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How to Increase Survey Responses

Survey imageWhen nonprofits want to show the effects of their activities, they often use surveys. With online survey tools, creating surveys has become faster and less expensive. The challenge is with survey responses—persuading people to complete your survey.

Thinking Beyond Incentive Gifts

When I work with people on planning ways to increase response rates to their survey, they usually think of one thing: incentive gifts. Gift cards, raffles, and other freebies can often motivate people to complete a survey. Monetary incentives are also appealing because they are fairly inexpensive, typically a small part of project budgets. Also, they are easy to administer, especially when you use electronic gift cards that you can send by email.

However, jumping to incentive gifts overlooks many other effective techniques for increasing survey response. After all, we are often motivated to help a charitable cause for reasons other than a financial reward.

Sometimes, a low response rate may be fine—when you just want to get a few example anecdotes and quotes. On the other hand, when you want convincing results that you can use to show the value of your activities and to make effective decisions, getting a good response rate is critical.

Eight Techniques for Maximizing Survey Response

Here are eight practical techniques you can use to maximize response to your survey. Your specific plan for maximizing survey response will depend on your timeline and budget. The more of these techniques you can use, the larger your response rate will be and the more useful your survey results.

1. Use More than One Survey Recruitment Method

People can’t complete your survey if they don’t know about it. Organizations often use email to let participants know about their survey. Email is often a quick and easy way to reach your audience. The problem is, not everyone reads all their email messages. Plus, email addresses can change. That means email address lists can quickly become out of date, and you may end up with a lot of bounced messages.

You can greatly increase your chances for effectively reaching your survey audience by using more than one way to reach them.

  • Email messages (for people for whom you have valid email addresses)
  • Postal mail (printed letter or postcard)
  • Your organization’s website and newsletter
  • Partnerships with other organizations to help spread the word

The more channels you use to let people know about your survey, the more likely that they will hear your message.

2. Give People More than One Option for Completing the Survey

Not everybody has easy access to a computer, and some people prefer to take a survey by paper or phone. Consider giving people options for how they respond to the survey:

  • Online by desktop computer
  • By tablet, smartphone, or other mobile device
  • By phone
  • By postal mail (include a self-addressed, stamped envelope with the survey)
  • In languages other than English

3. Keep the Survey Short and Simple

Honor participants’ time by trimming your survey to ask only the essential questions. Avoid complicated, time-consuming question formats, such as questions asking people to rank order a large number of items.

4. Make It Personal

A personalized request, addressing each person by name, is more attention-getting than a generic message.

5. Describe the Importance of Participation

People are often motivated to answer surveys because of the chance to make a difference on an issue that matters to them. So, make sure that your survey recruitment letter and introduction clearly explain the importance of participation and how you will use the results. Keep that explanation clear and concise!

6. Send Reminders

Online survey technologies can make it easy to send automated email reminders about your survey. Adding follow-up postcards or phone calls can help you to reach as many people as possible.

7. Share Survey Results

Offering survey participants the chance to see a summary of survey results can be a powerful incentive, in some cases more effective than monetary incentives. People may complete a survey just to see other people’s opinions. Plus, sharing your research results builds trust and buy-in with the community. Trust is worth more than gold!

8. Offer Monetary Incentives

While studies show that monetary incentives can improve response, some studies suggest they may also lead people to give incomplete and less-accurate responses.

Incentives can take various forms, such as cash enclosed with a mailed survey, a gift card sent upon survey completion, or a chance to enter a raffle for a larger prize.

When offering a monetary incentive, take care to keep contact information for delivering incentives separate from survey responses, to protect respondent confidentiality.

Important Note about Ethics

In our eagerness to maximize survey response, we need to remember that people’s rights must always come first. The line between informed consent and coercion can sometimes be murky. Some techniques that are often ethically acceptable, such as monetary incentives, may raise concerns about coercion in some situations and needlessly taint your otherwise excellent research.

A good way to make sure that your survey is to have an Institutional Review Board (IRB) review it. The BetterEvaluation Institutional Review Board webpage provides links to useful information about IRBs.

Professional organization guidelines for professional, ethical research practice, such as the American Evaluation AssociationGuiding Principles forEvaluators, are another good resource.

By using these techniques to ethically maximize your survey response, you’ll show people that their opinion matters.

Bernadette Wright

About the Contributor: Bernadette Wright

Bernadette is Director of Research & Evaluation at Meaningful Evidence, LLC, where she helps nonprofit organizations with program evaluation and measurement so they can use that information to increase the success of their programs and the communities they serve.

For two decades, Bernadette has managed and conducted research for non-profit, government, and business organizations in health care, aging, education, and other fields.

She is author of over 50 publicly available client reports/peer-reviewed papers. She also writes guest posts for blogs such as the Foundation Center of Washington, DC blog and the American Evaluation Association AEA365 Blog.

Bernadette also frequently presents at national and local workshops and meetings, such as a Center for Nonprofit Success workshop on Program Evaluation in Washington, DC.

She was recognized for conducting an “Exemplar Evaluation” at the 2015 American Evaluation Association Conference in Chicago and is recipient of a “Best Paper” award at the 2015 Association for Business Simulation and Experiential Learning Conference in Las Vegas.

Bernadette is an active member of the American Evaluation Association and its local affiliate, Washington Evaluators. She earned her PhD in Public Policy/Program Evaluation from the University of Maryland in 2002.

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