Informal Research for Nonprofit Organizations
2/17/16 / Matt Herndon
While Corona serves all three sectors (private, public, and nonprofit) in our work, we have always had a soft spot for our nonprofit clients. No other type of organization is asked to do more with less, so we love working with nonprofits to help them refine their strategies to be both more effective at fulfilling their missions and more financially stable at the same time.
However, while we are thrilled for the opportunities to work with dozens of nonprofits every year, we know that there are hundreds of other organizations that we don’t work with, many of which simply don’t have the resources to devote to a formal marketing research effort. I’m a huge fan of the Discovery Channel show MythBusters, so I’ll share one of my favorite quotes:
While few would argue that the results found in an episode of MythBusters would qualify as academically rigorous research, I think most would agree that trying a few things out and seeing what happens is at least better than just trusting your gut instinct alone. Likewise, here are a few ideas for ways that nonprofits can gather at least some basic information to help guide their strategies through informal “market research.”
One-on-one interviews are one of the easiest ways to gather feedback from a wide variety of individuals. Formal interview research involves a third-party randomly recruiting individuals to participate from the entire universe of people you are trying to understand, but simply talking to people one-on-one about the issues or strategies that you are considering can be very insightful. Here are a few pointers on getting the most out of informal interviews:
- Dedicate time for the interview. It may seem easy to just chat with someone informally at dinner or at an event, but the multitude of distractions will reduce the value you get out of the conversation. Find a time that both parties can really focus on the discussion, and you’ll get much better results.
- Write your questions down in advance. It’s easy to go down a rabbit hole when having a conversation about something you are passionate about, so be sure to think through the questions you need to answer so that you can keep the conversation on track.
- Record the conversation (or at least take notes). Take the MythBusters’ advice, and document the conversation. If you’ve talked to a dozen people about your idea, it will be impossible for you to remember it all. By having documentation of the conversations, you can look back later and have a better understanding of what your interviewees said.
Informal focus groups
Similar to interviews, in an ideal world focus groups should be conducted by a neutral, third-party with an experienced moderator who can effectively guide the group discussion to meet your goals. However, as with interviews, you can still get a lot of value out of just sitting down with a group and talking through the issues. In particular, if you have an event or conference where many people are together already, grabbing a few to talk through your ideas can be very informative. Our suggestions for this type of “research” are similar to those for informal interviews, with slight differences in their implications:
- Dedicate time for the discussion. As mentioned before, it may be tempting to just say “We’ll talk about this over dinner” or “Maybe if we have time at the end of the day we can get together.” You’ll get far better results if everyone can plan for the conversation in advance and participate without distractions.
- Write your questions down in advance. Even more so than for interviews, having a formal plan about what questions you want to ask is imperative. Group discussions have a tendency of taking on a life of their own, so having a plan can help you to guide the discussion back on topic.
- Document the results. Again, you may think you can remember everything that was said during a conversation, but a few months down the road, you will be very thankful that you took the time to either record the conversation or take notes about what was said.
Surveys are, perhaps, the most difficult of these ideas to implement on an informal basis, but they can nevertheless be very useful. If you’re just needing some guidance on how members of an organization feel about a topic, asking for a show of hands at a conference is a perfectly viable way of at least getting a general idea of how members feel. Similarly, if you have a list of email addresses for your constituents, you could simply pose your question in an email and ask people to respond with their “vote.”
The trickiest part is making sure that you understand what the results actually represent. If your conference is only attended by one type of member, don’t assume that their opinions are the same as other member types. Likewise, if you only have email addresses for 10 percent of your constituents, be careful with assuming that their opinions reflect those of the other 90 percent. Even so, these informal types of polling can help you to at least get an idea of how groups feel on the whole.
Hopefully these ideas can give your nonprofit organization a place to start when trying to understand reactions to your ideas or strategies. While these informal ways of gathering data will never be as valuable as going through a formal research process, they can provide at least some guidance as you move forward that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
And if your issues are complex enough that having true, formal research is necessary to ensure that you are making the best possible decisions for your organization, we’ve got a pretty good recommendation on who you can call…