How to Create an Effective Survey

  • 22 November 2017
  • Randy Wollf

Taking a survey can feel like a chore. The questions are long, the format is confusing, and there's often no follow-up to the findings. There are lots of reasons why churches choose not to use surveys, but this doesn't change the fact that results from a well-designed survey can provide you with a wealth of information. For churches in particular, survey findings can help you determine your next steps to accomplish your ministry goals. 

The key is designing a survey that people will want to take. Here are several tips on how to design excellent surveys that will provide you with excellent data. You can also watch the accompanying video for additional teaching on each point.   

1. Establish a clear purpose  

If you can't state the purpose of your survey in one sentence, don't go any further. You'll be wasting your time and the time of those who do it.  

Once you identify your purpose, make sure to communicate this effectively. When people understand purpose, they feel empowered. Instead of feeling like a chore that has to get done, the survey can function as a tool that will serve their leaders well.  

2. Create incentives 

Simple incentives like a drawing for a gift card can often motivate people to complete a survey. Plus, a unique giveaway can also serve as a reminder that the survey is happening. 

In addition to physical incentives, help your audience understand that their feedback is an important part of your decision-making process. While it is true that people want to be heard, people will be even more motivated to share their thoughts if they feel assured that their opinions will make a difference.  

3. Craft every question to serve the overall purpose of the survey 

Ask yourself what you'll do with the responses you receive. If you don't know why the question is important (or what changes you'd be willing to make based on the responses), the question should be removed. Discipline yourself to stay within your purpose.   

4. Keep your questions short and to the point 

Peoples' time is precious, so make sure that every question is concise and easy to understand. 

5. Include open-ended questions 

Multiple-choice or yes-no questions can provide information about general trends. Open-ended questions will give you detailed information that will help you make sense of the general trends. 

6. If you use a rating scale, make sure to give equal weight to positive and negative assessments 

Surveys are sometimes created with options that lean toward positive assessments. Instead, make sure to give equal weight to the positive and the negative (e.g. 1=poor, 2=fair, 3=average, 4=good, 5=excellent).  

7. Pilot-test the survey 

Test your survey with a few people before you send it out to your target group. Ask the pilot group for feedback so you can make the survey stronger. Make sure to ask if there are any unclear questions and if the questions fit the purpose of the survey.  

8. Give people advance warning 

Whenever possible, let people know in advance that the survey is coming. This will get them thinking about it and will increase your rate of return. 

9. Give people the opportunity to complete the survey online 

Use an online survey platform like SurveyMonkey for your surveys. It greatly simplifies data collection and assessment and minimizes the possibility of paper surveys being misplaced. You may also want to include a paper option for those who are not inclined to take a survey online. 

10. Set a survey completion date 

People are more likely to do surveys if there is a sense of urgency to do so. I recommend a two-week deadline for church surveys. This timeline keeps the runway short while allowing your congregation more than one reminder on a Sunday when the church is gathered. 

11. Remind people 

You will find that your rate of return will go up considerably if you remind people about the survey. Doing it in a personal way (e.g. personalized emails or letters) will increase the rate of return even more. 

12. Moderate your expectations regarding participation 

Even though the goal is to receive a huge response, the average return rate for surveys is about 10%. I feel confident that if you follow these tips, you will see a much higher rate of return. 

13. Look for themes and discrepancies in the responses 

It's important to look for themes, but also to include outlier comments that might point your group in new and productive directions. 

14. Involve others in interpreting the data 

Each of us have biases, which can lead to inaccurate interpretations of the data. Involving others in interpreting the data will minimize these biases. For example, I will sometimes do a preliminary assessment of the data and then have others take it from there. 

15. Provide a summary 

Survey participants and others are more likely to act on the recommendations that emerge from the survey if they know that the survey has been instrumental in shaping those recommendations. When action steps are created, refer back to the results of the survey to reinforce your rationale (i.e. "we heard you say _____ so we are taking action by ____"). 

>>> Looking to take the next step? Learn how to take your survey findings and lead your ministry area through effective change. Visit MinistryLift's Leading Change page to find a free introductory video, blog articles, training options, and instructional videos.  

Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary