Survey Fatigue is Real

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Let’s all dial it back. And write better surveys.

Let’s all dial it back. And write better surveys.

By Morgan Valley

Surveys are overused...leading to survey fatigue in our communities, and real consequences for nonprofit leaders.
— Morgan Valley

Nonprofit leaders often use surveys to take the pulse of their communities and get a sense of the impact of their organization’s work. Surveys are also beloved by politicians, marketing folks, and researchers. Unfortunately, they have become overused because they’re easy to build and send with cheap online survey software options. This has led to survey fatigue in our communities that has real consequences for nonprofit leaders:

  • Survey fatigue makes people less likely to respond to a survey, meaning that nonprofit leaders don’t hear the diverse voices and experiences in their community.

  • Among community members who are still willing to respond to a survey, survey fatigue can lower the amount of attention and energy they have to give meaningful responses. This erodes the quality of information nonprofit leaders receive, resulting in actions and decisions based on low-quality survey findings.

To counteract the survey fatigue caused by unchecked enthusiasm for surveys, here are some tips to limit the number of surveys sent and improve the quality of those surveys.

Dial it back

Before jumping into designing and sending a survey, take time to focus and state what you want to learn from the survey -- what are your key questions and information needs?

Then select the methods and information sources best suited to answer those questions. This will help you decide if a survey really is the best fit for your questions.

Surveys are a good tool to use when your key questions are tangible and the group of people you want to respond to the survey is well-defined and accessible.

Surveys are NOT a good tool to use when you're interested in:

  • Learning more about a sensitive subject (consider interviews), or

  • Newly exploring a topic or trying to understand participants’ lived experience in your program (consider focus groups).

Also, if you can witness the effects you’d like to measure, guided observation is a much better tool.

Once you’ve refined your key questions and information needs and decided that a survey is the best tool to use, then ask:

  • Has the community you plan to survey already been surveyed too often in general (e.g. many organizations serve the community and all ask for feedback regularly; or are they folks you’ve already surveyed over and over)?

  • Will they have been surveyed too often around the time that you plan to send the survey (e.g. students during finals)?

If the answer to either question is yes, hold off on your survey. Instead consider using another method or re-examining information you or partner organizations have already collected to answer your key questions.

Write better surveys

If you got this far and still want to use a survey, here are a couple of best practices you can use to improve them:

  • Limit the number of questions you ask by only including questions directly related to your key questions.

    • Resist the urge to add unrelated questions that would be nice but not necessary to know.

    • Don’t ask questions with answers you won’t use (for example don’t ask for feedback on an aspect of a program that you’re unwilling to change).

  • When writing multiple choice questions, always add an "other" option to include everyone’s experience.

  • Use open-ended questions sparingly (they take up a lot of respondents' energy).

    • Make open-ended questions truly open-ended by avoiding yes/no questions.

    • Create a survey question power couple! Pair a well-thought out scale question followed with an open-ended question that asks for a specific example of an experience or an area for program improvement.

  • Use clear, concise language in questions and response options.

    • Avoid loaded language that could bias the responses you receive.

  • Only ask about one concept in each question.

    • Check for “and” and “or” in questions to identify double-barreled questions that can confuse respondents and leave you with muddled information.

  • Always have someone (preferably someone from the community you plan to survey) pilot test and give you feedback to refine and improve your survey before you send it.


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Morgan Valley, PhD | Evaluator

Morgan is a recovering researcher, skilled in bringing mixed methodologies and advanced data synthesis to clients in way they can understand and use.


Morgan Valley