How to Write Volunteer Surveys for Big Impact
If you’re like most nonprofits, you probably send out annual volunteer surveys to gauge satisfaction.
You may get a small number of responses, but not every volunteer participates and you may wonder what you’re missing. You may be able to report to leadership how satisfied volunteers are, and maybe even a few ideas for program improvements.
But, you’re far from able to produce hard data about how volunteers impact your bottom line — your organization’s mission. You may not even know where to start.
So, let’s change that right now.
With a few simple strategies, you can transform how you capture feedback, both from volunteers and others who are impacted by their work. Let’s face it, you don’t have a lot of time on your hands. So, you need to make sure that every management decision you make brings in big value.
But, you can’t make solid decisions without accurate information. That’s where surveys come in — they both inform your decisions for the future and help you track the impact of your decisions in the past. Yes, they can be that powerful.
But, they need to be designed in the right way. Here’s how, step-by-step …
6 Steps to Better Volunteer Surveys That Generate Actionable Info
STEP ONE: Focus on Solving Your Most Important Business Challenges
Volunteer surveys are about much more than satisfaction rankings alone. They can help you solve problems by generating concrete information that can lead to real action. Depending on which kinds of questions you ask, you can develop deep data on satisfaction, impact, or both.
Consider some of the following ways to use surveys to improve the volunteer experience and illustrate the valued outcomes of their work.
- Gauging Volunteer Satisfaction
- Volunteer satisfaction can be tracked in general — Consider benchmarking these over time and include a Net Promoter Score question (https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/net-promoter-score-calculation/).
- You can also hone in on key touch points in the volunteer journey (application process, interview, first shift, etc.) — Consider those that you either know or suspect are trouble spots.
- Training evaluations are also a great way to track satisfaction — Consider sending pre- and post- training evaluations to track the change in confidence levels for your key learning objectives.
- Finally, volunteer satisfaction can also relate to their perception of impact — Do volunteers feel like their work makes a difference? If they don’t feel a sense of efficacy or purpose, overall satisfaction may drop.
- Tracking Volunteer Impact
- First and foremost, volunteering impacts the volunteer — Research shows that volunteering has positive health effects (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5504679/pdf/12889_2017_Article_4561.pdf); so, if your mission is improving the health of others, this may be a helpful metric to track with surveys.
- Volunteers also impact employees — Consider surveying both volunteers and employees to get a sense of the current climate; track over time to see if specific initiatives have increased buy-in, inclusion, trust, etc.; also gather suggestions for needed improvements from both sides.
- Finally, volunteering impacts service beneficiaries — Consider surveying those that benefit from the work of volunteers to better understand their benefits; go beyond simply whether they were happy with their service, and try to better understand the specific transformations brought about by volunteers.
These are only a few ways to use volunteer surveys to better understand past impacts, your current state of affairs, and where you need to head in the future.
If you don’t know where you’re going chances are you won’t get there. So, when you start your next survey project, clarify what it is you want to learn in precise terms.
To focus, it helps to complete this sentence — “The purpose of this survey is to learn [insert key things you want to learn] from [insert your key audience – current volunteers? past volunteers? volunteers from a specific program?].”
Your goal may be to learn more than one thing, but make sure you know what it is before you start writing your questions.
STEP TWO: Ask the Right Survey Questions
In general, there are three different basic types of questions that are included in satisfaction surveys. They all contribute to a deeper understanding, so try to include a mix of all three types in your survey questionnaire.
- Attributes — Great for testing hunches, pinpointing problems, correlation analysis (to see how responses for two questions relate), etc.
- Attitudes — Great for benchmarking, regression analysis (to identify attributes related to overall satisfaction), etc.
- Demographics — Great for census, cross-tabbing (to compare how attributes perform with each variable), etc.
It’s also helpful to align your questions with known drivers of volunteer behavior. For example, the Volunteer Functions Inventory (https://generosityresearch.nd.edu/assets/13636/clary_snyder_volunteer_function_inventory_scale.pdf) is a well-researched and validated theory of volunteer motivation that covers six key areas…
Motivations to Volunteer
- Protective Motives – a way of protecting the ego from the difficulties of life.
- Values – a way to express ones altruistic and humanitarian values.
- Career – a way to improve career prospects.
- Social – a way to develop and strengthen social ties.
- Understanding –a way to gain knowledge, skills, and abilities.
- Enhancement – a way to help the ego grow and develop.
