At a recent speaking engagement, I was asked by an audience member which way they should get feedback from volunteers: surveys or exit interviews. The answer, of course, is both.
Feedback plays a crucial role in developing and growing your volunteer program. For most organizations, volunteers are the key drivers of the mission. Knowing what they think and feel about different aspects of the program is vital in helping you create a more inclusive and rewarding volunteer experience.
The most common way to get feedback is through surveys.
Surveys are versatile but structured, so you can target specific areas of the program yet still allow the volunteer to provide information about things that you might not have thought to ask about. They are the most common way organizations gather feedback. Many volunteer management software programs have survey tools built right into them. When developing your survey there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Be concise. No one has time to waste, so ensure the survey is succinct – especially if you send them out regularly. Focus on essential questions, and keep it simple and quick.
- Include open-ended questions. In addition to quick yes/no or multiple choice questions, ask questions that allow the volunteer to express their thoughts in their own way. This allows for insights that you might otherwise have missed.
- Always ask for “Any other comments or suggestions?” Again, this is where you will learn things that you never thought to ask about. By allowing people to tell you about their experience, you can get closer to a true 360 degree view of the program.
- Provide a couple of different ways for the volunteers to complete the survey. While on-line surveys are easiest and most popular, some volunteers may prefer a paper copy that they can fill out. The more survey options you can provide, the greater the number of volunteers who will fill it out.
Focus groups are a great way to get targeted feedback from volunteers.
While not as common as other methods, focus groups can allow you to do a “deep dive” into a particular issue or area of the program. With the expenditure of a little time and a pot of coffee, you can gather very specific and vital information. Here are some suggestions to make them successful:
- Keep the numbers small. Ideal is about five to seven. More than that and the meetings become unwieldy. Smaller, and you won’t gain the range of perspectives that make a focus group so valuable.
- Draw your participants from as diverse a group as you can. The more experiences and world views that you can bring in, the more useful and insightful the results will be.
- Keep the session short and focused. This isn’t the time to do a full program review. Too long and people won’t want to participate; too short and you won’t get the information you need. Half an hour is about good. If you feel that you can’t get all the information you need in that time, your topic is probably too broad.
- Make it conversational, but ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak. If someone isn’t contributing, try to draw them out. They may have ideas that they want to share, but are uncomfortable speaking up. If someone is dominating the discussion, gently cut them off so others can talk.
- Ensure that everyone feels safe giving their opinions. You don’t want a group of people who feel that they need to support your ideas or the ideas of the most vocal member. Everyone needs to contribute, and they won’t unless they feel their ideas will be listened to and valued.
Ongoing feedback mechanisms allow for continual improvement.
Allowing volunteers to offer feedback throughout their engagement can give you the chance to continuously improve your program a bit at a time. Here are a couple options:
- Suggestion boxes (physical or virtual), where people can anonymously suggest ideas for improving the program, express their concerns, or provide comments.
- Informal discussions with volunteers can lead to surprising insights. Make an effort to have short chats with volunteers before, during or after their shifts to see what’s going well and what can be improved.
- Online forums or discussion boards allow volunteers to share ideas with each other and you. This kind of collaboration can lead to innovative strategies, as people build upon each other’s ideas.
Conducting exit interviews is your last opportunity to get feedback from volunteers.
Even if a volunteer is leaving for reasons that have nothing to do with the organization itself, conducting an exit interview can give you valuable information. If the volunteer is leaving because of something that you have influence over, the insights can prevent the loss of other volunteers.
- As with focus groups, create a safe and confidential environment. Volunteers need to feel that they can express what they really feel without fear or embarrassment. Ensure they know that the only reason for the interview is to improve the program.
- Inquire about the factors that influenced their decision, about their overall experience, and suggestions for improvement. If you have areas of concern, formulate specific questions around those.
- Don’t use this time to try to change the volunteer’s mind. Accept that they are moving on. All you can do is learn from the experience and be grateful for what they contributed.
I have one final piece of advice.
Follow up on it!! Implement changes based on the feedback. One of the key parts of showing appreciation is demonstrating that you value their ideas as well as their actions, so tell them what improvements you’ve made as a result of what they’ve shared.
These are just a couple ways to gather feedback. The more ways you use, the more information you will gather, and the better your program will become. Good luck!