So you want to write a survey. Maybe you’re thinking about starting a new program and want to learn more about your constituents’ needs. Perhaps you’re worried about donor retention and need to know how to motivate donors to remain committed to your cause. Or, your organization needs more volunteers, and you want to know what your past and present volunteers like best — and least — about their jobs.

Not-for-profits have 101 reasons for seeking the opinions of their constituents to help the organization’s leadership make sound decisions. Let’s look at what goes into making a highly effective survey.

Clarify your goals

The first — and most important — task in creating a survey is to define its purpose. What does your nonprofit want to learn from those who respond? How will you use the data you collect?

Say that you’re planning to build a new recreation center. If you ask your constituents what activities they’d like to see offered at the new facility, they might give you a wish list of activities, with “swimming” being the most popular suggestion. Because you knew swimming was popular and had anticipated this response, your survey results don’t really help your leadership make building and programming decisions.

Instead, you could present more specific questions. For example:

  • What hours and days of the week would you most likely use the pool?
  • How much would you be willing to pay per visit?
  • Would you use the pool mainly to swim laps?
  • Would you appreciate having “adult swim” time that excludes young children?
  • Would you use the pool more, less or the same number of hours per week if a separate “physical therapy” area heated to 88 degrees was available?

The answers to these questions would give your leadership some specific guidance for making construction and programming decisions about the new pool.

Keep your focus

You’ll want to keep the focus of your survey sharp. In the example above, you wouldn’t want to ask your constituents what they’d like to see in a new recreation center and how the Meals on Wheels program could be improved. Instead, aim your sights at a single goal.

You also should keep the survey short. Some experts suggest that, ideally, it should take no longer than five minutes to complete a survey. Online survey leader SurveyMonkey says six to 10 minutes is acceptable, but it sees “significant abandonment rates” after 10 minutes. (See the sidebar “Getting the swing of SurveyMonkey” for information on using this online tool.)

Consider an incentive

If you do offer one, choose an incentive that’s appropriate. A big reward, such as a dinner for two at an expensive restaurant, could skew survey results. A person might give false demographic data to qualify for the survey.

Speak the same 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.

For example, don’t ask a literacy program volunteer, “Is the student you tutor functionally illiterate?” But you might ask, “Is your student able to manage basic daily living tasks, such as shopping for groceries?” or “Is your student able to manage basic daily employment tasks, such as filling out an employment application?”

Respondents who don’t understand your questions may give up on the survey. Or they might guess what you mean, which would taint the results.

Structure the survey wisely

It’s common sense to assemble survey questions in a logical order. Begin with a brief introduction that explains the purpose and importance of the survey.

Then 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 objective should be to engage the respondent through the entire survey. If he or she quits before completing the survey, you will at least have responses to most of the questions.

The wording of your questions is pivotal. Here are a few more tips for writing questions that will result in “clean” data:

  • Include just one idea per question.
  • Use closed-ended questions whenever possible — they’re much easier to analyze than open-ended questions.
  • Keep rating scales consistent through the survey.

Multiple-choice questions require special consideration. Provide respondents with all options for answering, including “Not applicable” or “Don’t know.”

Avoid bias and pledge privacy

One of the biggest challenges of survey writing is to write unbiased questions. 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.

Last but not least, 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 — and honor that promise.

Test and remind

Try out your finished survey on staff or with a small sample of your target audience. Time their responses and ask for feedback at the end. 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, several reminders will significantly boost your response rate.

Glad you asked

Getting feedback from constituents on the job you’re doing, or planning to do, is important to the health and efficacy of your nonprofit. A well-crafted survey will help provide your leadership with the information it needs to make sound decisions.


Sidebar: Getting the swing of SurveyMonkey


SurveyMonkey is one of the most popular online survey tools — for good reason. For starters, it’s affordable. At no cost, your nonprofit can create a basic survey with 10 questions and 100 responses. Paid plans top out at $65 a month, and include features such as unlimited questions and answers, custom logos, text analysis, randomization and phone support. Information about these higher-end plans can be found at

Other services with nonprofit appeal include:

Nonprofit templates. You can choose a “nonprofit survey template” in areas such as volunteer satisfaction, donor feedback, fundraiser event planning and market research.

Benchmarking. To engage the benchmarking service, you would: 1) create a survey with the SurveyMonkey’s “expert-certified” templates and questions, 2) send out your survey to get responses, 3) review your results using tools to compare to all answers for select questions, and 4) for detailed comparisons, segment benchmarks by attributes, such as industry, geographic location or size of organization.

Alternative basic survey tools include Google Forms, SurveyGizmo and Typeform. Each has certain benefits in terms of pricing, creativity or the ability to analyze your results.

© 2015