Just ask! The importance of Community Consultation.

When it all comes down to it, the main goal of a nonprofit or a business is to provide a service to a community.

Both businesses and nonprofits are faced with a similar question when it comes to the service that they are providing:

How can you tell if the service you’re providing is what a community needs?

Whether that community is large or small, it can be challenging to gauge your relationship. Often times it feels very “Us vs. Them.” Yes, you can measure the health of your relationships with things like sales or donations, event registrations, likes on social media – but wouldn’t it be great to know why you’re achieving these results, or the flip side of that, why you aren’t?

Well, the answer my friends isn’t blowing in the wind – it’s actually quite easy:

Ask them.

How you ask can be quite varied, and this tutorial will provide some options for community consultations; from focus groups, surveys, and also, your analytics. We’ll also figure out how many people you need to ask, how to get more people involved, and what to do with the responses once you receive them.

Focus Groups

You know that scene in that movie or TV show where a room of strangers is sitting on the other side of a mirrored window watching television while being asked for their opinion, and typically they’re being bribed with pizza? Well, if you do, you have the basic idea of what a focus group is.

Oftentimes, we sit in a room or on Zoom with our teams and toss around ideas on what we can do for our communities. In the Alberta Emerald Foundation’s recent history, we had received growing feedback from members of our community that our Emerald Award categories were becoming a bit dated, some even stated that they were confused by them, or that they couldn’t participate because they weren’t inclusive.

This came as a bit of a shock. These categories had been great for the past 29 years, right? Suddenly, we were faced with the risk of losing our relevance, our audience, our sponsors, our community. The need to update and refresh the program was beyond apparent, but the “how” was overwhelming. Of course, we had the option of coming up with new categories ourselves, but we also knew the Emeralds are a meaningful program to our province and community. It seemed irresponsible to not involve them in the conversation.

Here’s what we did:

  1. We selected a group of people to participate in this process that represented the community we serve. We formed a panel that consisted of members of our judging panel, past Emerald recipients, sponsors, board members, supporters, and people who may consider nominating in the future. We set up our meetings on Zoom, allowing folks from all corners of the province to participate from the comfort of their home offices.
  2. We asked them to do the work for us. This was a mistake. It was innocent enough and made sense at the time to have them pair off and develop the new categories based on their area of expertise, but in hindsight, it was a lot to ask from a group of volunteers…and dare I say it, a bit irresponsible. You could tell this was the first time we had engaged a focus group.
  3. We quickly changed that first meeting from assigning homework to an open discussion about the Emerald Awards program. It was valuable to hear our community’s thoughts, experiences, dreams, and recommendations. We also shared our vision for the new categories and received feedback. Of course, we had an idea of what the refresh could look like, it’s been our program for 30 years! What we needed was confirmation that it would be well-received by our community, that it would, in the end, serve them.
  4. We took that confirmation and feedback away with us and scheduled a follow-up meeting with the panel for eight weeks into the future.
  5. With the generous support of a select group of people from that panel, we used the eight weeks to bounce ideas around on what the new categories and nomination form could look like. We made sure to listen to their suggestions, and it was surprising to hear what they had to say. Because the program had become business as usual for us, it was valuable to have someone external from the Foundation ask us “why is it like that?” The conversations we had during that time were an absolute gift and truly shaped the categories we have today.
  6. After the eight weeks were up, we brought the panel back on Zoom to review the results and provide feedback. All in all, we had hit a home run. The process resulted in a new slate of categories that maintained the spirit of the past 29 years, while also becoming more robust, inclusive, and relevant to current environmental priorities. We were lucky. Had the response been poor, we would have headed back to the drawing board until we got it right: lather, rinse, repeat.


These are a great tool to get some quick feedback from your community. We most often use surveys after our events to confirm that they went well, and to make improvements to our future ones; however, we have recently decided to send out a survey to better understand how we can encourage our community to become donors.

