate any confusion.

7. Do Be Selective with Open-Ended Questions

You’ll rarely get useable data by asking questions like, “What service would you most like to see us provide?” Remember, you’re the professional and you know your audience best. You know what types of questions are realistic for your participants to provide answers for.

Instead, provide concrete options and ask the respondents to rate each on a 1 to 5 scale. Then you can ask a more open-ended question such as, “Is there anything else that you suggest we provide?”

8. Don’t Rank a Comprehensive List of Items

You might be tempted to give your audience a list of all your products and services and ask them to rank them for importance. Instead, Lannan suggests asking respondents to rate each individual product or service on a scale of one to five.

Then, you can follow-up with the question, “Which of these items is the single most important?”

9. Don’t Forget to Ask These Two Questions

Asking the right questions is one of the most important parts of your survey. That’s why it’s important to note that there are two parts to a question about a product or service.

  1. How important is the product or service?
  2. How well is the product or service being implemented or delivered?

This approach will tell you if resources are being wasted, Lannan said. For example, if something is low on the importance scale but high on the delivery scale, you might be misusing resources in certain areas.

10. Do Find an Analyst to Interpret the Data

Data analysts can help find patterns and dig deeper into the key groups of respondents besides simply the top line results. They can provide a better explanation of the results to your nonprofit’s decision-makers who might not be statistically inclined. Remember, data analysis and clear presentation of data is an art, Lannan said. As nonprofit professionals, you’ll almost always have ideas on what to do if the facts are presented in an understandable way.

As an added bonus, seek out an analyst and find out if they’d be willing to volunteer their time with you to help get the most out of the data you collect.

survey research

Randy Hawthorne

As the former Executive Director and Editor for Nonprofit Hub and a Professional Certified Marketer, Randy shares his passions of marketing and education with nonprofits to help them implement marketing and organizational leadership principles so they can grow their organizations. Randy lends his marketing and organizational leadership expertise to a number of nonprofits in his community. Outside the office, Randy works with high school and college students and mentors young professionals to develop their leadership and entrepreneurial skills.

May 24, 2016

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