5 Tips for Nonprofit Storytelling Interviews

Your guide to gathering great stories for fundraising!

By Courtney Hamilton, Writer

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a fundraising writer is this: People give to people, not programs.

But when you work at a nonprofit, deep in the weeds of programs and services, how do you communicate the value of your organization to donors – without getting lost in all the nitty gritty details? 
Through storytelling! Sharing stories of life-transformation, made possible thanks to your organization, is one of the most effective ways to inspire donors to give (especially when paired with powerful photos!). So… how do you go about collecting these stories? Let’s look at 5 tips for conducting successful nonprofit storytelling interviews.

1. Prepare for your interview.

You wouldn’t walk into a job interview without taking some time to prepare, and the same should go for nonprofit storytelling interviews. Your interview will be infinitely better if you take time to plan!

  • Connect with your interviewees. At the very least, make sure you have the name of the person you’ll be interviewing before you meet. A preliminary phone screening or email can also give you some details that are helpful to prepare. Find out what programs or services they have participated in, dates of their involvement – anything that can help you tailor your interview questions to their unique story.
  • Decide on logistics. Will you be meeting in person, over Zoom or on the phone? Some interviewees may not have access to a computer for a video call, so make sure your meeting is accommodating and flexible with their availability. (For this reason, try to plan your interview with ample time ahead of when you plan to use their story in your communications.)
  • Plan for recording. A good story doesn’t expire… but memories do fade! Recording your interview via Zoom, video or audio is a great way to ensure you accurately capture all the details of your interviewee’s story. Recording your interview also encourages you to be fully present during the interview, without having to take notes (which can be distracting to an interviewee). 

2. Build trust.

Imagine telling a total stranger about the hardest and most painful memories of your entire life. Doesn’t it make you cringe? As an interviewer, this is essentially what you’re asking of your interviewees. How can you create a safe space in your interview where they’ll feel comfortable to share?

  • Ask for consent. Not only is it a good idea from a legal standpoint to ask for your interviewee’s consent to share their story (preferably via a written release), but it also helps build trust between you. By asking consent, you give the interviewee full ownership over their story. Ultimately, they have the “final say” of what details can and cannot be shared.
  • Define the purpose of the interview. What is the value for someone to share their story? Explain how the interviewee’s story will be used (e.g., in a newsletter, on social media, in a video, etc.) to help raise money to support your life-changing programs and services. It can feel scary to be so vulnerable, but knowing their story will help others can encourage an interviewee to open up.
  • Share what to expect. Many interviewees enter into an interview feeling anxious that they’ll answer “wrong.” Help ease their fears by offering an overview of the interview and sharing how long you expect the process to take. For example, BDI’s Storytellers Team conducts interviews in 3 parts, asking someone what their life was like before coming to a Rescue Mission, what their experience has been like being there, and what their plans are for the future. 

3. Ask questions with a story arc in mind. 

What makes for a good story? Think of the books or movies that grab your attention: a hero or heroine faces a problem… they must find a solution… and they come out of their quest for a solution transformed.

In nonprofit storytelling interviews, it’s helpful to ask questions with the story you want to share in mind.

  • What brought the interviewee to the point they decided to get help? Ask questions that illustrate their life before coming to your organization, like:
    • “Did you experience anything traumatic growing up?”
    • “How did your challenges affect the direction your life took?”
    • “What was your rock bottom/turning point that made you realize you needed help?”
  • What was their experience like seeking help at your organization? Dive a little deeper into your programs and services with questions like these:
    • “What is the most important thing you’ve learned during your time in [Program Name]?”
    • “What classes did you take here? How did they help you?”
    • “How has your experience here impacted your life?”
  • How has their life been transformed? End the interview on a positive note with questions that point to a hopeful future:
    • “What struggles has [Program Name] helped you overcome?”
    • “What are your plans for the future”?
    • “Why are you thankful to [Program Name]?”

4. Listen more, talk less.

Asking someone to think deeply about the trials and triumphs of their life can be a triggering experience. It may bring up uncomfortable emotions… even tears. As you interview, keep these principles in mind.

  • Embrace the awkward silences. Some interviewees may be shy or take time to draw out of their shell. It’s human nature to want to fill the silence with words… Don’t! Allow long pauses for your interviewee to reflect and respond thoughtfully to your questions. You’ll be amazed by their answers when you don’t feel the pressure to rush.
  • Listen with compassion. As your interviewee feels more comfortable, be prepared for walls to come down. Some questions might bring tearful memories… others might elicit anger or frustration. Avoid commenting or trying to “counsel” in your interview. Instead, listen with compassion. And if you feel you must say something, “I’m sorry” or “Can you tell me more?” work just fine. 

Leave behind your biases. We all carry some unconscious biases into our interactions with others, especially when their experiences are different from ours. In your interviews, avoid assuming anything (e.g. “He went to prison, so he must have done something really bad,” or “Her kids were taken by CPS, so she must be a bad mom”). Instead, be curious and ask questions with empathy as you seek to understand.

5. Say thank you.

As your interview winds to a close, reaffirm the purpose of your time together – to hear and share your interviewee’s story… and share the inspiring news of their transformation with donors eager to support your cause.

Your interviewee’s story is a priceless gift. Shared with you and your donors, their testimony can release generosity that opens the door to life-changing care and services for even more people in need.

Nonprofit storytelling interviews are just the first step to crafting stories that move donors’ hearts. If you’d like to learn more about what stories perform best in fundraising, or how to start building your resource, I’d be happy to share more! You can email me at chamilton@bdiagency.com

  • Courtney Hlebo

    Courtney Hamilton, Associate Creative Director

    With more than 10 years of experience in professional writing and editing, Courtney Hamilton channels her passion for serving others into her work at BDI. Prior to BDI, Courtney spent more than 5 years editing and proofreading content for a variety of authors and genres, including curriculum for a faith resource publisher. A graduate of the Columbia Publishing Course, she has  professional training in all aspects of print and digital media publishing.

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