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Section 6. Obtaining Feedback from Constituents: What Changes are Important and Feasible?

Learn how to obtain feedback from constituents in order to prioritize which changes are most important and feasible to pursue.


  • What does it mean to obtain feedback from your constituents?

  • Why should you obtain feedback from constituents?

  • When should you obtain feedback from constituents?

  • How to ask yourself the right questions

  • Obtaining formal feedback: conducting a survey


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Obtaining feedback from your community is vital to understand what the community truly needs and how it perceives your organization. This section explores how to obtain formal and informal feedback from members within your community so that your group may improve its program.

What does it mean to obtain feedback from constituents?

By obtaining feedback, we simply mean asking questions to determine something you want to know. Most often, feedback is sought to determine how well people feel your organization is doing, and also how important they believe the goals of your agency are. Feedback may be obtained in a number of ways, some as simple as having a casual conversation or reading articles and editorials in the paper. Formal feedback--data that you can measure--is usually obtained through one of the following methods:

  • Personal interviews
  • Phone surveys
  • Written surveys or questionnaires

The term constituents, as we use it here, may refer to a variety of people, including those who are affected (directly or indirectly) by your agency's work, elected officials, members of your coalition, journalists, community leaders, and others.

Why should you obtain feedback from constituents?

  • To understand how your organization is perceived
  • To get a better understanding of what the community really needs
  • To help prioritize tasks
  • To generate renewed excitement and interest in your program
  • To have the information ready for future use (such as grant proposals and questions from the press)
  • To increase community awareness of who you are and what you do
  • And overall, to improve your program

When should you obtain feedback from constituents?

You should try to obtain informal feedback as an ongoing, continuous process. Formal feedback may be done at differing times, including:

  • As part of the planning process when you start your initiative
  • Any time you start (or are considering starting) a new program
  • At the end of a certain program sponsored by your group, such as a two-day workshop discussing the risk factors for alcoholism, or a summer bicycle helmet for youths program
  • Periodically throughout the life of your initiative (perhaps once a year or every two years)

However, you should always be sure you know how you will actually use the information you obtain. Nothing is more frustrating to your participants than to give feedback that is not used.

How to obtain feedback from constituents

Ask yourself the right questions

What do you want to know?

Some information that you could gather just won't  be used, and so it's simply not worth the staff time to gather it. For example, perhaps you have received a grant to reduce teen pregnancy in your community. Whether or not the community perceives teen pregnancy as a problem may be less important to you than other issues, because the program is going to be implemented either way. In such a case, it might make sense for your group to use your resources in a different way, such as to determine what specific needs regarding teen pregnancy need to be addressed.

Who has already done this?

Check to see if someone, such as researchers or another agency, has already done a survey in your community asking the same questions that you would like answered. Your coalition is undoubtedly busy enough; don't try to reinvent the wheel.

Who do you want to ask?

Decide whom you would like to survey. There are a variety of people you might decide to question, depending on what you would like to find out.

Possible respondents might include:

  • The targets of change, or those whose actions you would like to change
  • The people most affected by the problem you are addressing
  • Professionals in your area
  • Local administrators (directors, coordinators, principals, etc.)
  • Possible or current funders for your program
  • Elected officials
  • Journalists
  • Researchers and field experts
  • Members of your coalition

Further, decide if you want to obtain your information in a closed manner (surveying a select group of people) or in an open manner (anyone who is willing to pick up a pencil or open their mouths for a few minutes). Be careful not to ask administrators to tell you the needs of those most affected; rather, ask those who are most affected themselves.

How many people would you like to ask?

If you are only surveying the active members of a small coalition (say, less than 50 members), you might try to survey everyone. If you would like to learn about the feelings of the teenagers in your coalition with regards to drug abuse, however, you might find it unfeasible to survey every teen, and instead randomly choose a smaller, more workable group to question.

How do you want to ask people?

This may be done in a variety of ways, including:

  • Listen to the opinions of people you know, researchers at planning agencies, people who work in the same or a similar field, and anyone else you can think of
  • Suggestion boxes
  • Noting chance meetings or comments in a log
  • Feedback forms on publications such as brochures or on an agency newsletter
  • Comment logs by the phone
  • Designated "critique times at meetings"
  • A formal survey: either by personal interviews, a phone survey, or a written survey

Good tips:

  • Keep it secret. Always try to provide instructions that minimize any possibility of bias. For example, don't discuss what you hope to learn, what you believe to be true, or what earlier surveys have told you when you are writing the instructions. When possible, allow surveys to be anonymous.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open. Be responsive to all possible means of obtaining data, such as learning what has been said at public protests, what complaints have been lodged or actions taken, etc.
  • Make the best of it. If the response you get from constituents isn't what you hoped for--for example, if they respond that what your coalition is doing isn't really important--reassess what you are doing, and brainstorm ideas of what else you might do to sway public opinion.

