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Best Practices for Getting the Most Out of Nonprofit Employee Surveys

Best Practices for Getting the Most Out of Nonprofit Employee Surveys

Impact Opportunity had the chance to speak with Sarah Chostner, Founder of Aprium Advisors, which supports HR and talent leaders to realize their fullest potential and help their organizations thrive. Sarah shared her thoughts on best practices on how nonprofit HR and leadership can listen to staff through employee surveys.

How should Human Resources go about listening to employees?

Sarah Chostner: HR can use many formal and informal channels to listen to employees:

  • Just talk to people and ask them questions. You can say, “As HR, we're trying to learn more from our employees. I'd love to set up a chat with you to understand your experience working here."
  • Host office hours where people can come and share their opinion.
  • Conduct focus groups or listening circles.
  • Observe team meetings and see how things are going.
  • And finally, conduct regular employee satisfaction/engagement surveys. The purpose of these is to gather information about the employee experience, strengthen it, and align it with your organization's goals so that you ultimately achieve greater impact.

What should an organization ask in an employee survey?

I recommend including three types of questions in employee surveys:

  1. Overall satisfaction questions like a Net Promoter score or a "would you recommend working here to a colleague?"
  2. Specific satisfaction questions related to communication, professional development, culture, their manager, DEI, compensation and benefits, sustainability, etc. Those questions will be customized to your organization based on what's happening right now.
  3. Lastly, you need to ask demographic questions such as race, age, length of time with the organization, and gender identity. This allows you to cut your data by those demographics, interrogate it, and identify where you have inequities (because every organization does). If you're not looking at that, then you're obscuring a key part of the employee experience.

The survey should be done once, at most twice, per year, and I recommend altering the questions as little as possible for at least a few years to be able to measure progress.

What do we do with the employee survey data?

To use staff satisfaction surveys to transform culture rather than “check the box,” I recommend conducting the survey, analyzing the data, and then immediately sharing the synthesis back with people. Then say, "This is what I see in the data. Is that what you see? What does that mean to you? Here's what I think we should do about it. I think we should prioritize A, B, and C. Do you agree with that?" 

Based on those conversations, choose some areas of focus, and make public commitments. "Over the next six months, we're going to focus on areas A, B, and C by taking actions, X, Y, and Z." Then regularly (and repeatedly) communicate what you're doing about those commitments. “As a reminder, we heard this from you in the employee survey. Here are some of the steps we're taking." And then, you start to demonstrate progress and survey again to see how you're doing. "Okay, we made some progress in A and B, but we did not make progress on C, so we need to keep working on that." That process shows—we listen and take action, and as an organization, we can improve things that we focus our energy on. This is one way to demonstrate the level of transparency that builds culture.

What is an example of an employee satisfaction survey changing an organization's culture?

This was the process I conducted at a previous organization. We saw 30 to 40% increases in the agreement rate on questions over a few years. For example, when we first started surveying employees, we asked about our leadership's actions to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive organization. Approximately 60% of employees responded in the affirmative, which needed to be higher. So that was one of the first public commitments we made. Two years later, it was almost 100%. The survey process transformed the culture by creating a culture of listening and taking action. Of course, we weren't able to effect change on everything, and some questions, such as sustainability, remained low due to the nature of our work.

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That said, you can go too far in the direction of, "Tell us everything that is wrong, and we will take action and fix it." That creates a culture where the only people responsible for making the change are leaders, as opposed to “we are all collectively responsible and leaders, of course, have a unique responsibility.” We shifted to this framing: "We're going to work collectively as an organization to address these issues. And as leaders, we are taking charge of that. It is our responsibility to make commitments, to allocate budget, to allocate people, and we are going to do this collectively as an organization."

As an HR leader, how do you ensure that the organization’s leadership is on board with conducting an employee survey and taking action on the results?

Here are a few ideas:

  • First, HR needs a seat at the table with leadership or a champion if there isn't a Chief People Officer or someone at the C-level who oversees HR.
  • Second, I would recommend having the senior leadership team give input on the questions you will ask in the employee survey. That way, they're bought into the process.
  • Third, provide the same level of transparency as I talked about with the compensation process: Start by sharing with the senior leadership team, "This is how we're going to frame it to the organization. This is what we're committing to. Are we on board with doing this?"
  • Finally, bring data to bear. Employee turnover is so expensive: the cost of losing people, losing institutional knowledge, posting jobs, spending all the time interviewing, and retraining a new employee, is extreme. So bring data to make the case about your historical retention, your goal, and that the way to improve retention is to make sure that the employee experience is as strong as possible."

How do you balance asking demographic questions with maintaining anonymity in small organizations?

First, I would recommend that whoever in HR administers the employee survey says very explicitly, "All of this data will be kept confidential." HR has to be a safe place where people can go and talk about their concerns about their employment. It is the HR leader’s responsibility to build that culture. So, assuming you have that culture, you commit that no one will see the raw data.

Second, if you are so small that asking two or three demographic questions will identify a person, think about the most important demographic question to ask. Is it race because we know racial harm has been done in this organization? Just pick one.

And third, only disaggregate the data publicly if you have at least five people in each category. That might mean, for example, if you're a network of sites, you can't disaggregate the data by race at the site level if there are only 30 staff per site. But at the organization level, where there are 200 staff members, you can disaggregate by race.

Any parting words of advice?

It is my philosophy that if we expect people to show up as their best selves in service of outcomes (for students, communities, etc.), then they need to be seen for their assets, respected, valued, developed, and feel a sense of belonging. Implementing a thoughtful, annual staff satisfaction survey process is a key way to do that, and it will help you retain your most critical asset: your people.


Impact Opportunity would like to thank Sarah Chostner for sharing her time and sights! Sarah has been both a strategy consultant and an organizational leader and practitioner. She provides highly personal, engaged support that draws on many years of experience delivering transformative results. As someone with team management, consulting, complex project leadership, and C-suite executive experience, she brings a unique blend of high-level strategic thinking and in-the-weeds tactical knowledge and know-how. Learn more about how Sarah can support your organization’s HR needs!