There's a joke from the business world in which one marketing executive laments to another, "I know that half my advertising budget is wasted, but I don't know which half." And it's true  — even when you know exactly who your audience is, you still sometimes wonder what they're thinking.

Occasionally when planning for an issue of In Trust magazine, we also feel like we're flying blind. Although our niche — the governance needs of seminary trustees and senior administrators — is one with which we're intimately familiar, as we sat down to plan this issue on vocation, we found ourselves asking, "We know trustees experience their work on behalf of their seminary as a calling, but what shape does it take? What language do they use? And if some don't think of their work as a calling, why do they do it?"

Enter SurveyMonkey, an online tool we use to gather information for our governance assessment instruments and issue planning. Rather than describe in depth the features of the tool (and the many like it — CreateSurvey, CustomInsight, EZquestionaire, Inetsurvey, KeySurvey, PollIt, Quask, and Zoomerang to name a few — they're all easy and inexpensive), suffice it to say that for $20 a month, we're able to construct online surveys that allow us to do things like garner more than 400 responses from constituents about why they do what they do.

And what we learned about vocation, while not the Holy Grail of the true random sample, gave us a lot to work with as we constructed this issue. We weren't surprised to learn that board members felt called to their service on boards. It was instructive, though, to learn that most also felt a divine call to their regular jobs. We saw that trustees generally didn't feel that their sense of calling qualified them to serve on boards, but their area of professional expertise did. Response by response, a profile began to emerge, and our way of understanding our constituents became more sophisticated.

Imagine how this might apply to your board. After your next meeting, once everyone has returned home and has had a chance to process the discussion, you might create an online survey that looks something like this sample:

  • What was the most significant issue we discussed at the meeting? 

  • What's the most important issue that we should discuss at our next meeting? 

  • Do you have concerns about the financial reports you heard at this meeting? If so, why? 

  • The student enrollment figures we presented were off slightly — our current FTE enrollment is actually 126, not 136, which indicates a drop of 17 percent from last year at this time. We'll be discussing this further at the next meeting. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome. 

  • If we hold an off-campus board retreat next January, which would you prefer: (1) retreat center near the seminary, (2) hotel in Florida, (3) conference center at our sister seminary in Baltimore, (4) other.

Online surveys provide an easy way for boards to gather their own data, collect it, and analyze it automatically. Moreover, they make it easy to consider the perspectives of other constituent groups, like faculty and administration. If 80 percent of the board favors a certain position but only 20 percent of faculty do, that changes the tenor of the discussion, doesn't it?

Allow me to demonstrate. For the purposes of this article, I've constructed a survey on how your board uses — or doesn't use — online surveys. If you can spare me five minutes of you time, I'd be obliged if you'd go to and answer the four question listed there. Why wonder when you can know?

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