Obtaining formal feedback: Conducting a survey

You've decided to take the plunge and go all out with a formal survey. But where do you start? How do you format your work and frame your questions? There are volumes upon volumes of information suggesting how you might do this, but please consider the following information as a starting point when putting together your survey.

Decide how you would like to conduct your survey

First, should it be written or oral?

There are several advantages and disadvantages of each that you should take into account:

  • An oral survey (in person, on the phone) is often less formal, and may be easier to initiate and conduct. However, the body language or tone of the interviewer may affect the respondent's answers, and of course, anonymity is not an option for spoken interviews. Further, responses from an oral interview are more likely to be vague and rambling, taking up valuable time as well as being difficult to chart.
  • A written survey may be formal and exact, and thus in the long run more efficient. However, it may be more difficult to convince people to respond to a mailed written survey than to respond orally, despite the real amount of time involved. Just think: if someone called and asked you to answer a few questions, you'd probably say yes, unless you were really pressed for time. However, if you got the same list of questions in the mail, you might think about answering them, and then forget, or misplace the letter, or just throw it away.) To get around this barrier, consider giving a survey to a "captive audience," such as a group at a meeting or in a class.

Decide how to format your questions

They may be written using open or closed questions:

  • Closed questions allow the respondent to answer from a menu of different choices. This menu might be as simple as responding to a yes/no question. It also might take the form of several words (for example, "Which of the following seems to be the biggest health concern in our community?"), or a rating scale ("On a scale of one to five, with five being most important, how would you rate the importance of stopping merchants from selling alcohol to minors?"). A rating scale is often a simple yet very effective way to learn the feelings of the people taking the survey. Five point scales (between one and five) and seven point scales are often the norm when doing a survey in this manner.
  • Open questions allow the respondent to answer questions in their own words, without prompts from the survey. An example of an open question would be, "What do you think is the most important health concern facing our community, and why do you think so?" The advantage of using open questions is that you are able to get deeper, more thoughtful answers than from closed questions. However, open questions may also lead to vague answers that are hard to interpret and use.
  • To get the best of both worlds, you might consider using a survey with closed questions that leaves room for additional comments.

To the extent that it is possible, remove all possibility of bias from your survey

This includes:

  • When possible, don't require (or even ask for) the names of the respondents
  • Avoid discussing any expectations you might have for this survey
  • Don't discuss previous survey results

Don't forget your manners

If your mother was going to respond to this survey, what would she want to see? Be sure to thank respondents ahead of time, let them know how you will use any information that you gather, and thank them again afterwards.

Make it easy

The less respondents are directly involved in your project, the less likely they are to be willing to take a lot of time filling out a survey or discussing an issue. Keep your survey as short as possible while still getting the information that you want to know. A good rule of thumb is simply, don't ask questions you're not going to use.

Make it easier

If you are mailing your survey, make it easy to return. Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Keep your cool

Don't be frustrated if only a small number of mailed surveys are returned to you; in fact, you should probably expect this. A "normal" return rate might only be about half of the surveys that you send out are actually completed.

Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

The Consumer Complaints Toolkit guides advocates to understand the consumer complaints process, help consumers file complaints with relevant state agencies, and engage in state-based advocacy to improve the complaints process.

Print Resources

Barry, B. (1986). Strategic planning workbook for nonprofit organizations. St. Paul, MN: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.

Berkowitz, W. (1982). Community impact: creating grassroots change in hard times. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing.

Bryson, J. (1991). Getting started on strategic planning: what it's all about and how it can strengthen public and nonprofit organizations. Audiotape. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Cox, F., et al., (eds.).  (1984). Tactics and techniques of community practice. Itasca, IL: Peacock.

Fawcett, S., Paine, A., Francisco, V., Richter, K., Lewis, R., Harris, K., Williams, E., & Fischer, J., in collaboration with Vincent, M. & Johnson, C. (1992). Preventing adolescent pregnancy: an action planning guide for community-based initiatives. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas.

Fawcett, S. (1993). Social validity: a note on methodology. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 235-239.

Lord, R. (1989). The nonprofit problem solver. New York, NY: Praeger.

Olenick, A., & Olenick, P. (1991). A nonprofit organization manual. New York, NY: The Foundation Center.

Unterman, I., & Davis, R. (1984). Strategic management of not-for-profit organizations. New York, NY: CBS Educational and Professional Publishing.