Fieldstone Alliance Logo
Fieldstone Alliance: Tools You Can Use e-newsletter
Tools You Can Use

How to Run Useful, Inexpensive Focus Groups

The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Group

The 10 Basic Focus Group Steps
     Step 1: Define the purpose
     Step 2: Establish a timeline
     Step 3: Identify and invite the participants
     Step 4: Generate the questions to be asked
     Step 5: Develop a script
     Step 6: Select a facilitator
     Step 7: Choose the location
     Step 8: Conduct the focus group
     Step 9: Interpret and report the results
     Step 10: Translate the results into action

Additional Resources


From Becky Andrews, Marketing Manager, Fieldstone Alliance:

WHEN YOU THINK of a focus group, do you envision a two-way mirror and a group of people testing a new type of cereal? Focus groups are not just useful to advertising agencies. If you’ve ever wondered what people really think of your organization and the services you provide, focus groups could be a very useful tool. After all, successful nonprofit leaders don’t guess about what their constituents think or need—they ask them. One of the most effective ways to ask is through focus groups.

This issue of Tools describes the basic process for designing, organizing, and carrying out focus groups. The information is excerpted from The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Groups by Judith Sharken Simon.

You can conduct focus groups using little more than staff or volunteer time and the cost of refreshments (and you don’t need the two-way mirror). The process may be less sophisticated than that used by marketing firms, but you'll still get valuable results. Of course, you have to involve the right people, ask the right questions, and commit to follow-up action.

The 10 Basic Focus Group Steps

Step 1: Define the purpose
Begin by answering the question, “What do we want to achieve by gathering data using a focus group?” Then answer, “Why do we want to know that?” Be specific. Purpose statements that are general, such as “To find out what people think” make it hard to identify participants, develop focused questions, and get useful results.

Step 2: Establish a timeline
Start planning at least four weeks ahead of the actual focus group date. Six to eight weeks is probably more realistic. Here's a suggested timeline:

Timeline Components Time Frame
Write the focus group purpose statement 6-8 weeks prior to session
Identify the participants 6-8 weeks prior
Gather participant contact information 6-8 weeks prior
Select a facilitator 4-5 weeks prior
Develop the questions 4-5 weeks prior
Develop a script 4-5 weeks prior
Arrange and reserve the session site 4 weeks prior
Write and send the invitation 3-4 weeks prior
Follow up the invitation with a phone call 2 weeks prior
Make room arrangements (seating, equipment) 1 week prior
Place a reminder call to the participants 2 days prior

Step 3: Identify and invite the participants
First, decide how many participants you need. Here are some rules to guide you:

Number of focus groups: Most major themes and patterns emerge after three sessions.

Group size: Aim for six to twelve participants. Fewer than six tends to limit the conversation and more than twelve gets unwieldy.

Response rate: The general rule is to expect a response rate of 50% to 66%. (Of course, if participants are staff, the response rate will be close to 100%.)

This all boils down to a simple formula:

(number of focus groups) X (number of participants per group) ÷ (response rate) = number of invitations to send

Next, come up with a list of participant attributes from words in your purpose statement. Then, brainstorm possible categories of participants. Refine the list to include enough diversity to stimulate opinions and enough similarity to create a common ground.

Finally, get the actual names and contact information and send invitations. You can rent or borrow someone else’s list, recruit on site (such as at a conference), or ask for names from colleagues.

Step 4: Generate the questions to be asked
Because a focus group usually lasts one to two hours, there's time for only four to five questions. Brainstorm a list and pick the top five or six questions by asking yourself whether they apply to your purpose statement or if participants will be able to respond to them. Test your questions with staff or answer them yourself. Do the responses give you the information you need?  If not, revise the question.

The sequence and tone of the questions are as important as the questions themselves. Keep them open-ended, focused, and move from general to more specific. Create a series such as, “1) What are some of our strengths? 2) In what areas could we improve? 3) What are some of things you dislike about our services?” This moves participants to a point where they feel comfortable discussing negative issues.

Step 5: Develop a script
A script helps ensures that each focus group is run the same way and keeps the facilitator on track. There are three parts to a script: the opening (welcome, overview, and introductions), questions, and closing (thank you, how to give further input, how the data will be used).

