On a recent weeknight, the steady hum of voices filled the nondescript call center on the ground floor of Siena College’s Hines Hall.
The voices were polite yet insistent, patient yet determined. They explained that they were conducting a survey, and asked whether the person on the other end of the line was 18 or older. They noted that the survey, which focused on volunteering, would only take about 10 minutes.
Hines Hall serves as the nerve center for the Siena Research Institute, which conducts local, statewide, regional and national surveys on a range of topics. The organization interviews approximately 150,000 New Yorkers over the course of the year, and does between eight and 10 surveys each month.
“We tell everybody, ‘Your opinion counts,’” said night supervisor Ginny Ryan, who monitors the calls.
SRI has steadily expanded since director Donald Levy was hired in 2007.
The size of the call center has increased, from 20 call stations to 32. Callers now contact cellphones, in addition to landlines, which enables them to reach a greater number of younger adults. They contact more people for each survey — at least 800, rather than 620 — and they conduct more surveys about a broader range of topics than in the past. Once known primarily for its polls on consumer confidence and politics, SRI now conducts surveys that ask respondents to reflect on their hopes and fears.
One recent survey found that Generation-Xers — born after 1964 — are ill-prepared for retirement, while another found that upstate CEOs are feeling more optimistic about the future. Another survey showed that gas prices weigh heavily on New Yorkers’ minds, while another found that New Yorkers believe the real estate market is starting to improve.
“I want to do polls that capture the collective psyche of New Yorkers,” Levy said. “I believe in public opinion research. … It’s an opportunity for people to allow us in, for us to get a sense of the collective mood.” His aim, he said, is to describe “the fabric of life.”
“When we asked about retirement people were extremely worried,” Levy continued. “The collective mood amongst New Yorkers is that they are not going to be able to retire comfortably. They’re scared, and that comes through.”
Siena Research Institute conducts four types of polls: political; economic; social/cultural, which encompasses topics such as health, leisure and attitudes toward community service and charitable giving; and fee-based surveys for clients. These clients are typically quasi-governmental organizations; the institute will do surveys for advocacy groups, but only if SRI is given complete control over the project.
When Levy was hired, he felt that a disproportionate share of SRI’s energy was devoted to economic and political surveys, and that social/cultural issues and fee-based work was being neglected. His goal, he said, was to increase SRI’s focus on social/cultural issues, and also bring in more fee-based work to offset the cost of doing more.
“I said, 'I will generate more income, but I also want to study the fabric of life,” Levy said. “What drew me to Siena was that they gave me license to do that.”
Some SRI polls fall into more than one category.
For the past four years, SRI has partnered with First Niagara on a survey that measures the confidence of upstate business leaders. The survey is economic in nature, but also provides insight into CEO attitudes, fears and concerns. This year’s poll found that CEOs were feeling more confident than in previous years; in 2008, about 58 percent of CEOs said they were simply hoping to survive the economic downturn. To Levy, that finding was especially telling, and ominous — CEOs tend to be positive in public, and the poll gave them a chance to reveal their true feelings in private.
Dave Smith, Siena College’s vice president for development and external affairs, said that the school is pleased with the direction Levy has taken SRI, and that SRI has gained more national attention, particularly for its political polls. Earlier this year, SRI received national press coverage for a poll showing that Democrat Kathy Hochul would likely win the special election in New York’s 26th Congressional District. This success can be partly attributed to the methodological improvements — such as polling cell phone users and making sure to contact registered voters — that Levy has implemented.
Smith said these changes have made SRI’s polls more accurate.
“Don just doesn’t stop,” Smith said. “He’s on a path of continuous improvement.”
The name recognition is good for the school, Smith said. “It gets us into markets we wouldn’t be in normally. It helps us with admissions.” The number of college-eligible students in the Northeast is declining, and as a result Siena is trying to draw students from new markets, particularly the mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. The polls “are another way of getting our name out there.”
United Way of the Greater Capital Region hired SRI to do a survey on civic engagement. The organization has a goal of increasing its volunteers by 10 percent each year, and wanted to gain a better sense of people’s attitudes toward volunteering. The survey “gave us good solid baseline information,” said Kathy Pelham, CEO of United Way. “It’s statistically valid. It’s not anecdotal. It’s not sitting around a table guessing.”
One of Levy’s main areas of interest is community service.
At his previous job he created a national survey, called the Assessment of Service and Civic Engagement, which measures the degree to which college students do community service. One of the surveys’ key findings is that students do far less community service than colleges claim.
“In reality, only 15 percent of college students are involved in any sort of meaningful community service,” Levy said. “At least now we know where we’re at.”
The ASCE is now based at Siena, and Levy continues to oversee it; since 2006, about 12,000 college students have been interviewed.
A sociologist by training, Levy founded the Institute for Social and Cultural Research at West Virginia Wesleyan College before coming to Siena. Prior to that, he served as director of research at the Center for Population Research at the University of Connecticut, where he also received his doctorate.
At the University of Connecticut, one of Levy’s major projects was to conduct a “shadow census” — a follow-up to the 2000 Census that attempted to count low-income people who are typically under-represented in the national head count. What he found, he said, was that poor people, as well as minorities, were often under-counted. “In many neighborhoods, people don’t trust the government,” he said. “They don’t want to talk to the Census.” To correct for this, he tapped students with the same racial background as residents of overlooked neighborhoods to make house visits. “They trusted the students a little more than the government,” he said.
SRI will continue to grow and improve, Levy said. The organization needs to do a better job of contacting younger adults and people who don’t speak English, and he’d like he call center to be even bigger.
The Siena Research Institute was founded in 1980.
SRI’s callers are advised to explain the polls in the broadest terms possible, so as not to lose people. The word politics, for example, is generally to be avoided.
Barbara Giek, a night supervisor, said, “We’ll lose people right off the bat if we say we’re doing a political poll.”
Giek and Ryan, who have both worked at SRI for eight years, said that the increasing numbers of people using cell phones has made their work more difficult. Sometimes they reach cell phone users who are younger than 18, and must remove those numbers from their call list. Cell phone users are also more likely to screen their calls, but they often call back, in order to find out who was calling them. If they return the call, Giek and Ryan will ask whether they’re willing to be polled, and if they can schedule a time for a caller to contact them. Many of the callers are students.
“People like to talk to students,” Ryan said. “They feel like they’re sharing their wisdom with the students. And it’s a good experience for students, because they learn how to listen.”
The survey being conducted one night last week included questions on volunteerism. One question asked people to pick from a list of reasons to explain why they don’t volunteer; one woman selected the answer “I am too busy with other activities.” She said she was a registered voter — “absolutely,” she told the caller — and described herself as a moderate, but “leaning toward liberal.”
Giek and Ryan said the call center is doing more work under Levy, and that they’ve gotten a lot more attention as a result.
“Our exposure in the media has really exploded,” Giek said. “There’s a lot more outside work.”