Membership Surveys: 7 Questions with Ruth Bernstein

by Ben Holse (He/Him)

Membership surveys three people sitting holding paper thought bubbles above

Membership Surveys: 7 Questions with Pollster Ruth Bernstein 

Ruth Bernstein is president and CEO at EMC Research, a national polling and opinion research firm. Ruth leads polling on a wide variety of political, policy, and marketing projects. She is especially proud of her work helping to elect women and people of color to office and securing voter approval for education, transportation, minimum wage increases, and environmental protection. We asked Ruth 7 questions on membership surveys and how they can benefit your organization.

1. What are membership surveys and why should organizations consider doing them?

Membership surveys are what the name implies – surveys of a group’s membership! Any organization or association that wants to put its thumb on the pulse of its members should consider doing a membership survey. It’s the best first-hand way to collect data on the opinions and beliefs of your membership and can cover a variety of topics, including what they want and need from the organization, how satisfied they are with it, and how well they believe it is serving them. You might also consider asking questions about dues, support for political candidates, additions of new services for members, or views of current offerings and benefits. There are endless options based on what information your organization needs to know.

2. How are the surveys conducted? Are they all done by phone or is there an online component to them?

Your organization’s makeup and available contact information for its members is key to determining the best way to conduct membership survey research. If you have a solid contact list of your members with email addresses, it could be a completely email-to-web survey. If you have limited available contact information or a particularly digital-averse membership, phone might be better. If you have mobile numbers, we can send a text that includes a survey link. We’ve worked with organizations where postal mail is the best way to reach their members.   

We can also combine multiple modes of reaching members. EMC Research has been a pioneer of multi-modal methodologies, for membership surveys where some responses come from traditional telephone interviewing and some from text message-to-web or email-to-web, so we have a lot of experience combining modes in ways that make sense for each organization. Every membership is unique and it’s important to consider your members when you decide how to reach them.

3. What information can you learn from a membership survey that an organization may not be able to learn otherwise?

The best membership surveys are meant to be representative of your membership as a whole—that is, the survey is conducted in proportion to the make-up of your membership. Particularly when it comes to complaints. It’s often the case that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease, even if it’s about something that is not necessarily a concern of the larger group. Membership surveys allow you to assess your membership’s opinions and beliefs (and concerns!) in a more objective way so your leadership can make informed decisions. By bringing in a third party to conduct the research and ensure the confidentiality of responses, you can also get more honest feedback than you’re likely to get through other channels.  

4. What are the costs of doing a membership survey?

Many factors influence the cost of a membership survey, so the spectrum of costs can vary widely. Some things that influence the cost of doing the survey are the quality of the contact information you have available for your members, the methods by which you choose to conduct the survey, the length of the survey, the languages needed, and the number of responses desired. Your budget for research is of course a big factor, too, but there are ways to get creative and still be able to do quality research while working within budget constraints.

5. What are some of the things that organizations should think about before conducting a membership survey? 

The most helpful question your organization can ask itself is what do you want to do with the information. General questions to check in and see how members are feeling are good, but it’s also worthwhile to ask yourself what actions you anticipate needing to take (or avoid). Are there upcoming decisions you need to make that understanding your membership could help to inform? Having a good sense of your goals and the questions you’re hoping to answer through research helps determine the best strategy. For instance, sometimes we might discover that pairing a survey with qualitative research, like focus groups or in-depth interviews, is going to provide the most actionable insight.

6. What types of groups do membership surveys work best for? Is there a minimum number of members needed?

Membership surveys can be effective for groups of all sizes. The number of responses you need to be representative of an organization increases with the size of your organization as a whole, but for smaller groups, you may also be able to contact your entire membership. 

7. How do you promote the survey and get members to fill them out? 

Again, it depends. Members are often more likely to participate when they’re notified that the survey is coming from your organization. Our studies show that most people want a say in their organization’s decision-making and feel more valued as members when they are allowed to chime in. That said, there are also cases where you may not want to provide that information upfront, and we are still able to get the responses we need to get a clear picture.

BONUS: How often should an organization do membership surveys?

As often as you need to know what your members think! This could be every quarter or twice a year. A general rule of thumb, however, is that you should be checking in with your membership at least once a year to help make leadership decisions.

Learn more about EMCresearch here

Want to learn more about membership surveys and how to engage your members? Drop us a note.