Moving Beyond Surveys: Four Creative Data Collection Methods for Engaging Clients
Working at a human services nonprofit, you are often asked to collect data. Data can be critical to your organization’s success – from guiding operational decisions, making a case for grant funders or donors to showing your value to your board of trustees. Data undergirds all of these important parts of a nonprofits’ day-to-day activities and success. But when you think about collecting data on your clients, I would bet that one of the first things you think about doing is a survey. Am I right?
A survey is an excellent tool for gaining information and insights from clients – that is why it is a go-to, tried and true method. Yet surveys present challenges. First, they take time and resources to conduct and analyze. Second, they aren’t always inclusive of your clients, especially if they cannot read or their primary language is not your primary language. Finally, surveys are getting lower and lower response rates as they pop up everywhere. Even among clients who trust you the most, a survey can feel like another boring thing to do. That is why your nonprofit should explore other creative data collection methods.
Here are four ideas to get you started.
Use the Data that You Already Have
There is a good chance you already have data that could be really useful for your organization. This data is collected through various methods. It could be a check-in form that someone fills out when they arrive for an appointment, case notes from your meetings with clients, or even views of different pages on your website. Data exists everywhere if you know where to look for it.
Here are a couple of examples and how you can use it.
Say you collect all of your client’s addresses, either through an appointment check-in form or program intake form. A sample address can contain a lot of useful information. First, is the zip code. Zip codes tell you a lot about who you are serving. If you compile all of the zip codes of your clients, you can get a really good understanding of who you serve and where they come from - and it’s not just neighborhoods.
Let’s say you serve the Bronx neighborhood where I worked for several years (zip code 10458). Using a free website like Social Explorer, I can input that zip code and find that 27% of the population is under the age of 18, 72% are Hispanic (the term used by the U.S. Census), 40% are foreign born and 32% of people have less than a high school degree. That tells me a lot about the population I serve, so even if I have never surveyed and asked them their demographics, I can share with a grant funder something like – “50% of our population comes from the neighborhood directly surrounding our center and here are the neighborhood demographics.” That is rich data, just sitting right there that you can pull out with a little work.
Here’s another example. You can learn a lot from the case notes that you already collect for participants in your programs. This process takes a fair amount of time, but it can be worth it the effort.
Why? Sometimes we focus on the loudest voices or the most recent fires we had to put out. If we look at a larger set of case notes from the past 3-6 months, we can gain a big picture view of what participants say they struggle with or where they are successful. That understanding will (hopefully) not be skewed by the latest news and events.
This might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be super complex.
Simple Way to Analyze Your Case Notes
Define your goals. What are you hoping to learn? Are you looking for common needs or challenges clients expressed? Are you looking for moments of success and the services that might have supported them? Pick just a few goals and write them down. Knowing your goals will help you read with intention.
Organize the data. Find a way to gather your case notes in a way that makes them easy to read. For you, that might mean putting them in a single large document that contains notes for all participants (ideally with names and dates); or you might have one document for each participant that contains all of their notes. Do what works best for you.
Read the case notes quickly so you can spot trends or interesting patterns. Details matter, but you're not doing social science research. If you get bogged down in the details, it’ll be harder to see the big picture.
As you go, add codes that indicate key concepts that emerge. For example, you might read a paragraph about a participant’s apartment search and code it “No Affordable Apartments Near Mass Transit”. If you see several of these throughout your notes (or something similar), your notes are telling you that affordability and mass transit are problems for your clientele.
When you are done reading and coding, reflect on each code and the nearby notes. What can you conclude? Do you see any patterns? Are you convinced that it’s a real pattern? What can you do with this knowledge?
Take a random sample of your participants if you think there are too many. If your caseload included 50 participants in the past 6 months, then maybe pick 20 of them randomly and focus on their notes.
Reviewing, coding, and interpreting case notes is an investment of time. The payoff is that you develop a rich understanding of the challenges and triumphs of the people in your programs.
Gather Ideas with a Tip Box
A low stakes way to capture data from clients or those you serve is a form of the tip box. No, this isn’t asking for money, it’s asking for feedback. A shoe box or envelope can be really effective to gather quick anonymous feedback from your clientele. You can use this in multiple ways. You could just have paper and pencils next to a box asking, how can we better serve you? And see what clients say.
You can also use targeted questions. If you have clients that return regularly, ask them a new question each week on their sign-in form or using a slip of paper that they anonymously put in an envelope.
What workshops could we provide you that would be useful?
Are there types of food you would like that we do not offer?
Are there other resources that you need but don’t know where to find them?
These responses can inform your day-to-day practice. While it might not be the most scientifically sound method, it gives your client a voice and you real-time feedback with little effort.
Record Client Voices (Literally)
Capturing client voices can be really good data and a really powerful tool. Some clients will be more likely to provide feedback if you make it fun or interactive. Consider asking your clients to send you a quick video that summarizes their experiences. They might talk about their successes or describe their challenges. Some clients are more willing to record a 20-second clip than fill out a survey or write something on a piece of paper - especially if they struggle with literacy or language. Give them the option of recording only their voice or to be on camera if they are comfortable.
A recording with someone’s voice and face is not anonymous, so you need to take special care to prioritize privacy and security. Only share recordings with people who absolutely need to see them. Also, consider deleting recordings regularly after you’ve made use of the feedback provided.
Other ways to protect client privacy:
Ask clients to record something on their phone and send it to a central email that’s monitored by a staff member who should have access to the recordings. This might be a program director or ED.
Have a space in your nonprofit where clients can record their voices on a computer or tablet (with instructions and help nearby).
Always ask for permission to share the recordings with anyone outside of your organization.
Notify clients ahead of time that you may use or share anonymous quotes from their recording.
Client recordings can help you answer important questions, and they are a great way to gather success stories. They require more careful planning and data management than a simple “tip box”, but the rich data you get back can be well worth it.
The Brainstorm and the Vote
Sticky notes are incredibly popular at my house. They are stuck to the door reminding me to take my kids’ lunch to school... and on my computer with to-do lists... and there’s a sticky note with the countbubble’s color codes (purple is 54086b) so I don’t have to look them up.
Sticky notes can also be a useful data collection method...hear me out.
One way to use sticky notes is to have clients do a brainstorm – either at a group meeting or as they are passing through your facility. Write an open-ended question on white board (like the tip box above) and have clients put ideas on paper and stick them up on the board. Seeing responses from others can inspire more people to participate and get creative. When it's done, it will be easy for you categorize responses by moving the notes around and sticking them on top of each other.
You can also use sticky notes to allow people to vote on topics. Instead of responding to an open-ended question, clients can use sticky notes to “vote” on something. Share the question in a public place, and invite clients weigh in on the direction of a new program:
Would you prefer a new workshop on Saturdays or Tuesdays?
Online or in person?
Do you want us to invest in more community building activities or one-on-one appointments?
This is a physical, short, and fun data collection tool. It gets more people involved, and gets you valuable data that helps you make key decisions.
Collecting Data without Surveys
These are just a few creative ways to collect or find data for your nonprofit that go outside of the box of a survey. Start with just one and see how it goes. There are certainly many more.
After you gain some confidence in your ability to gather and use this type data, try asking yourself these questions regularly:
Where can I find data?
What are easy opportunities to gather feedback throughout our work?
If you do this, you will identify new ways to get more useful data that will help your organization succeed.
Reporting your impact is hard when you’re juggling spreadsheets. countbubble makes it easy so you can focus on your mission.
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Founder, CountBubble, LLC