Researchers posit that volunteers engage in volunteer work in order to satisfy important personal goals. The differ across volunteers, but when these goals are met through the volunteer experience, successful volunteer recruitment, satisfaction, and retention are more likely.
The more you know about the key motivation groups that drive the majority of your volunteer team(s), the better you can write effective recruitment messaging, provide meaningful support, and realize better retention results.
So, plan to ask volunteer survey questions that help you determine which motivations are most prevalent in your team. The easiest way is by making statements and asking volunteers to rate their relevance. (See example below.)
STEP THREE: Don’t Let Unconscious Bias Mess With Your Results
Bias — or making mental shortcuts — is an inherent human trait. It’s simply impossible to do away with it entirely. But, you do want to take steps to reduce its effects on your survey data.
Your ultimate goal should be that every person who takes the survey understands the questions in the same way. To help this happen, take steps to reduce instrumentation bias.(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1323316/pdf/PCD21A13.pdf)
Here are a few things you can do to increase accuracy …
- Check for consistency — Cross check the results of similar questions (e.g., compare general satisfaction with intent to recommend or to continue volunteering).
- Avoid “Double Barreled” Questions — Split compound or complex sentences that are really asking two things (e.g., competent & courteous) into two questions.
- Keep It Clear and Recent — Clearly state the criteria for the evaluation you are asking respondents to make (e.g., against what standards or benchmarks) and keep it timely (don’t ask people to pretend to remember more than 3-6 months back in time)
- Avoid Jargon — Don’t assume that all volunteers know your organization’s insider-speak; if people don’t understand they will either lie or skip the question — either is bad for you — so, use unambiguous word choices and spell out any acronyms.
- Eliminate Any Leading or Loaded Questions — Loaded questions usually include some form of hyperbole or strong emotion that sways the respondent to answer in the way they think is proper; leading questions will often include examples of answers (e.g., in an open-ended question; both of these types will skew your data big time.
- Shuffle Response Options for Each Respondent — When presented with multiple choice options, people are more likely to choose the first options offered, so work against this bias by setting your software to randomly shuffle your response set.
- Give Some Options — Show respect to your respondents by offering them some say in what information they share. Include “prefer not to answer” for sensitive demographic questions, “N/A” where there is a chance that they don’t have enough info to reasonably answer, and “Other” to a set of multiple choice options if you believe you haven’t covered everything.
By taking these proactive steps you can be assured you’ll reduce bias and get more accurate results.
STEP FOUR: Collect Enough Responses to Make It Worthwhile
People often make the mistake of assuming they need a straight percentage of responses to have reliable data, but that’s only partly true.
In fact, the calculation is much more complicated.
To determine the total number of responses you need, the formula looks like this — Necessary Sample Size = (Z-score)² * StdDev*(1-StdDev) / (margin of error)².
The good news is that there are plenty of survey size calculators (https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/sample-size-calculator/) out there that will do the math for you.
What you’ll find is that the larger your total populations to be surveyed, the lower the total percentage of responses you’ll need.
Consider the two calculations run on Survey Monkey’s sample size calculator (https://www.surveymonkey.com/mp/sample-size-calculator/).
The industry standard for audience perception is 95% accuracy with a +/- 5% margin of error. If you gather enough responses to meet this threshold, no matter what sub-group of people you ask in your total population, you are likely to have 90-100% agreement. That’s pretty reliable.
For a volunteer corps of 200 people, you would need over half to complete the survey for it to be reliable. But, for a group of 1,000 volunteers, you only need 278, roughly a quarter of all volunteers.
In fact, at a population of about 2,000, the total number of responses you would need tops out in the mid 300’s.
Does this mean you shouldn’t worry about encouraging every volunteer to participate? If you’re just looking at data accuracy, yes.
But, surveys are also powerful engagement tools for your volunteer base. So, you’ll do better if you inspire as many people as possible take the survey — and, don’t forget to share the results and what you plan to do with them with volunteers. It will go a long way toward building bridges and good will.
STEP FIVE: Encourage People to Participate
If you’ve had poor response rates in the past, you’ll have to do something different to break through and gain momentum. There are a few specific things you can do to start to build buzz for the survey and to keep people participating.
- Start With a Volunteer Team — If you engage a team of volunteer leaders to help you write and test the survey questionnaire, you’ll build buy-in from the ground up. If volunteers see they have a stake in the outcomes, they will be more likely to participate and help their peers.
