Data can be a powerful tool to help nonprofits, both large and small, gather information and feedback from clients, guests, audiences, beneficiaries, and even their own board and staff members. However, many organizations are unsure how to collect that data. Creation in Common Senior Associate, Bryn Meyer, offers some tips on how to use a simple, effective, versatile data collection tool: the survey.

Data collection can involve thousands of people across the nation or a dozen stakeholders in your office. The key is to make sure that you have the capacity to interpret, analyze, and translate the data you collect into knowledge. Online surveys require much less effort than pencil and paper ones. Survey Monkey is one flexible online survey builder that offers a number of user-friendly templates and an array of analytics. Also, analyzing open-ended comments is much more time consuming than tallying multiple-choice replies. Finally, be sure you’re able to analyze every survey you send out. Although you likely won’t get a 100 percent return, it may be higher than you think.

Bryn Meyer

Here’s how to get started.

Step 1. What do you want to know?

Articulate one or more research questions. Do you want to understand your clients better? Identify access barriers? Determine the effectiveness or inclusiveness of your workplace? These questions will determine your data collection lens.

Step 2. What information do you need to answer those questions?

Identify what discrete pieces of information you need to gather in order to answer your research questions. Weed out any questions that aren’t strictly necessary.

Step 3. How are you going to use the information you gather?

You might ask very different questions if you’re seeking solutions to a problem versus trying to understand who makes up your client base.

Step 4. Who should you poll?

Narrow down your survey audience to people who can provide the information you need. For instance, if you want to identify barriers to engagement, you don’t need to hear from people who are already actively involved with your organization. 

Survey design is a critical part of data collection. Keep your questions short and succinct, and ask as few as possible to get the information you need. And remember: the way you ask a question matters. Double-barreled questions, like “Is this presentation clear and interesting?” are impossible to interpret because they ask two questions but require a single answer. Split those questions into two. Also be aware of making assumptions. If you ask “How long does it take you to drive to our office?” you’re assuming the respondent has access to a car. Try to pretest your survey. Before you ask 400 people, and discover you’ve collected data that’s unusable, do a trial run with a smaller subset of respondents. 

Data collected through surveys can provide insight on decision-making, direction, and opportunities for improvement. They’re great for asking who, how many, what, where, and a little bit of how, but they’re not quite as useful for answering why. What a thoughtful survey can do is give you a cost-effective, reliable, versatile opportunity to peek into the minds of the people who help shape your organization.