How to Prepare for Conducting a Great Fundraising Interview
by Karen Zapp
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ZAPP Nonprofit Leader
Why is it so important to be able to conduct an interview? Because the odds are that the best stories for your fund-
raising appeals will come from a successful interview. This is often the only time you’ll get the magical and heart-warming details that are so crucial to a story.
This is when you’ll hear the joy or the pain in the interviewee’s voice. And then you can transform all this human emotion into an inspiring story. A story that motivates donors to give generously. That’s why interviews are so critical.
Knowing which fundraising interview questions to ask and how to ask them is also part of getting a great interview.
Yes, conducting a great interview is a finely honed skill which takes practice and instinct. Also vital to your success is how comfortable you are doing an interview. Do you like asking people probing questions? I hope so because if you do you’re already halfway home.
On to the nitty-gritty.
FIRST, write down the answers to these questions:
All these answers are crucial to your interview! Gloss over this stage and you’re setting yourself up for mediocre results. Why? Because they provide the foundation . . . the framework for your research and questions. In addition, this information helps keep you on track during the interview.
- Who will you interview? Is it just one person or more? Get as much background information on the interviewee as possible in advance.
- Who will read the story from the interview? Identify the target audience that will read it. For example, is it for an appeal letter? If yes, prospecting or renewal? Will it go to your entire file or only a segment such as major donors?
- What’s the purpose of the interview? Will the story be used to get donations? Or to get people to take some advocacy action? Or to entice people to sign up for a special event? Another aspect to consider at this point is what emotions do you want to trigger in your prospects or donors? Sympathy; anger; frustration; joy; or what? Exactly what do you want to accomplish?
- Is there more than one way you’ll be able to use the information? In addition to using it in an appeal letter requesting donations, could it also be used to create a video (even screen capture video), or as an opener for a speech? It’s good to have all the possibilities in mind as you move to the second step.
SECOND, do your background research. Being a strong fundraising copywriter – or any kind of copywriter – requires you to do lots of research and to do it well. This will probably be the biggest chunk of your time. There’s no way to avoid it – just do it! Again, gloss over this and your results will be mediocre.
THIRD, start writing your interview questions. These are based on what you’ve learned so far in the first two steps. And lay them out in a logical order. Although during the interview you may not ask them in the same order as the conversation unfolds. That's fine. Just make certain to cover all the questions in order to get the content you need.
Need more help writing fundraising interview questions? I've written a ZAPP GUIDE that covers this in detail. It includes over two dozen all-purpose questions, more help on probing for the great answers, how to write unique questions for different interview scenarios, plus more guidelines on putting the interviewee at ease for a great interview session.
What follows next are guidelines on how to conduct the interview. These guidelines will also help you put your questions in sequence.
Here are a few more key points and reminders as you prepare yourself for conducting a great fundraising interview:
- Open with a few “small talk” questions to break the ice and get the interviewee (hereafter referred to as Mary) relaxed.
- Confirm that Mary knows who you are and why she is being interviewed. Even if she says “yes,” tell her anyway along with a little info on you. In my own experience, I’ve consistently found that Mary appreciates this and she really didn’t have a clear picture before. In your explanation include how the info will be used so she feels important and knows she’s helping.
- Next ask basic background questions. Confirm key facts such as when, where, conditions affecting people in the story (e.g., health, weather, economics, etc.), age, occupation, names, dates, other family members or friends, and so on.
- Now start moving deeper into the story. Start asking the questions that will reveal the details. Start probing. Watch Mary very closely throughout the interview. If you’re interviewing by phone, listen intently. Whenever you have a hint that you’ve touched on something particularly important or sensitive to her . . . start asking more follow-on questions. Deviate from your planned questions for a few minutes and drill down on this issue.
NOTE: You never know where you’ll find the nuggets of gold in the story. Be flexible and totally focused on Mary. She’ll give you indications that you must be prepared to follow. And sometimes the best action for you is to just be silent until she responds.
For more specifics on drilling down for the golden nuggets of your story . . . for drilling down to get to the heart of the story . . . read the April 2006 issue of my newsletter which you’ll find in the Resource – Newsletter Archive section of the website.
- People rarely give a complete answer; or an answer that is fantastic and yields a great story. They’re not being secretive or malicious. It’s just human nature. Therefore, with most of Mary’s answers you’ll need to probe deeper. And you must constantly seek details. Why? Because the right details are what separates a ho-hum from a WOW story. Because the answer behind the answer behind the other answer is when the good stuff starts to emerge. The info worth writing about is hidden deep.
And that last paragraph is primarily why it’s so challenging to write a generic article on interviewing that includes specific questions to ask. At the very least I need to know the answers to the first 4 questions I listed at the beginning of this article in the first step.
- Now the interview is complete. Your next challenge is condensing a 1 or 2 hour interview down into a few paragraphs. Here’s a tip for you. Think about great novels you’ve read. Recall how the author paints a vivid picture with details. Of course you aren’t writing a book. So culling and crafting everything down into a tight, knock-their-socks-off story for a fundraising appeal letter is quite a skill.
That’s it! Again, you’ll find more on interviewing in the April 2006 issue of “Karen’s Fundraising Tips.” Specifically help on probing for the heart of the story. And there's tons of help and over two dozen fundraising interview questions in my ZAPP GUIDE, Donor Interviews - what to ask and how to ask it.
- Finish your research before your write your questions and certainly before the interview. Many questions will come from the research.
- Record the interview. A basic tape recorder is fine unless you're doing this over the phone. If it's a phone interview and you don't have recording equipment, use a conference call service that also furnishes the recording. Recording ensures no details are lost and you can keep the momentum flowing without feeling pressured to write everything down. If you’re interviewing over the phone, tell the interviewee it’s being recorded. In some states this is required by law.
- During the interview have the “purpose” displayed where you can see it but Mary can’t. This helps keep you focused.
- Recognizing when to probe deeper and when something said by Mary is “great” for a fundraising story involves considerable instinct. And recognizing the difference between dull details and critical details is another skill you need to develop.
- It’s easy to end up chasing down a rabbit hole. Keep an eye on the clock and if Mary is rambling on something not related to the purpose, then interrupt her and get back to your questions. You control the interview with courtesy, firmness and tact.
- Profusely thank Mary for her time. Then send another written thanks to Mary and to whomever arranged the interview.
- Not everyone is suited to do interviews. Someone good at conversation where the other person is talking 80-90% of the time is a good candidate. Many interviewers talk way too much!
If you have a specific question about interviews that I haven’t covered, please send it to me here and I’ll address it in a future issue of my newsletter. Or if there’s anything at all . . . please let me know how else I can help you with your fundraising.
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