Surveys: Alumni Relations’ Best Friend

Has one (or all) of these reasons kept you from surveying your constituents?

“We shouldn’t ask if we’re not going to change anything.”
“I was there—I could tell people were happy.”
“People get too many surveys.”

They’re all valid. They’re all bunk.

Let me explain.

Those statements are valid, IF you send out surveys solely to get feedback about the logistics of a transaction—an event, a website visit, or a volunteer experience. But they’re bunk if you consider surveys as a way to continue and/or fix the relationships you started when you invited people to engage.

For example, let’s say you get a standing ovation at your event. You get the impression that the event went really well. Bob is the only person who fills out the survey and says he hated the venue. If you only care about event logistics, then go ahead and ignore lone-respondent Bob.

But if you care about your relationship with Bob, and you care about the influence he may have on other constituents, then Bob just gave you a precious gift: a second chance. It doesn’t matter that nobody else answered the survey. Doesn’t matter that everyone else was happy. Doesn’t matter that you’re not going to change the venue. What matters is Bob.

Research shows that 70% of people who had a bad experience are willing to give the organization another chance if they get great customer service, whereas 89% of people stop engaging with organizations because of bad customer service. People are twice as likely to talk about bad customer service rather than good customer service, and 26% of people post negative comments on social media after poor service. So the people who are least happy seem to have the loudest voices.

In our experience here at Cornell, alumni who gave us poor evaluations are blown away when we phone or email them to learn more about their experiences. Yes, it can be hard to find the time and tough to face criticism. But you spent dozens of hours planning that experience for Bob—what’s another 5-10 minutes on the phone to ensure that he remains engaged?

Surveys—and the subsequent alumni interactions they necessitate—should be valued not only by alumni relations professionals on your team but by prospect researchers and fundraisers too! To learn more about the direct correlation between alumni engagement and dollars raised, read our blog post that details how University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono has turned Twitter interactions into more than $1 million.


Jennifer Cunninghams job is to find stories in Cornell’s alumni data, then use the findings to help her team turn attendance into engagement. Beyond her day job, you’ll find her speaking at industry conferences, writing articles about engagement, and consulting with other alumni offices and nonprofits on survey design, engagement metrics, and use of Net Promoter. You can connect with Jennifer on Twitter, on her blog, or via email at

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