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8 Ways Your Nonprofit Can Do Market Research

Affordable Ways to Get Feedback


Nicole S. Young/ E+/Getty Images

I was convinced of the beauty of market research early in my career. I was working for a Girl Scout organization in the Midwest when our annual cookie sale was disrupted and ruined by suspicions of package tampering.

The sale was halted soon after its start, and tons of cookies were landfilled. The financial loss was substantial since the cookie sale represented more than half of our annual budget.

We were devastated and fearful for the future. Luckily, a high-ranking member of a well-known public relations firm served on our board. She and her firm helped us through the immediate crisis and with our emergency fundraising campaign to replace our losses.

The firm then persuaded us to do some market research before we ran the next year's cookie sale.

Before the research, we were convinced that the public's fear of our cookies would be our biggest impediment. The research revealed our concerns were totally misplaced. The public, it seemed, was anxious to buy our cookies and seemed undaunted by the cookie crisis. But, parents and the girl scout leaders were worried and reluctant to let the girls participate.

Consequently, we mounted a campaign to reassure and educate our own volunteers, parents and girls. It worked, and we went on to a cookie sale that equaled successful ones of the past and a happy public and membership.

The board and ED were smart in this case. They believed the data over their gut feelings. That is not always the case. One study of CEOs revealed that only 10 percent would follow the data if it contradicted their gut feelings! That's called confirmation bias and it can be deadly. 

Fortunately, your nonprofit can fight back, especially since there are many ways of doing market research, some quite affordable.. Here are a few of those approaches:

  1. Observation
    Just paying attention to your clients and customers can be enlightening. Train your marketing personnel to watch and take notes on what people say at meetings, activities, and special events. Ask staff or volunteers that work with your publics to tell you what people are saying...what problems seem to be occurring, what pleases and what irritates your users.
  2. Mystery Shopping
    This is a particularly useful technique for arts organizations where mystery shoppers can buy tickets or call ticket sellers, attend performances, and judge the level of customer service. The shoppers might even do the same with your competing organizations to see what they are doing differently and perhaps better. Educate your people about the mystery shopping ahead of time and make sure that they don't see it as some sort or method for "catching" them and punishing them. Devise a rating system that the shopper can use to quantify their impressions and to make sure everyone is evaluating in a similar way.
  3. Transactional Surveys
    These are used in the course of or immediately after a customer transaction. We've all seen them...for instance, when a box shows up on our computer screen asking us to answer a survey after we've ordered an item online. Or, when we get a phone call from a company we just did business with checking out our satisfaction level.

    Surveys such as this allow us immediate feedback while the experience is fresh in the consumer's mind and allows us to take immediate remedial action if necessary.

  4. Focus Group Research
    Focus groups can be informal and run by your own staff or formal, and more expensive, when done by a company skilled in doing them. Focus groups should have a skilled moderator and there should be several of focus groups for each segment of clients you are researching. Focus groups invite a small group of people for a meeting of a couple of hours to answer questions and discuss their reactions to your organization or something that your organization does.
  5. Customer Advisory Panels
    These work well for organizations that have traditional "customers." Arts organizations are good examples where tickets are sold. People from various customer groups are invited to serve on the panels for a period of time. Feedback is solicited through meetings, phone interviews, and mailed or emailed questionnaires. Customer Advisory Panels are extremely useful when used to gain information needed for some sort of decision. Perhaps the organization is thinking of mounting a particular kind of performance series and can reach out immediately to find out what the panel thinks of the idea.
  6. Individual In-Depth Interviewing
    This is what we did at the Girl Scout organization mentioned above. Our PR firm's marketing department performed telephone interviews with constituents. This allowed more anonymous interviewing, and allowed the interviewers to ask follow-up questions and to probe answers. This type of research can be expensive but the results can be immensely helpful.
  7. Survey Questionnaires
    Probably the most widely used of market research techniques, this type of questionnaire can be sent to a large number of people. It can be delivered by mail, e-mail, tucked into other literature such as a program or a newsletter. It is useful in looking into people's knowledge, beliefs, product and media preferences, their satisfaction levels, and attaining demographic information.
  8. Marketing Experiments
    Commercial enterprises do this all the time. They test direct market materials for instance by sending out various versions and then tracking the responses. You can easily do the same by simply preparing different versions of materials such as promotional brochures, fundraising appeals, and newsletters and sending them to different segments of your audience. You then track the responses to see which version worked best.

NOTE: Learn about the latest in online market research.


Arts Marketing Insights, Joanne Scheff Bernstein, 2007, John Wiley.

Strategic Marketing for Nonprofit Organizations, Alan R. Andreasen, Phillip Kotler, 2008, Seventh International Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall.

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