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How to Conduct Interviews That Give You the Best Fundraising Stories

Decades ago, before I discovered my calling as a fundraising person, I was a journalist. One cool project I worked on was a series on street musicians who played at Seattle’s tourist-infested Pike Place Market.

I’d hang out near a musician, and when they took a break, I’d ask if they would mind if I interviewed them. Most were happy to, and most of them had amazing stories about their lives and their music. Playing for change in public isn’t something everyone would choose to do, after all.

One day, I had what I thought was a great idea. I’d include a certain street preacher in my series. He was a familiar figure on the corner he’d chosen, and his delivery was incredibly musical. Why not include him?

So I waited, and when he took his break, I tried my usual pitch about learning a little bit about his life and his work.

He was not interested. All he was interested in at that moment was saving my soul. I tried to tell him my soul was doing just fine, thanks, but he wasn’t having that. 

I barely escaped. After that, I went back to “real” musicians.

But I learned that day something that has helped me as a fundraising writer: Not everyone is equally interested in telling you about themselves. Many need the right encouragement to get them talking. (Some people need the right encouragement to stop talking.)

If you’re like most of us, you interview people to get their stories that can help build your relationships with donors. 

The most important thing to keep in mind about interviews is that it is about listening. It’s a conversation, but one where you hope to talk less and listen more than a typical conversation.

Most people are happy to tell their story. It’s a basic human act, and it helps us affirm our identity and the meaning of our lives to tell our stories. That’s what you should keep in mind: You aren’t taking something from someone by discovering their story. You are giving them something by listening and being interesting.

Keep in mind also that they are giving you and many others something of value. Their story will make a difference for other people. Their decision to share is a real act of heroism, and they should know you view it that way.

But be very sure you have permission to ask them about their story. If the topic is something that was traumatic for them, specifically tell them that you are going to ask them to relive the situation, and you will likely ask about details. Make sure that doesn’t take them by surprise.

You also must have permission to share what they give you. While most people want to share their story, some people don’t want to share some of their stories. If they change their mind about sharing, respect that. Don’t pressure them or show any disappointment. It’s their story, a precious thing that needs to be treated with deep respect. Get permission to “publish” in writing, usually in the form of a signed release form that spells out what you can do with the information you get from them.

Here are some ways to get the most out of an interview:

Do your best to make them comfortable

Unless you’re on the phone or Zoom, try to meet in their space or a neutral space. Making them come into your office may feel a bit like going to the doctor!

Make sure they’re physically comfortable. Sit close, but not too close … and “close” is defined by their comfort zone, not just yours! Be mindful about this and pay attention to their signals.

Sometimes, they might be more comfortable if there’s someone else present. Ask about this.

Start the interview right

  • Don’t call it an “interview”!  That’s something we’re required to do by others. Call it a conversation or something else that’s informal and human.
  • Tell them the purpose of the conversation, something like “You’ll help our supporters understand what kind of difference they can make by donating.”
  • Show them a printed piece (or digital example) that shows the type of context for their story.
  • Establish a connection by noting common family dynamics, professions, military service, ethnic heritage, faith … look for connections:
    • “My Mom is from South Dakota too!”
    • “I have two kids just a couple of years older than yours!”
    • “My sister went to that school!”
    • “I used to work in that neighborhood, at the corner store on 23rd!”
  • Remember, it’s possible they are nervous. Make it easy and friendly for them. If they are uncomfortable and can’t get beyond that, consider letting them bow out.
  • Be thankful!

Encourage them to open up

Here’s the most important secret of successful interviewers: When you ask a question, give them time to think about their answer. Everyone needs a little time to think about what they’re going to say, but all your instincts will be crying, “I’ve got to fill the silence!” But give them 20, 30, or more seconds –even though it might feel like hours. Let the silence be. It’s okay.

Yes/no questions are easy to think of and ask, but they don’t encourage people to tell you details. That’s why you should ask open-ended questions. Like:

  • What did that feel like?
  • What was your first thought when that happened?
  • What would you tell someone who has never experienced that?
  • And then what happened?

And here’s an approach that can be incredibly fruitful. At the very end of the conversation, when you’re getting ready to part, say something like: “Oh … one last thing” – and then ask something. Maybe something you’d like to know more about. Or a whole new question.

You’ve seen TV detectives do this. They always ask the question that breaks the case at that point. I don’t know if real detectives do this, but I know it usually works for me. The conversation that happens after the “one more thing” is often the richest of all.

Use your superpower

Most people are either extroverts or introverts. Both of those traits can make you a better interviewer – if you harness them.

If you’re an extrovert:  Your superpower is that you love to connect with people and find out amazing things about them. It probably comes naturally to you. Put your connection power on high, and get to know this person! (Be careful not to talk too much though!)

If you’re an introvert:  You might feel you’re at a disadvantage in interviews. But you have a superpower too: You love to make meaningful connections with one person at a time. That’s the definition of a great interview. (But you may need to act like an extrovert while you interview!)

Bonus hint

Record your interviews! Taking notes slows you down and can make many people nervous.

The significant downside of a recording is the time (and tedium) of transcribing. But there’s great technology now that outsources that – for a cost. Here are two great tools I know about:

Temi  Fast machine transcription. Includes a smartphone app you can use to both record and transcribe.

Rev  A service that transcribes your audio, your choice of machine transcription (cheaper and faster) or human transcription (slower, more expensive, but far more accurate).

Of course, a great interview is just the first step to telling a great story. Want expert help with turning interviews into powerful fundraising? Schedule a free 25-minute call with one of our Fundraisingologists. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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Author

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    Jeff Brooks is a Fundraisingologist at Moceanic. He has more than 30 years of experience in fundraising, and has worked as a writer and creative director on behalf of top nonprofits around the world, including CARE, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Feeding America, and many others.

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