Here’s some advice we can share that we learned the hard way:

  • There are many platforms to choose from, and a lot are free. When creating your survey, use a platform that doesn’t require the user to set up a profile. You want to make the process as easy as possible, and any extra work will likely discourage your community from participating. People are busy, and removing barriers is a subtle way of saying that you value their time. Also, people are more likely to provide their honest opinions if they know they will remain anonymous. Asking for their personal information destroys that sense of safety immediately.
  • Provide a realistic timeframe that it will take them to complete the survey. Because people are busy, they’re more likely to engage if they know it will only take five minutes. If it takes 30 minutes, they may still want to participate but will schedule the time to do so. Nothing is worse than being told upfront that it will take five minutes to complete, and then it ends up taking 30 minutes. People will become frustrated, and they will either disconnect, or worse, let you know they’re upset through their responses. The best way to determine how long it will take to complete the survey: fill it out yourself before sending it out.
  • Incentivize participation. People are busy and their time is valuable. Sweetening the deal may improve your participation. This doesn’t mean bribe people. Sometimes the potential of receiving something is enough. A simple “Participants will be entered into a draw to win…” can go a long way. Also, as anonymity is important, make sure to ask if they would like to be entered and then ask for their information so you can contact them with the prize if they win.
  • Be clear on why you’re collecting the information and how it will be used. It allows your participants to know there’s a reason you’re collecting this information, and that you value their opinion.
  • Be cautious not to lead the participant to your desired response. You want their feedback to be authentic – it’s the only way you’ll have an honest reflection of your work.
  • Vary the types of questions you use. While having people provide written feedback is always nice, few people will take the time to write you an essay. Incorporate ratings, check boxes, and dropdown lists. The more of these you use, the less it feels like work for the participant. They may even have fun completing it!

Not many people responded to my survey…now what?

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone you sent a survey to filled it out? Sadly, that’s an unrealistic expectation. But don’t worry, all is not lost! All you need is a sample audience.

A sample audience can be defined as the minimum amount of people required to complete a survey to draw conclusions from. Once you receive a specific amount of completed surveys, it is likely that the remaining audience that did not participate would have provided similar responses. Also, too many responses can complicate things.

To determine your sample audience, essentially, you establish your confidence level, your population size, and your margin of error, and tada! Sample audience. Easy right?

To be honest, it still confuses me, but with a quick Google search, I found this online calculator that does the math for you.


Commonly found online, like hits to your website, or engagement on your social media, your analytics dashboards provide insight into your community. They can determine in kind of frightening detail the audience that is engaging, or not engaging with your content. You can determine what posts they like, or don’t, when they’re most likely to be online, where they’re located; really, this list goes on. Although you’re not necessarily receiving feedback or consultation, you are able to draw conclusions from their behaviour. While this is useful, it can also be a bit of a guessing game, and I would recommend still being open to feedback through surveys or focus groups to confirm your hypotheses.

Feedback: Sometimes a gift, sometimes a hard pill to swallow.

Receiving feedback puts you in a vulnerable position. Frequently, the experience is positive, but there are also times that you hear something you don’t want to. While all feedback is valuable, it takes a tough armour to receive it objectively.

Here are some tips on how to get the most out of it, while also making sure your feelings don’t get hurt:

  1. Remember that you are the expert. Your work is the centre of your world, and if you’re like me, it can be challenging to realize that it isn’t for others. Realistically, what you spend the majority of your life on probably only registers on other people’s radar for maybe 30 seconds…and that’s if you’re lucky. Be open to feedback, but also be cautious on how you allow it to affect your overall operations. Some feedback should be taken with a grain of salt.
  2. Be open to it. While you are the expert, we are creatures of habit. Our work becomes day-to-day and habit, and we forget to check-in. Reach out not only when your results start to slip, and also when they’re going well. Feedback can offer suggestions on how to improve and confirmation on what’s working well. I often feel like my “great ideas” are just things other people have said to me that I’ve sifted through to find the best ones.
  3. Don’t get defensive. This is definitely something I have to check myself on A LOT. When you receive a response that is surprising, negative, or surprisingly negative, it’s very easy to respond with a “HOW DARE THEY?!!” Because receiving feedback is vulnerable, constructive feedback can sting. Remember to be open to it, and maybe dive deeper. Maybe they don’t fully understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish through your work – remember, you’re on their radar for 30 seconds. Are they out to lunch, or do you have an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with them?
  4. Have someone else do it. If receiving feedback is extremely challenging for whatever reason, hire a non-biased party to collect and evaluate the data for you. They will be able to give you the information and recommendations you need in a constructive way.

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