- Send Early Alerts & Share Your Work — One way to build buzz is to not only announce that you’ll be conducting a survey and share what you hope to learn; you can also build anticipation by crowdsourcing some of your questions. Ask volunteers to help you build a list of multiple choice options about their experience or the tools they prefer, for example. You can ask via email or set up a mini poll. People will be eager to see which options were ultimately included.
- Explain WIIFM — Everyone wants to know “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM), so be sure to clearly draw the line between their responses and how they will improve their experience, volunteer-staff relations, and/or the experiences of those they serve. Refer back to step one above and share the goals of your survey.
- Share the FAQs — Create a simple list of frequently asked questions and link to them, or include them, from survey email invitations. Don’t assume people know how to use the software, understand when the survey closes, or know who to go to if they have questions or concerns. Making your process completely clear lets volunteers know you are taking this process seriously and you’d like them to as well.
- Send It Out From an Influential Email Sender — Most survey software allows you to set up which email address the survey will be sent by. So, make sure that the email invitation with the survey link gets opened. Use the email of the leader the volunteers most respect. It could be your Executive Director, it would be your Board Chair, it could be you. Over-communicate With Multiple CTAs.
- Use Social Proof & Testimonials — You can also power up your email with 2-3 short quotes from the volunteer team who helped you develop the survey. Ask them to write down a sentence about what excites them most about the survey or why they think it’s important to your mission.
- Send Progress Email(s) — Don’t be afraid to send more than one reminder email. In fact, plan to send at least three. If your survey software allows you to send reminders only to those who haven’t taken the survey to date, then send five. In today’s world, it takes more than one email to break through. It’s just a reality.
- But, You Don’t Need to Nag — Keep your survey reminders upbeat and bright. Focus on what your organization stands to gain by knowing their opinions. You can even update volunteers on how many people have responded so far and what you are learning. Celebrate volunteers, and encourage them not to miss out on the opportunity
Setting yourself up to receive broad participation and robust survey responses takes work. But, it’s worth it. You’ll not only have a data set you can be confident about. You’ll also be deepening your relationships with volunteers by letting them know you care enough about them to ask what they think and act upon it.
STEP SIX: Get Ready to Share Your Results in a Compelling Way
As you gather your survey results, think about how you will share them with different audiences. You may decide not to share all things with all people, but you should plan to share information that different groups might find relevant in ways they will understand.
So, consider each of the following audiences. What do they need to know about your survey results? What will they be most interested in? If their approval is needed, how can they best hear what you have to say and support your recommendations going forward? If they provide support (cash or in-kind), what about your progress or impact will interest them most?
- Executive Leadership
- Your Board of Directors
- Volunteers (current and future)
- Service Beneficiaries
- Donors & Funders
- The Public
Also, don’t forget to include the “voice of the volunteer” in your survey report. You can use excerpts from volunteer comments to give your report life and vigor. Use them to illustrate examples of the data. Balance positive and negative comments. And, keep them anonymous.
Graphics options abound and below are only a few. Choose one and keep it consistent throughout.
If you follow the six steps above, you’ll no doubt produce volunteer surveys with better response rates better data, and better results.
Remember, the main reason to invest time and energy into conducting a survey is to gather information for more informed program adjustments and management decisions.
In other words, the goal is to bring about change — big and small — backed by hard data.
You can do it. Your volunteers are counting on you to lead the way.
A Final Note: Worried About What You Might Learn?
You may worry that once you send out your survey, you’ll hear bad news. Maybe volunteers are really upset about something. Maybe your results will show that a new initiative you’ve invested so much time on just isn’t getting traction.
All the more reason you need to gather feedback on a regular basis!
How can you fix what you don’t know is broken (or don’t have enough information to find a fix that works)? And why would you waste time on initiatives that don’t bear fruit?
Maybe your survey will bring good news and maybe not. Either way, it will be the valuable and vital information you need to make clear and focused management decisions.
So, take heart and pat yourself on the back — not everyone has the courage and determination needed to take their volunteer program to the next level. But, you are well on your way to deeper wisdom.
And, you’ll reap the rewards of better volunteer management and impact because of it.
Register for our upcoming FREE WEBINAR: How to Use Surveys to Track Volunteer Impact
Thursday, September 20, 2018, 1:00-2:00pm EST/10:00am-11:00am PST (60 minutes)
There’s no need to spin your wheels! Learn how to set up systems to measure the true volunteer impact of your program.