Straw Poll

Governance Glossary

Published: March 25, 2024


Straw polls play an important role in the work Board Directors do, helping them get a clear picture of everyone’s opinion so they can align decisions and priorities with wider views.

In general, polls are used to make organisations more democratic. Many Not-for-profit Boards, operating in Western nations, are an extension of democratic values and practices.

Straw polls are one of the earliest forms of democratic voting and have been around since the revolutions of the 19th century. In the United States and France, new democratic nations used polling to gauge public opinion before making important decisions.

While many organisations operate under a hierarchic structure, they sometimes put strategies in place to avoid power imbalances. Democratic practices like voting can make the workplace more empowering for mid and lower-level staff. They give more autonomy to employees and managers, support fair decisions, and make information sharing the norm, encouraging transparency.

What is a straw poll?

Straw polling is an informal method for counting votes, normally used to find out how group members are feeling about a certain issue or potential candidate in line for a Board or senior leadership position. Straw polling aims to quickly get information about what people are thinking.

Historically, the term straw poll was used to describe a non-binding vote taken in smaller organisations or groups to predict the results of a looming official vote. In the past, this might have involved asking for a show of hands. The idiom probably originated from the idea that you can see which direction a piece of straw is bending depending on how the wind blows.

Today, not-for-profit Boards use two types of straw polls. The first is a single straw poll used to get a snapshot of opinions at a specific moment in time. The second is multiple straw polls used in a series of discussions about an important or complicated agenda item.

How are Straw Polls Used?

A straw poll is a strategic tool for NFP leaders and can support many operational and administrative goals, including marketing, planning, elections, making the workplace more inclusive, supporting collaborations, resolving conflicts, and identifying training needs.

Straw polling is sometimes used as a marketing strategy to study the public and determine how they understand a product or service. They may also be used to understand how others view a specific brand. They are useful for understanding public opinion about an issue or idea and developing a political strategy or agenda. A nonprofit can use a straw poll to understand the relationship between its staff and members of the community.

Using a straw poll can be a great tool for collaborative projects. It encourages diverse groups of people to share their opinions on issues being discussed and move towards common ground or even consensus. Straw polls can promote a more open and inclusive work culture. Encourage open sharing of opinions and ideas by Board members by making the exercise more informal and less intimidating. This can lead to rich discussions and more informed decision-making.

Using a straw poll can help organisational leaders determine whether there are training needs or knowledge gaps among Board members. Opinion differences can sometimes signal the need to provide more information and resources. Asking for everyone’s opinion through a straw poll can increase engagement among Board members, staff, clients, and other community stakeholders. Having the buy-in of more people means easier implementation of new initiatives and more robust partnership and relationship building.

When not to use straw polls

If you’re under a tight deadline, it’s not the right time to use a straw poll. It is better to use it early in the process. A straw poll is a good option when you want to find out about preliminary opinions or encourage open dialogue about a complicated issue or problem.

When dealing with a contentious issue where Board members have widely differing views and understandings or perspectives, a straw poll can help your Board find common ground. Other scenarios where straw polling may not be the right choice are when routine or administrative tasks are already settled and don’t need to be discussed. Confidential matters or sensitive information should not be polled due to the risk of a privacy breach or misunderstanding.

How to Conduct Straw Polls

In most cases, straw polling is done by the Chair who should ensure answers remain confidential and responders are not shared after results are released. Straw polls should always be anonymous if you want to get honest answers. People are unlikely to share their opinion if it’s widely different than the majority in the room.

Voting guidelines should be developed and shared with all Board members to ensure every individual voting in the straw poll is aware of the procedures.

A straw poll can include one or several questions with a brief description of the issue and several answer options. As a Board you can opt to use an application to collect answers and analyse poll results, such as Doodle, Survey Monkey, Google Forms, or Straw Poll.

What are the features of a straw poll?

To be effective, straw polls should have four key characteristics: straightforward, relevant, unbiased, and anonymous. Larger polls should also be randomised to collect opinions that are representative of the entire community and ensure balanced results. In most cases, a straw poll will consist of a list of multiple-choice options the voter can select from. The goal is to choose the best answer possible.

The benefit of using a straw poll is that it provides insight into the decision-making process of a Board, can track shifting opinions, and is a good way of identifying when a group has reached a consensus or is ready to formally vote on an issue. Straw polls don’t ask for personal data from people such as names or other identifiers. They don’t involve emails or detailed forms like surveys or questionnaires do.

Are there challenges or risks to using a straw poll?

Conducting an informal poll is non-binding, meaning the results are not always accurate or definitive. You will still need to conduct formal voting procedures even after using straw polling. Results from a straw poll can sometimes be misinterpreted. They can encourage conformity with the group or lead to dysfunctional decision-making outcomes when critical thinking or robust vetting of problems are not encouraged.

Polls are only successful if they support the performance of your team. According to author Jeffrey Kerr, their usefulness will also depend on the nature of the services being offered, and the willingness of people in the room to provide honest answers. Some Board members may disengage when they feel the polls don’t reflect or consider their perspectives or opinions. In addition, when straw polls are overused, they can undermine formal voting or be perceived as replacing formal votes. This can erode an organisation’s ability to make good decisions or provide oversight.



Board Portal

Further Resources

Unleashing the Power of Effective Communication in your Boardroom

Improving Governance and Transparency

A Comprehensive Guide to Achieving a Quorum



Better Boards connects the leaders of Australasian non-profit organisations to the knowledge and networks necessary to grow and develop their leadership skills and build a strong governance framework for their organisation.

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