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Using Surveys and Focus Groups for Better Nonprofit Strategic Planning

Submitted Wednesday, January 14th 2015 9:44 pm by Timothy S. Jacobson
in   strategic plan    focus group    stakeholder survey    nonprofit organization    planning    community feedback  

Using Surveys and Focus Groups for Better Nonprofit Strategic Planning

By Timothy S. Jacobson

~The Nonprofit Provocateur~


"However beautiful the strategy, you

should occasionally look at the results."

―Winston Churchill


photo of a focus group engaged in discussion

The value of strategic planning goes far beyond merely creating a written plan. It’s an opportunity for an organization’s leaders to step back from the day-to-day grind, contemplate where the organization has been, and think broadly and creatively about opportunities for the future.

According to best-selling author Denis Watley, “The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don't define them, or ever seriously consider them as believable or achievable. Winners can tell you where they are going, what they plan to do along the way, and who will be sharing the adventure with them.”

An anonymous author stated the benefits of strategic planning more bluntly: “In absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily acts of trivia.”

Don’t be afraid to reach high and take chances with your strategic plan. As Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said, “In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.”

Recognize that even the best plans must be reevaluated over time. The 19th Century German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke pointed out that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” Charles de Gaulle said, “You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else strategy is useless.”

Because our plans need reevaluation over time, an important step of planning is to gather candid input from key stakeholders. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including conducting a survey of stakeholders, perhaps using an online tool like SurveyMonkey or SoGoSurvey. In addition, a group can convene focus groups with perhaps eight to fifteen people in each to engage in a dialogue and dig deeper into the perceptions about the organization.

A survey of a nonprofit organization’s members can be very helpful for in strategic planning. It's even better to survey a broader range of stakeholders, including others in the community that either are affected by what the organization does (e.g., people the organization serves) or are people who have the power to affect the land trust (e.g., local officials and potential funders) who aren't necessarily current members. However, the survey may need to be designed differently to use with a broader group.

The primary purpose of a survey is to gather impressions about the organization from people who have some distance from the organization and who may view it differently than insiders such as board members and staff members. These outsiders can give the charitable group a better idea of what its reputation truly is in the community, and provide a broader sampling of perspectives.

The nonprofit knows what it is trying to convey to "the public" through its marketing and other commnications, but are people in the community absorbing the messages you are trying to convey? What do they like about what the organization is doing (and what are they most inclined to support)? What don't they like about the organization? You can get stakeholders to provide a fresh perspective in the form of a S.W.O.T. analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats).

But for this information to be meaningful, you need to understand something about the personal biases and interests of each person responding. Is the respondent a local government official? Someone served by the group? Someone otherwise affected by the groups actions, possibly in a negative way?


Ideas for Strategic Planning Survey Topics:

·      Assess the connection between the respondent and the mission of the organization (e.g., if you run a conservation organization, you may want to know if the person is a rural landowner or a city resident).

·      Determine the level of interaction/types of interaction the respondent has with the subject area of your group.

·      Assess the connection between the respondent and the organization itself (e.g., is the person a donor, volunteer, interested person, uninterested person).

·      Determine what sources of information the respondent has about the charity.

·      Obtain feedback about the organization's communications.

·      Find out what aspects of the group’s work that the respondent would be most interested in supporting. (This will help you assess what the person cares about.)

·      Have the respondent rate the importance of the organization’s various program areas.

·      Get input from the respondent about possible challenges or social changes the group should be prepared to address.

·      Have the respondent rank the group’s performance relative to other nonprofit organizations in the area. This could be truly revealing about the organization’s reputation, strengths and weaknesses.

·      Seek comments about what the organization does particularly well, and what it needs to improve.

·      Seek any other feedback about the organization that the respondent is willing to share with an open-ended comment box.

Don’t make your survey too long or you might scare people off before they complete it. Also, make sure that you let people know that they will remain anonymous, in order to ensure that you receive candid information.


How to Conduct Focus Groups

Surveys are wonderful for collecting statistical-type information, such as x-percent of respondents have a favorable impression of the work of a particular nonprofit. Surveys can also be used to collect narrative feedback. A primary advantage of surveys is their cost in relation to the amount of data one can collect. However, surveys are no match for focus groups (small group discussions) in terms of digging deeper into the issues and spurring analysis and debate of issues.

A big advantage of focus groups lies in the richness of the information generated. Focus groups often are used prior to creating a survey to test concepts and wording of questions. A disadvantage of focus groups is that one rarely can generalize or apply the findings to an entire population of stakeholders.

The New York Council of Nonprofits points out that focus groups can be specifically tailored for a wide range of target audiences including policy-makers, funders, service providers, service consumers, and community residents.

But how can a small nonprofit organization with a small budget use fancy tools like focus groups to obtain stakeholder feedback? Don’t you need to hire big-budget PR firms to manage the process and convene focus groups?

The answer is a resounding NO. While focus groups are used regularly by multinational corporations and marketing firms, even the smallest charitable groups can employ this tool effectively.

All you really need to run a focus group is a quiet, private meeting space and a facilitator (maybe the executive director, a board member, or a community volunteer) to conduct the meeting. It’s also helpful to have another person take notes, or the session can be recorded with the consent of the participants.

You may be wondering how to get participants for a focus group. One of the most effective methods is to use free beer (or soda) and pizza. A nonprofit organization with a worthy mission should be able to entice stakeholders to participate. Reach out to people the organization serves, people who can affect the organization (such as local public officials), and people who support the organization as volunteers or donors.

Keep the number of participants in any one session to twenty or below. A better group size may be eight to twelve. I have facilitated a focus group with as few as five participants, but it’s harder to get a good discussion going with that few people unless they’re particularly vocal and not shy about sharing opinions.

Set a reasonable timeframe for completing the focus group session. It might be hard to hold people for more than an hour, at least if you’re not paying them with more than lunch and a beverage.

Your facilitator should plan the questions well in advance. Determine the major issues to be discussed, and structure open-ended questions to spark discussion. Let the participants know that there are no right or wrong answers. Ask them to treat the discussion like a game of charades where the advantage goes to people who quickly blurt out what they’re thinking. Emphasize that their answers will remain anonymous and that you won’t quote them outside the room.

Holding a focus group session can be a fun and rewarding experience. And there can be significant benefits for the organization in gaining a better understanding of what people in the community think about the organization’s mission and work.


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Like’ and/or 'Share' this article below if you believe in the power of strategic planning and want to assist nonprofit organizations in achieving their potential. What have you observed about the use of surveys and focus groups? Share your stories!

Photo of Timothy S. Jacobson

Tim Jacobson, CEO of Visjonær Consulting, has served as a board member and executive of a variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations over the past two decades. He's author of the book Explosive Marketing for Nonprofits: Trajectory for Success, to be released in 2015, the executive producer of an Emmy Award-winning documentary film, Mysteries of the Driftless, broadcast on PBS, and author of Amazon best-selling thriller The Kurchatov Penetration. He has been featured dozens of times by TV and radio stations, magazines and newspapers for his organizational consulting, filmmaking, writing, conservation and legal work and for his exploration of international justice and peace issues.

This article is copyright (c) 2015, Timothy S. Jacobson. All rights reserved.


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