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Stakeholder Feedback: The Key to Smart Decision-Making

Now more than ever due to the pandemic, nonprofits are faced with many questions about how to adapt and revise their services and extend their outreach to donors and constituents.

Taking the time to solicit feedback from stakeholders can help your organization be thoughtful and strategic as you make these decisions. This feedback can:

  • Help take the guesswork out of decision-making.
  • Impact your strategies for current and potential clients, audience members, program participants, donors, and partners.
  • Help you answer questions, understand real and perceived barriers, hear from new and underrepresented voices, and hone efforts around philanthropic support, services, inclusion, perceptions, and brand messaging and communications.

Some 88% of organizations prioritize gathering client feedback, yet only 13% of organizations are actually using the data as a top source for continuous improvement. Of the organizations not taking the time to solicit feedback, two-thirds said it was because they faced limited staff time and other barriers (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2019). Barriers may include lacking the needed financial resources, expertise, or support from management. Despite these concerns, stakeholder feedback can be a valuable investment.

Let’s explore the benefits and challenges of three useful methodologies of data gathering: interviews, focus groups, and surveys.


Interviews are most effective for qualitative research. They help you explain, better understand, and explore individual opinions, behavior, and experiences. Interviews, also known as appreciative inquiry, allow for one-on-one, open-ended conversations so that you can collect in-depth information and explore additional insights. Interviews also allow you to:

  • gain immediate feedback and allow an opportunity clarify responses;
  • dive deeper into topics;
  • provide a confidential platform to discuss controversial and/or sensitive issues; and
  • engage constituents through an in-person or virtual meeting.

Interviews do present some downsides: they take time to conduct, require an objective interviewer, and they can be difficult to schedule. It is also important to make sure the question protocol guides a conversation, instead of being a checklist, to allow for flexibility to explore previously unidentified areas.

Focus groups

Focus groups are conducted with small sets of six to ten people who usually share common characteristics such as age, background, or geography. This affinity group comes together to discuss a predetermined topic. Focus groups have similar benefits as interviews but can make it easier to reach more people.

Focus groups have some downsides as well. They depend upon a competent facilitator who can help level the playing field so that some voices don’t dominate the discussion. The group setting can also make it harder to gather feedback on controversial, confidential, or sensitive issues. To allow time for full discussion, you may need to limit the number of questions you ask the group to five or six. You should also have a hierarchy of questions for a focus group to ensure you allocate enough time for discussion of key issues.


Surveys are useful in ascertaining the feedback of a large population. No other research method can provide this broad capability and ensure a more accurate sample upon which to draw conclusions and make important decisions. Today, most surveys take the form of “digital market research,” as they are conducted electronically rather than using paper surveys which leave you open to error and interpretation. Digital surveys are a useful data-gathering methodology because they:

  • can reach a large population;
  • allow sorting and analysis of data to provide more granular feedback;
  • encourage respondents to provide more detail about controversial issues because they can be anonymous; and
  • provide consistent, precise, and reliable results.

On the downside, survey respondents might not provide factual/true answers, or some respondents may not respond thoroughly or finish the survey if it is too long and causes survey fatigue. Poor distribution methods or lack of good contact information can lead to biased data and difficulty reaching underrepresented constituents.


As you consider the different methodologies for data gathering, think about the hierarchy of how you might combine them to dig down into the topic you are trying to research. Combining two to three of these data-gathering options can allow more robust information collection.

Once collected, the opportunities for using the data can be powerful, but it is important to go beyond merely creating a synthesis of the feedback, noting areas of consistency and divergence. Take the time to identify the greatest implications from the feedback and share them with your leadership team to inform strategic direction and project development.

To help organizations more easily solicit stakeholder input to inform decision-making, JGA has introduced a new service that focuses on data collection called Illuminate. Illuminate is an information gathering and analysis service that gathers critical feedback from a broad pool of your current and potential constituents about what’s most important to your organization. Through Illuminate, we collect data from diverse constituents, analyze and distill the results, and then walk you through what those results mean—serving as your co-strategist as you make decisions.

Illuminate—and other data-gathering activities—can help you uncover opportunities and areas that need fixing so that you can maximize resources and create greater impact. This input can be vital to moving forward strategically, successfully, and confidently.