How to Survey Customers of Your Nonprofit

If you want to improve the way your nonprofit reaches the public, you first need to know how your current marketing works. Who are your constituents? How did they find out about your organization? Why do they make use of your programs?

You may never discover who reads about your organization in the newspaper or sees your sign every day on the bus, but some people — those with whom you directly communicate — can be identified. Start by defining your core group — your most important constituents — and work out from there.

Suppose that your organization is a small historical society that organizes exhibits and panel discussions at three libraries in your town, publishes a quarterly newsletter, and maintains a website featuring news and information about its collection. Your current constituents (or stakeholders, if you want to use a common nonprofit term), working from the core to the outer boundaries, include the following:

  • Your board and staff (and their friends and relations)

  • Your docents and volunteers

  • Families and organizations that donate materials to your collection

  • Local library staff and board members

  • People attending your panel discussions

  • Schools and other groups visiting your exhibits

  • Scholars and other archivists writing to ask about your holdings

  • Patrons of the three libraries

  • Subscribers to your quarterly newsletter

  • People visiting your organization’s website

Drawing up this list of interested people is easy enough. But for marketing purposes, you need to know as much as possible about the characteristics, backgrounds, and interests of each group. Some things you can do to collect this sort of information include

  • Creating a database of your supporters by gathering names and addresses from every possible source within your organization — items like checks from donors, subscription forms from newsletter subscribers, sign-up sheets from volunteers, and e-mail messages sent to the “contact us” address on your website.

    Enter these names and addresses in a database that can sort them by last name, type of contact, and date of entry; if you’re planning to send traditional mail to them, sort them by zip code. Articles on the website Idealware.org can help you choose a database software program.

    Review the zip codes appearing most frequently on your list. If you’re in the United States, you can visit the U.S. Census Bureau website and get demographic information about residents in those zip code areas.

  • Asking the three libraries whether they collect demographic data when visitors apply for library cards and whether they can share that information with you. (Some public agencies offer information about their constituents on their websites.)

  • Asking a few standard questions of schools or other groups when they call to sign up for a tour. Don’t engage in a lengthy interview, but find out how they heard about your program, why they want to visit it, and whether they have other needs you may be able to address. You can gather similar information when collecting registrations online.

  • Inserting clearly worded and inviting surveys in the programs at your public events. At the beginning and end of an event, make a brief public pitch explaining why it’s so important for people to respond to the surveys. Make pencils or pens available. Create incentives for completing the form, such as a free museum membership for a person whose survey is drawn at random.

    Include the same survey as part of your mailed newsletter. Provide a return envelope to make it easy for readers to respond. Similarly, make it easy for visitors of your website to subscribe to announcements or services, and send a brief survey to them by e-mail. The higher your response rate, the more accurate and useful the survey information will be.

Be aware that there’s an art and a science to writing an effective survey: The way questions are worded can influence the answers you get, and you want to receive clear, candid responses. If you want help developing your survey, check with local colleges and universities for faculty members or graduate students who understand survey techniques and who may be willing to give you some guidance.

You can also find survey subscription services and sample surveys on the web that give you ideas about wording questions. Two such services are SurveyMonkey, and SurveyGizmo, which is a more expensive choice that enables you to embed photos and videos in your survey. For a fee, such sources will distribute your surveys by e-mail and tally the results for you.

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