How to make survey research work for you

Yesterday, I unloaded on the Cygnus 2011 North American Donor Survey. I warned how flaws inherent in survey research in general and in the Cygnus study itself make it a dangerous piece of knowledge that could lead nonprofits badly astray.

But that doesn’t mean all surveys are a big joke or the equivalent of toxic waste. Survey research has uses. Even the Cygnus study. If you approach it right.

Think of survey research the way you think of rumors. The findings are not trustworthy, but they might nevertheless be true. Or partly true. Or untrue in a useful way. (Or, of course, flat-out butt-naked wrong.) But when you hear a rumor, you’d be crazy to just believe it.

When you see something in the survey that strikes you as significant — like “69% of respondents prefer electronic over print communication” — check it out for yourself. If it’s true about your donors, that’s something you need to pay attention to. So test messaging platforms with your own donors. Find out if the statement has any connection to reality of the real-life behavior of your real-live donors.

If you are like almost everyone else, in this case, you’d find the rumor to be baseless. But maybe you aren’t like everyone else. It would really be worth knowing that if it’s the case.

But whatever you do, don’t — I mean don’t — just nod your head to a reported “fact” from a survey and act on it. Because surveys don’t report facts. They just give you a snapshot of what one very specific group of people were willing to say out loud at a given time.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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