Ask and Listen… and Improve Your Results

Carol White, President of CBWhite

Fall 2013

Carol White is president of CBWhite, a consulting firm that guides nonprofits toward their destinations through the art and science of marketing research.

At your next staff meeting, consider playing “networking reception”. Have everyone envision a conversation at a networking event where someone asks them what your organization does. Give them three minutes to write their answers.

Frequently, you will find the descriptions of what you do to be technical or methodological in nature. We’re all used to explaining why we’re good at what we do and have been taught to describe our skills, approaches, and training.

Now, ask some of your constituents (users of services, their family and friends, your volunteers, etc.) what you do. It’s likely you will get very different answers. For example:

Staff: We offer full-day childcare, have a 3:1 infant:staff ratio, and are NAEYC accredited.

Constituent: They provide everything for my baby so I can feel confident while I am at work that my child is safe and happy.

It is important to understand what the market (your constituents) sees as the value provided by your organization. But you won’t know unless you ask. Here are a few benefits of marketing research:


When you know what constituents want, what needs people express, what benefits they perceive you offer, and what gets in the way of them accessing your offerings, you can make fact-based decisions that allow you to achieve your mission more effectively. Note that the market doesn't determine your mission; it doesn't tell you what to offer or even how to offer it. Those are your decisions. But, research can help you be more effective.


A client once told me, “The research made me feel more confident about my decisions, because they were grounded in facts instead of anecdotes.”


Strategic planning often begins with a roomful of people who may disagree about your organization’s direction. Survey results showing what the market needs can help your team pull together to create a plan that will succeed.

Marketing research can range from informal feedback to full-blown surveys.

  • You can ask for feedback in ways that are informal and free. Think about what you need to know and why, then just ask and listen! Try to be objective, write down what you hear, and look for patterns.
  • You can identify new possibilities through guided interviews or focus groups. Qualitative input improves our understanding of the questions, but doesn't always include enough data-points to provide firm answers.
  • You can get solid answers through quantitative input, gathered through surveys. Online tools have made it relatively easy to build surveys. Often, people think that writing a survey is easy and data analysis is hard. I believe the reverse is true. If possible, retain an expert to write your survey questions. Then, analyzing the data is likely to be easier than you expect.

You may find you can get help paying for marketing research from your funding partners. Marcia Festen, director of the Arts Work Fund, says the Fund has supported several marketing research projects. She says, “Often a grant applicant will come to us for a new website, or a new audience development program, or even to develop an earned revenue strategy. We have seen some of these efforts be only modestly effective. Often, it is because the organization didn't know enough about whom they were targeting, the marketplace in general, or what that audience wants, needs, and expects. We often decline applications for, let’s say a website, when an organization doesn't know who might come, why they might come, and what they might do when they get there. Sometimes it makes better sense to ask for funding to support marketing research to answer those questions. Once the research is done, the organization can come back with a stronger request for a website development grant that has a clear audience and purpose.”

Asking the constituents what they think about your organization is the most basic form of marketing research. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s enlightening, and it will probably make you feel really good about what you do. You’ll hear heart-warming descriptions of your impact. And, when you use the market’s words to formulate your answer to the question, “What does your organization do?”, your listeners will be far more engaged and inspired and … you will improve your results.

Next Steps

Read additional articles in the Fall 2013 edition of the Axelson Review.