Nonprofit Marketing Research Made Simple, No Matter Your Budget

Have you ever had to make a decision that impacted your organization or its constituents? If so, then your organization can probably benefit from conducting market research.

It’s tempting to make assumptions about your organization’s constituent, customer, donor, or client base, especially in the absence of accurate information. We sometimes assume that other people think, feel, and act how we expect them to, but this is usually not the case.

Before these assumptions are baked into choices being made or considered, get access to accurate information using market research: who are your constituents and what are their attitudes, preferences, satisfaction levels, and needs?

Marketing research done on a regular basis will allow you to make better decisions, chart changes over time, plan initiatives, and assess your success.

Smaller non-profit organization may not have the resources to hire market research consultants or conduct large-scale studies, but this doesn’t mean they can’t complete basic market research on a regular basis.

Here’s how your nonprofit can get started conducting research, no matter your size:

1. Clearly define the question you want the research to answer.

The first step to market research is to clearly and concisely define the question you want the research to help you answer. This will help you focus your research. The nature of the research question will determine the content of your research, and the method you use.

Are you looking to explore options, or make a decision between two or more alternatives? If you’re aiming to explore options or better understand a situation, you might want to choose a research question such as: Why are our ticket sales declining? How satisfied are our clients with our services?

If you’re seeking to make a decision between two or more alternatives, your research question might sound something like: Do our customers prefer product X or product Y?

Cleary defining the research question will keep your research from becoming unfocused, and will increase the decision-making usefulness of the data you obtain.

2. Look it up.

The cheapest form of market research is simply looking things up. Go online to find trade association reports, government data, academic research, and databases such as CPANDA.  This involves learning but you are not alone – there is help available. For example, try a reference librarian, approach an experienced individual in the private sector, or contact a university extension department.

However, the most valuable data for your non-profit must be collected yourself, but this is do-able using common market research methods, which I describe below. None need be very expensive; some require only your time.

3. Choose a method.

  • One of the most common market research methods is a survey or questionnaire. Surveys provide a way to gauge the beliefs, preferences, and satisfaction levels of a large group of people. They are relatively time-efficient and can be sent via post or email, distributed at an event, conducted over the telephone, or completed using a tablet computer at an event. The best time to survey your constituents about their satisfaction is right after they have enjoyed your product or service, while the experience is still fresh in their minds.

It is best to keep surveys as short as possible. Offering an incentive for completion can improve your response rate. However, keep in mind that if you are trying to reach an older demographic, a paper or phone survey may yield a better response rate than one sent via email.

  • A focus group is a small group of people brought in to give feedback to your organization through guided discussion. Focus groups can be run by someone on your staff who is a skilled moderator, and recorded for review. Focus groups can provide a wealth of detailed information, but can be time consuming to review and analyze.
  • Depth interviews will provide very detailed information about one individual. They are the most time-consuming to complete and review. Conducting a series of anonymous depth interviews, each with the same list of questions, can be an effective way to tease out the hidden attitudes, preferences and options of your client or customer base.

Each of these three methods can be used alone or in conjunction with another method. You can start with a widely distributed survey, for example, and follow up with depth interviews to further explore a particular topic.

4. Turn information into action.

Don’t let your research linger on the shelf! If you approach market research with a clear objective, you will almost certainly learn something new, surprising, and worth sharing. Your organization may not have the expertise to conduct a statistical analysis of survey data, but you can prepare narrative accounts of focus groups or interviews, or tally responses from a survey. Your data will reveal a clearer picture of your constituent or client base, which you can use to inform future decision-making.

Keep in mind that while it is important to do market research within your client or constituent base, it is also important to reach people who did not choose your product or service. Just as it is useful to understand who your consumer or client base is, it is useful to understand who they are not. This will help you better allocate resources.