8 Tips for Creating an Effective Survey
August 18, 2017 Nonprofit


So you want to survey your members, donors or other constituents for feedback on a program, project or event? If you haven’t created a survey before, don’t fret. Just keep in mind certain rules and the rest will follow. Here are eight tips for writing an effective survey.

1. Define the purpose

The first and most important task in creating a survey is to define its main goal. What does your nonprofit want to learn from respondents? How will you use the data you collect? Say that you want to put on a fundraising event (golf outing, silent auction, annual walk, and/or annual gala). Surveys can be used as an easy, yet effective event planning tool. For example, you can collect contact information to get a better understanding of funding sources, demographics, staffing needed, and more. It can also be used as a tool to gather information and understand attendee event experience, ticket cost, and overall feedback.

2. Keep your survey short

Ideally, it should take no longer than five minutes to complete a survey. Online survey maker SurveyMonkey® says 6-10 minutes is acceptable, but it sees “significant abandonment rates” after ten minutes.

3. Get some online help

Speaking of SurveyMonkey, it’s also one of the most popular online survey tools. At no cost, your nonprofit can create a basic survey with ten questions and 100 responses. SurveyMonkey also sells nonprofit templates in areas including volunteer satisfaction, donor feedback, fundraiser event planning and market research. Other survey tools include Google Forms, SurveyGizmo, and Typeform. Each has certain benefits in terms of pricing, creativity or the ability to analyze your results.

4. Consider offering an incentive

According to research, people are significantly more likely to complete a survey if they’re offered an incentive. And the response rate increases with the value of the incentive given. If you do offer one, choose an incentive that’s appropriate. A big reward could skew survey results. Incentives can be monetary or non-monetary. For example, as a monetary incentive, you could offer all respondents a chance at winning a $200 gift card that only one person would receive (sweepstakes incentive), or you could offer every respondent a $2 gift card (individual incentive). Non-monetary incentives are typically ‘thank you’ gifts like a free pen, notebook, or other small promotional items.

5. Speak your respondents’ language

When devising the survey, speak the language of those who’ll be taking it. Avoid industry jargon and technical lingo, and don’t assume the survey taker knows the ins and outs of your organization or its field. If you’re going to make an insider’s reference, explain it.

6. Structure your survey logically

Begin with a brief introduction that explains the survey’s purpose and importance. Then group similar questions together to create flow. Place easy questions at the beginning of the survey and put more difficult or sensitive questions, such as those about income or ethnicity at the end. Your goal should be to engage the respondent through the entire survey, so try to:

  • Present one idea per question.
  • Use closed-ended questions whenever possible — they’re much easier for the survey taker and easier to analyze than open-ended questions.
  • Keep rating scales consistent throughout the survey.
  • Give special attention to multiple-choice questions; for instance, provide respondents with all options for answering, including “not applicable” or “don’t know.”

7. Avoid bias and pledge privacy

Take care not to lead respondents to answers you’d like to hear. Avoid loaded words and strong language, and consider seeking the services of a survey professional to ensure objectivity. Also remember that privacy is important to most people. Reassure respondents at the beginning of the survey, or in a cover letter that their replies will remain confidential.

8. Test and remind

Try out your finished survey on staff or a small sample of your target audience. Time their responses and ask for feedback. You’ll want to find out if any questions were confusing. Once the survey has been distributed, don’t hesitate to send out reminders to potential respondents you haven’t heard from. According to some survey experts, sending several reminders significantly boosts response rates.

About the Authors

Keith J. Libman
Keith J. Libman
Partner Emeritus,


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