What do potential supporters think of you? Do they even know you exist? How do you know? Have you asked them? The only way to confirm your perceptions of what the community thinks is to ask them. You may be surprised at what you find.
Defining Your Community
The first thing to do to find out what the community thinks is to define your community. For best results, you want to ask a broad cross section of community members. You want feedback from your agency’s leadership, staff, volunteers, donors, and service recipients. You also want feedback from external sources, like community leaders, government representatives, neighbors, neighboring business, and other nonprofits.
And don’t forget about feedback from your competitors. We know in nonprofits that many competitive relationships are also collaborative relationships, because many funders like to fund programs, rather than agencies. Even if you are mainly collaborative and see yourself that way, you do compete with other nonprofits for scarce resources. For example, have you ever considered bidding on a federal grant? Do you realize how competitive they are? Even for-profits may be competition, a local gym might compete with the YWCA’s fitness program, for example.
You want feedback from a broad cross section of your community because your community is where you find people to govern, staff, supply, and fund your nonprofit. Nonprofits live and die according to how much community support they receive. You want to be able to influence the beliefs and behaviors of as many supporters and potential supporters as you can.
Asking for Feedback
The easiest ways to ask for feedback is through surveys and focus groups. Generally, the better you know somebody and the closer the relationship to your nonprofit, the longer the survey they will take the time to complete, and the more willing they will be to participate in focus groups. If you want to get feedback from the general public, you will need the survey to be short and you may need to offer an incentive to get them to participate, say a gift card in a random drawing. The same for focus groups. You may need an incentive like a small gift card to get them to participate. Just make sure your incentive is actually something your participants value.
When you do surveys to the general public, make them short, no more than four or five questions, so participants can easily complete the whole survey quickly. Time is of the essence. Don’t expect people who have no affiliation to your agency to give you a lot of time.
There are numerous ways to conduct public surveys. You can have a running question of the month on social media. You can have a popup on your website. You can stand in a crowd and pass them out. You can mail them out with a response mechanism included. You can go door-to-door and ask for feedback. You can buy an email list and send the survey out. The method you choose depends on your organizational capacity and your agency’s investment in the results.
When you ask the public for a response, don’t expect a high response rate. You may get only a 1 percent response back, depending on the method you use and how well you target your audience.
Listening to the Answers
If you ask a fair number of people about what they think of your nonprofit, chances are you’re not going to like all of the answers. You asked people to be critical of you. They will. They can see your faults.
Don’t automatically discount negative feedback. Don’t be defensive. Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to explain it away. Listen, really listen, to what people have to say about you. At least now you know your reputation and image. Before you didn’t know. Now that you know, you can do something to influence it.
Chances are, too, if you’ve asked enough people, that you are going to get conflicting answers and opinions. People have different values, and perspectives. Tally your responses. Then look at the middle of the bell curve and don’t worry too much about the outliers. If there is no bell curve and answers are truly all over the place, you may not have asked enough people or gotten enough answers. Or you may have a fractured image, which is important to know if you do. Fractured images are a problem because it means the messages the respondents are receiving are mixed. You want one core identity in the community, one core message that people can easily understand and stand behind.
Analyzing the Feedback
Once you have good feedback, you need to analyze it and respond to it. You want to look at your results and ask questions like:
- What do people think we are? How do we define ourselves? Are our perceptions in sync with the community?
- What do people say about us? What is good? What is not so good?
- What results do we want to prioritize? What area for improvement do we want to tackle first?
- What positives can we build on? What are our strengths? What benefits does the community see we offer?
- What did they say that is bad? What is the root of the problem? Can we address the root cause and change the way we do things? If we can’t change things, can we turn the negative into a positive?
When you ask for community feedback, you get valuable information that you can then use as a starting point for making change. You may want to increase an already good image. Or you may want to turn around a negative one. You want to know your starting point so that you know where to start your journey towards your goal. Your end goal is to attract as many supporters as you can to your cause.