Non-profit Storytelling: 6 Tips for Interviews

Ask any non-profit, and they'll tell you there's nothing better than a personal, heartfelt story to put a face on their cause. Far better than organizational blah-blah or sterile statistics, stories help donors (and future donors) learn an organization's personality. Stories help donors feel engaged in the work—and see the difference they can make in a real person's life. They empower the organization and its supporters to continue on. Messaging Shangri La!

But getting stories (good stories especially) is easier said than done. Here are a few tips we've learned from interviewing hundreds of people who have received help from charitable organizations.

1. Start with the End in Mind—Do your homework. Get the "story behind the story" from the program manager before you ever pick up the phone. Think of the story you want to end up with and backtrack from there to draft your questions.

2. Never Use the Word "Interview"—The word "interview" makes people feel like they're being interrogated by Woodward and Bernstein. It can cause anxiety and stage fright. Instead, ask if you can "chat for a few minutes about the assistance he/she received."

3. Talk Less, Listen More—Use the first minute or so to make the interviewee feel at ease—express your thanks. After that, zip your lips. Closed-ended questions will give you just what you might expect—one-word, dull answers. Ask questions like "what did the help mean to you?" and give people time to think about and respond to the question. Resist the urge to fill dead air as some of the best responses come when the interviewee is given the floor.

4. Veer from the Script—As mentioned in #1, a list of questions is always a good idea. But that said, it's a starting point. Listen closely to the interview, and be ready to jet off in another direction if needed. Use probing questions to get more in-depth answers.

5. Get Approvals—No surprises. That's our motto. After you've drafted the story, give the interviewee a chance to review for accuracy. Most make no changes, but it's better to know any problems before publishing it. Keep a paper trail—you might need it.

6. Be Prepared for Anything (and I mean anything)—Interviewing for non-profits is unique. You're talking to people who were—or are—in crisis. Don't be surprised if you encounter hostility, tears and any other emotions. Listen and be empathetic, but never say, "I know what you're going through." Most of all, stay calm no matter what's thrown at you.