Understanding your target audience equips nonprofit communicators with the knowledge needed to communicate effectively with stakeholders, donors, partners or potential funders—the people who are crucial to carrying out your mission and helping you reach your goals.

There are several ways to gather qualitative research about your audience’s values, attitudes and perceptions of your nonprofit—findings that can help you optimize your communications to better serve them. These insights can be generated from a focus group, but those can run pretty expensive and not friendly to small nonprofit budgets. Polling your audience through an online survey, however, is cost-efficient and can be deployed with free online tools.

So, how do you go about doing this?

Designing a great survey is just like any other communications project. Take a step back and identify the goal of your survey and assess how the data will influence your communications program as a whole and your day-to-day outreach.

Follow these five steps to creating a stellar survey that delivers meaningful results.

  1. Understand Survey Best Practices

Experts have shared tried and true methods for designing surveys that maximize response rate and produce the most reliable data. We look to SurveyMonkey, a survey platform, for the latest and greatest best practices, such as:

  • Preface the survey with an introduction. Your audience will appreciate knowing exactly why you’re conducting a survey and what you plan to do with this information.
  • Be brief. Keep questions and surveys as short as possible to keep respondents interested and motivated to complete your survey.
  • Ease into it. Asking questions that are sensitive or too personal at the beginning can scare people away. If they’re truly necessary, save those questions for the end to give your audience a chance to warm up with easier, less intrusive questions.
  • Clarify whenever possible. Spell out everything that could be interpreted in more than one way. For example, if you want to find out if a respondent is conservative, make sure you specify whether you’re talking about their style of dress, their fiscal politics, or their moral beliefs.
  • Stick to specifics. Create survey questions that explore one idea at a time to make sure your respondents are clear about what you’re asking. Vague, general, multi-part questions can be confusing and tough to answer.
  • Avoid yes/no questions. Yes/no questions don’t capture people who are on the fence or nuances of people’s opinions – opt for heartier, message-driven questions that will give you better insight.
  • Use words, not numbers. When designing answer choices, use phrases such as “slightly likely” or “extremely likely,” not numbers like “1” or “10” to indicate degree of preference. These answer choices are easier for people to understand and identify with.
  • Keep it short and sweet: It’s smart to announce the estimated length of a survey at the start. This will allow respondents to evaluate how much time they can expect to take out of their busy lives. Ten minutes gives respondents enough time to answer about 20 questions. Also consider constraining the duration of the survey run to about two or three weeks; this timeframe adds urgency, but is long enough that it gives those out of the office on business or vacation plenty of time to respond.


  1. Eliminate Bias

Bias can sneak into a survey without you even knowing it! It’s easy, especially if you’re close to the work, to introduce bias through leading questions that subtly direct respondents toward particular answers. Here’s an example of a leading question:

Most people feel that communications is critical to the advancement of the social change field.

Do you feel that communications is critical to effecting social change?

Using phrases like “most people” can lead respondents to a particular answer, causing the survey data to be biased. You can avoid this by removing any loaded phrases from your questions like “most people” or “people always say.” Test these questions by sending the survey to a few objective people outside of your organization to get feedback.

  1. Know the Tools

There are several free and low-cost tools that make it easy to design and distribute surveys, and collect data.

  • SurveyMonkey is incredibly user-friendly. For a free sign-up, SurveyMonkey guides you through setting up a survey with up to 10 questions and 100 responses. For about $26, you can add up to 100 questions, generate unlimited responses and add special touches like branding elements and skip logic.
  • Constant Contact, an e-newsletter platform, also has a survey feature. If you already operate your e-newsletter on Constant Contact, a survey can be easily integrated into your template. Like SurveyMonkey, Constant Contact shares real-time results and is very user-friendly.
  • Google also operates Forms, which is its survey platform. Though it has fewer bells and whistles than SurveyMonkey and Constant Contact, Google Forms is a good option for super simple surveys targeted to small samples sizes.


  1. Layout a Promotion Plan

Once your survey is designed, written and ready to go, you’ll want to outline a promotion plan for getting this survey to your audience.

  • E-newsletters are great platforms to reach existing audience members, and some survey tools like SurveyMonkey will integrate the survey language right into certain e-newsletter platforms.
  • Though some social media channels like Facebook have the option of hosting polls right on the platform itself, these are usually limited to one question in one specific format. For more robust surveys, use a third-party survey platform, and leverage social media platforms to promote it.
  • Incentives, such as a $25 Starbucks gift card, are sometimes all it takes to increase the number of respondents. Put this incentive front and center in your survey promotion, and make sure to collect information such as email address or physical address in your survey if you plan to mail an incentive gift out.


  1. Analyze Data and Determine Next Steps

Conducting the survey is the easy part. Actually making the data actionable is the challenge. Revisit your survey goals to address the following questions and determine next steps.

  • How does this feedback support or undermine our assumptions?
  • How should it inform our strategic communications planning?
  • What questions or concerns do we need to address right away?
  • What ideas or suggestions should we test slowly?

If this is your first survey, be cautious not to make drastic communications changes. Instead, use this initial data to make small improvements, optimizing messages and content, and testing this to track changes in how your audience responds. Making small improvements in communications has the potential to make a big impact, and will set you up for an even stronger survey success in the future

What tips or tools have you learned from conducting audience surveys?