A mentioned in Step 4, focus groups usually last one to two hours. Don't go beyond two hours—participants and the facilitator will start to fade.

Step 6: Select a facilitator
Finding a facilitator isn't difficult. It can be a staff member, volunteer, or member of a committee or task force. You can also use a two-person team, where one person moderates the discussion and another records it.

Step 7: Choose the location
It's important to pick a setting in which participants will feel comfortable expressing their opinions. Consider whether the location is inviting, can accommodate nine to fifteen people, and is easy to get to.

Step 8: Conduct the focus group
Here's a list of materials you'll need for the session:

  • Extra notepads and pencils
  • Flip chart or easel paper
  • Focus group script
  • List of participants with phone numbers
  • Markers
  • Masking tape
  • Name tags
  • Refreshments
  • Tape recorder (optional)
  • Watch or clock

Once the group gets underway, the facilitator must foster an atmosphere of comfort, enjoyment, and open exchange of ideas. They also have to head off arguments or public speeches and steer the group back on track.

Step 9: Interpret and report the results
It's important to record the results of the focus group (soon after the session has ended) so that the findings can be acted on later. To analyze the summaries, read them all in one sitting. Note trends and surprises as well as context and tone. If a comment (or many comments) seem to be phrased negatively, drew emotional responses, or triggered other comments, note that in the analysis.

The final report should include these elements:

  • Background and purpose of the report
  • Details of the sessions (facilitator, date of session, participants)
  • Results
  • Conclusions

Step 10: Translate the results into action
The greatest failure in the use of focus groups is that the information isn't used. Here are some tips for translating the results into action:

  • Schedule a meeting to review the summaries. Highlight the main themes, issues, problems, or questions that arose. Discuss and record how you will address these.
  • If there's a lot of information, group it and assign a team to prioritize actions.
  • Compare, contrast, and combine the focus group information with information gathered from other sources such as surveys, interviews, or secondary research.
  • Follow up with participants—mail them the summary from their session, send them a thank-you letter, and let them know how the information was used.

People feel flattered when you ask for their opinions—in fact, most love to tell you what they think. The opinions, beliefs, and attitudes you gather while conducting focus groups can be useful in planning, marketing, or evaluating programs.

Focus groups can also energize your nonprofit by helping you reconnect with the community you serve and by building new excitement and support around your organization’s mission.


Additional Resources

Can You Call It a Focus Group?
A framework for understanding and assessing the appropriate uses of focus groups.

Conducting focus groups with disabled respondents

Offers practical tips for doing focus groups with people with various types of disabilities.

Find Focus Groups
This site lists focus groups around the U.S. that you could participate in. It's a great way to earn a few bucks and see how a focus group is run first hand.

Katya's Nonprofit Marketing Blog
Examples of a couple of nonprofit's experiences with focus groups.

Fieldstone Alliance

Services: Fieldstone Alliance’s consulting team has extensive experience helping foundations, nonprofits, and networks develop clear vision and strategy. We know how to infuse organizations with strategic thinking and capacity for nimble action. For more information, contact Gordon Goodwin at 651.556.4502 or


Cover of The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide ot Conducting Successful Focus Groups The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Conducting Successful Focus Group
Cover of The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Conducting Community Forums The Fieldstone Alliance Nonprofit Guide to Conducting Community Forums: Engaging Citizens, Mobilizing Communities.
Step-by-step instructions to plan and carry out community forums that will educate the public, build consensus, focus action, or influence policy.
Marketing Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations Volume I: Develop the Plan.
Reach the people you want to help—and attract the money and support your organization deserves.
Cover of Marketing Workbook Volume II Marketing Workbook for Nonprofit Organizations Volume II: Mobilize People for Marketing Success.
Put together a promotional campaign based on the most persuasive tool of all: personal contact! Shows you how to mobilize your entire organization, its staff, volunteers, and supporters in a focused, one-to-one marketing campaign.


Focus Group Do's and Don'ts


All the Best,

Becky Andrews
Fieldstone Alliance

December 5, 2007


Copyright Fieldstone Alliance. For reprint permission, click here.