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  • Writer's pictureLindsay Morgia

Survey Sessions: Answer These Two Key Questions *Before* Starting Your Nonprofit's Next Survey Project

Updated: Apr 18

Is your organization thinking about sending out a survey? Perhaps you want to survey clients to get feedback on a new program or check in on your employees' well-being. No matter what your survey is about, you must ask yourself two key questions before you begin:

  1. What do you want to know?

  2. What will you do with your nonprofit's survey data once you have it?

In this article, I'll share why these two questions are so important and what can go wrong if they are left out of the planning process.

What do you want to know?

When I am on calls with potential clients, the conversation often starts with, "We want to do a survey with our clients" or "We want to survey our donors." I've started referring to this as a "Methods First, Reasoning Second" approach. This means that the primary focus is on how to collect information (like through a survey) instead of what they truly want to learn from the project.

Instead, I encourage clients to think about their reasoning first. I ask them, "What do you want to learn about from this project?" Being clear and specific about what you want to know can help you:

  • Keep your survey from getting too unruly

  • Help improve your participation rates

How? Let's use an employee wellness survey as an example.


Sam's Pitbull Rescue* wants to ask employees about their well-being. During their research, they learn that many factors contribute to employee well-being, including workload, salary, benefits, access to opportunities, diversity, equity, and inclusion…the list goes on. The organization decides to include all the factors it can find, resulting in an 80-question survey. Unfortunately, only 15% of employees completed the survey. At a staff meeting, most employees said they did not take it because it was too long and they had other work they needed to do.

Employee well-being is a big topic that can be defined in many ways. However, since Sam's Pitbull Rescue did not clarify what they wanted to know in advance, they ended up with a massive survey that no one had time to complete. Meanwhile….

Blake's Beagle Rescue** also wants to check on employee well-being, but they take a different approach. First, they talk about what they want to learn from their employees. They decide that they want to know more about factors that may be contributing to an increase in turnover. Recent exit interviews suggest that health insurance, workload, and management issues may be the top factors. The team decided to limit their survey questions to these three topics and include an open-ended section for additional comments. The 25-question survey has an 85% response rate.

Blake's Beagle Rescue clearly identified the problem they were trying to solve by looking at employee well-being as it relates to turnover. As a result, they were able to narrow down their questions into a shorter survey that could be completed in a reasonable amount of time. And as a bonus, they even created space for their employees to share additional concerns.


How will you use your survey data once you have it?

Asking yourself how you are going to use your data in advance can help with two common survey hurdles:

  • It can help motivate participants to take your survey, which will improve response rates

  • It can help justify the time and resources needed to do the survey project

Let's go back to the employee well-being example. If employees are told that the survey results will be used for internal policy improvements, they may be more likely to complete the survey because they know it will benefit them. Also, if leaders understand that this information can help improve retention, they may be more likely to support the project.

Remember, once you share your plans with survey participants, you must follow through on your commitments and communicate your progress. So if the goal is to use the data to make employees' lives easier, you have to tell employees about the changes you are making based on the information they shared. Without follow-through and communication, you risk losing the trust of the people who volunteered their time and shared their thoughts with you.

Last Tip: Write it Down!

When you're in the thick of survey implementation, it can be easy to lose track of the project's original purpose. To keep yourself on track, write down what you want to learn and how you will use your survey data. Put it in a document and somewhere highly visible, like a whiteboard or even a Post-it note. Your responses to these questions will serve as your guiding light and help you stay on track for the rest of the project.

*This is a fake organization. I have a pitbull at home.

**This is also a fake organization I created for my beagle mix. Check the "About" page to see their adorable faces!

Need help thinking through your project ideas? Please reach out to me at for a free consultation call. Looking forward to connecting!


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