Recently I’ve been working with a few clients who have conducted surveys to get information from the communities they work with, and it led me to reflect on some of my past experiences of trying to engage stakeholders and Indigenous peoples through online surveys. As any engagement practitioner knows, there really is no substitute for face-to-face engagement to establish and maintain healthy relationships. But that hasn’t always been possible during the pandemic. Moreover, many companies have taken the time in the past few years to review their own engagement strategies; it’s been an ideal time to seek input about what constitutes good engagement from the stakeholders and Indigenous communities they engage.

So When Are Surveys Useful?

Surveys can be a useful tool to get a pulse on something to help you communicate more effectively on a topic – they help you dial in on what’s important to your audience. They can also be useful when you need to measure and report on progress in a certain area, such as sustainable development or ESG performance metrics.

In my experience, most organizations get that part right. But a key part of conducting surveys is to remember that the information received must be addressed – not only internally, but with the people or organizations engaged. Nothing will shut people down faster than seeking their advice, then failing to follow up with them about what you’ve done with their feedback. Even if the feedback received is impossible for you to implement, it’s important to share how the feedback was considered, and the reasons for not implementing.

To illustrate this, one organization I worked with as part of collaboration had done a series of surveys, spaced several years apart. They had identified some key themes that needed to be actioned and had developed some strong internal strategies to improve their performance in those areas. But when they embarked on a recent round of surveys to measure their progress, they had limited participation – much less than in prior years. Moreover, several core themes that emerged were the same as what they’d been hearing from communities in the past. If the organization had closed the feedback loop by sharing their progress, it is quite probable that they’d have received different responses. They might also have had greater participation in the survey if they’d demonstrated to respondents how they were adjusting the way they conducted their work as a result of the information they’d received. Fortunately, the organization was quick to realize they needed to shift course, taking some time to address feedback – and more importantly, demonstrate to their stakeholders how they were making changes in response to what they’d heard.

How to effectively use surveys as a tool of engagement.

While surveys are not a substitute for engagement, they can act as a useful tool for engagement. They help to automate your processes to receive more information in a quick manner than through face-to-face discussions or other engagement forums. They also have built-in tools to help engagement professionals compile and analyze data – which is useful in reporting, both internally and externally. And with the advent of platforms such as Teams Forms and Google Forms, it is easier than ever to integrate them into engagement planning.

If you plan on using surveys to engage, the following are five tips to help you engage effectively:

  1. Don’t use surveys as a substitute for engagement – use them to enhance engagement
  2. Avoid over-surveying stakeholders and Indigenous communities, or they’ll quickly develop “engagement fatigue”
  3. Offer incentives to participate – and ensure it’s something that will be valued by respondents
  4. Act on feedback received; where the action is impossible be sure to explain the reasons why
  5. Report back on what you’re doing with feedback received – methods to do this might be a newsletter, email, or “What Was Heard” report


Happy engaging!

Dione McGuinness