Who’s Coming? A New Toolkit on Respectful Audience Surveying

If you want to involve new people at your organization, you need to know who is coming - and who isn’t. Today, we’re pleased to introduce a new free resource - a guide to creating and implementing demographic audience surveys that are accurate, respectful, and useful.

I remember the first time I understood how powerful it was to have demographic data about our participants. At the time, I was leading the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We were three years into a dramatic transformation to welcome new people in new ways. For my first three years, we got a sense of who was and wasn’t involved based on observation and gut instinct. We tried things. We checked out the crowd. We noticed if people were younger or older, more or less racially diverse.

But after three years of ad hoc observation, we were hungry for hard data. We realized our gut instincts could only take us so far. There was a lot we couldn’t see - like economic class and sexual orientation. And there was a lot we were assuming - about race, gender, and age. We decided to make a commitment to collecting better data about who was and wasn’t coming.

We discovered that was not an easy thing to do. We talked to colleagues in other institutions who were struggling with the same questions. No one had a playbook of answers. We ended up working with two sets of consultants, funded by two different foundations, for over a year. Those expert researchers taught us how to conduct truly random surveys, how to train our team, how to ask sensitive questions in a respectful manner, and how to analyze the results. The outcome was a simple, powerful protocol... but our process in getting there was anything but simple.

That’s why we’ve teamed up with Slover Linett Audience Research - with generous support from the James and John L. Knight Foundation - to write this toolkit. We wrote it for people like us: busy professionals who want to do a better job capturing and analyzing demographic audience data. In this toolkit, you’ll find step-by-step tools to help you write a survey, share it with a truly random slice of your audience, and analyze the results. You don’t need funding or a consultant to get started collecting data. You can do it yourself, with your staff and volunteers - and this toolkit.

In my experience, collecting good demographic data can help you smash stereotypes. It can help you make smarter strategic decisions and better programs. As one small example, in our very first round of data collection at the MAH, we learned that the audience coming to monthly free First Friday events was wealthier, whiter, and older than the audience for ticketed Third Friday festivals. This finding fundamentally shifted our perception of who attends paid and free programs. It made us ask why, dig deeper, and understand a lot more about what makes a program welcoming to whom.

The Who’s Coming toolkit has two parts. The first section tackles HOW to design and implement random audience surveys. The second section tackles WHAT to ask. While both parts are rooted in practitioner and expert experience, the WHAT will keep evolving as our collective understanding of identity changes. We wrote this toolkit from a US-centered perspective, and we know some of the demographic terms might be different in other countries. If you have questions or suggestions to make the toolkit more inclusive, please let us know.  

Until then, I hope you’ll read it, share it, and most of all, USE IT. You are free to download, share, excerpt, and use this toolkit however you want. And if you do use it, we’d love to hear how it goes for you and what you learn.

What gets measured gets done. When you measure demographic data, it accelerates your ability to make positive, inclusive change.

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