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Acknowledging Input

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc.

Ever notice how often you are asked to complete "a brief survey" or give feedback to some company, whether online, on the phone, or in a shopping mall? Whether or not you take time to respond might depend on the whim of the moment and on how rushed you feel. But sometimes you want to tell the company something and actually welcome the chance to give input, positive or negative.

Volunteer program leaders also want input from others. We need a continuous feedback loop to assure that we know what is going on and can correct problems before they fester or can applaud special effort as soon as it occurs. In addition, at various times each year we need to ask specific questions of volunteers and paid staff to help us in assessing and improving volunteer involvement. How are your requests for input met? Do you get a high return on surveys you send out? Do respondents take time to give thoughtful replies or just answer with a minimal yes or no?

It's important to develop the reputation of caring about and appreciating feedback. This can only happen over time, by consistently paying attention to what you do after people respond to your questions. Remember that most folks expect little to happen after completing a survey. Their reply seems to drop into a black hole. So you have no where to go but up in showing everyone that the volunteer program is indeed listening.

Here are some ideas for how to react to feedback and increase your odds of getting more and better responses as time goes on:

  • Say thank you as soon as possible. Write a quick note simply to acknowledge getting the form back - even a post-it™ will do. If the surveys are returned anonymously, post a big sign somewhere visible and say: "Thank you to everyone who is sending back our survey! We've gotten ___ so far." Change the number daily. If you are seeking input online, make sure a screen pops up automatically with a message of appreciation for taking the time, adding to the information, etc.

  • If you know who the respondents are, make sure you demonstrate that you've read their comments. Mention a suggestion they made in a note to them, or give them credit for the suggestion in a meeting or a written report. Summarize ideas raised in a newsletter or special e-mail to everyone. Obviously these techniques work for anonymous responses, too. Whether you say "Lakesha reminded us to do xyz," or "One of our survey respondents stressed xyz," the message you send is: the volunteer office heard you.

  • Find other ways to share the responses. Depending on the sort of questions you asked, keep a running tally of yes/no or pro/con replies and show it on a bulletin board or online. Do the same with ideas contributed. In fact, a nice follow up is to list all the ideas (or your favorite 10) and then ask everyone to contribute a second time by ranking these in the order they prefer. Only do this if you are content to act on the idea receiving the highest rank! But if you do, you are again showing that you do not want to make decisions alone.


About the Author: Susan J. Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout North America (48 states and 5 provinces), Europe (8 countries), Asia (3 countries), Latin America and Australia to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. The year 2002 marked Energize's 25th anniversary.

Susan is the author or co-author of eleven books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success and The Volunteer Recruitment Book - several of which have been translated into Japanese, Taiwanese, French and Italian. All her books can be found in the online bookstore. From 1981 to 1987 she was Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Volunteer Administration. She has written more than 90 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications and writes the national bi-monthly column, "On Volunteers," for The NonProfit Times.

Please visit Energize web site, a cornucopia of over 1000 pages of information especially for leaders of volunteers. Call for a FREE catalog of Energize materials: (800)395-9800 [in Philadelphia (215) 438-8342], or fax (215) 428-0434. Or write to Energize at: 5450 Wissahickon Ave, Box C-13, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

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