To respond or not to respond…

by: Robin Koelsch 


“Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time’ is to say ‘I don’t want to’.” ~Lao Tzu

Everyone wants you to take their survey, from the grocery store to the utility companies and everyone in between. Just look at the bottom of any of your receipts and you too are entered to win! … if you fill out their survey.

So, what makes you participate in one but not the other? Certainly, if you took the time to fill out every survey you were ever given the opportunity to complete you would become, at the very least, a part-time survey taker. Not very realistic.

So, how do you balance the need for student, stakeholder, or partner feedback and the fact that survey requests often get deleted or tossed out without even being opened?

With so many resources at your fingertips, there are lots of sites and assets that will help you come up with many ideas on how to better engage your audience. You may even be encouraged to look at the data you need and consider that a survey may not be the best way to obtain the information. Rather an interview or focus group is best.[1]

Why create surveys at all then?

Surveys are a streamlined way to collect several data points from many people. It is also usually a low-cost option. Overall, surveys are “the best method to use when one hopes to gain a representative picture of the attitudes and characteristics of a large group”.[2] As opposed to interviews or focus groups, surveys ask the same questions in the same way leaving the issue of standardization out of the equation.

Conversely, surveys aren’t perfect. They don’t leave a lot of room for correction. For example, if you send out your fabulous survey and start getting responses, you may realize what was crystal clear to you, is not to your audience and the answers you are getting back are not helpful.  What’s more, you are stuck. You can’t go back and change the question now. And, just as it can be a positive that surveys are standardized, it can also be a drawback. Since you need to word questions in a general enough way to capture information from a wide range of people, you may lose out on nuances to questions that perhaps another method like interviews would capture.

When you are stuck with the survey method, how can you capitalize on your stakeholders’ time and get the most respondents?

Here are the top 5 ways best engage your audience:[3]

5. Have an internal plan for who will go through survey responses and how you will use the information. You can easily start to drown in paperwork and survey responses. Decide who is going through responses and what action will be taken. Similarly, if you can put your survey online, do that! The response rate is better than mailers or paper surveys.

4. Tell your stakeholders how you will use their feedback…. Then do it! If you can communicate to stakeholders that you did use their feedback and you can show them how you did that, you get a gold star.

3. Follow up with non-responders. If you were waiting to hear back from a school about scheduling a program, would you just sit on it for weeks? No, you would follow up and nudge your contact into getting a meeting set up. If you needed the feedback badly enough to send the survey in the first place, it should be worth your time to follow up to get a response. (Hint, include the link in your follow up email too. Avoid saying “see below for link”. Don’t make them work for it!)

2. Don’t ask the same question twice. Take a second and even third look at your questions. Are you sure you need one that asks “what could we do better?” and another one that asks “what would you change about the program?”

1. Keep it short! Most people are only willing to spend 1-5 minutes on your survey. Under 10 questions is the goal. In the same vein, avoid text boxes if you can. Check boxes, rating scales and multiple choice will garner more data.

Okay, but is that really all it takes?

Often, people will complete surveys for two reasons. 1) There is an incentive- as in a gift card or possible prize to win[4] and 2) They had a negative experience and want to let someone know. In the nonprofit sector, incentives like this are hard to come by, especially for how often we need the feedback. And I know we all hope none of the people we are requesting feedback from are negatively motivated!

I also know that if I click into a survey that is 20 open-ended questions my eyes roll to the back of my head and I usually move on to another project. Similarly, if I don’t think my answers are going anywhere and there isn’t a prize waiting for me, it makes me think twice before bothering.

Let’s make a deal

In the community partnership and education landscape, I think our need for information and how we use the knowledge gained is a little different than a survey about your experience buying a car.  Although both are looking to improve, I like to believe that our cause is nobler and that the intrinsic desire to help those that help others is strong.

For me personally, I know firsthand the struggle to get feedback needed to not only improve, but also to retain funding. Because of this, I am a survey taker. If Target asks for my feedback, bam, survey done. If I’m at an event and they want me to email and take a survey about my experience, check, feedback provided. I think of it as survey karma. It is kind of like people who have worked in the service industry and those who haven’t. You don’t have to have been on a wait staff to appreciate the person bringing you your beverage. But if you have, there is a silent understanding, and usually a little bigger tip.

On that note, let’s pledge to take each other’s surveys to start. Maybe there is a chocolate bar or Starbucks gift card in it for us, or maybe it is just a way to put more positivity in the world. Either way, you can count me in.




[4] Second bullet point



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