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March 2, 2020

Story Gathering: 6 Tips for Interviewing in Sensitive Situations


One of the best tools in a fundraiser’s toolbox is a bank of great stories. Your donors want to hear how their generosity is changing lives, and heartwarming stories can illustrate their impact in a deeper way than facts and statistics can.

Replenish your bank of stories by interviewing the people your organization serves. At first, this can seem daunting. Whether your charity helps people struggling with poverty, illness, or other challenges, you’ll want to approach your subjects with the utmost sensitivity.

But don’t worry — you can still conduct an interview that reveals the transformative power of your donors’ giving. Keep these six tips in mind when interviewing people in sensitive situations:

  1. Let the person know that their story is a gift. Many people who are helped by an organization say the same thing: “I wish there was some way I could give back.” Assure them that their story has value. Convey that, “By sharing your story, we’re able to help other people in your situation. Thank you for your generosity!”
  2. Respect their privacy. Let the person know that they can share as much or as little as they wish. Offer to change their name to a pseudonym for the story. If your organization uses stock photos, offer to use a stock photo in place of their photograph. Then include a small disclaimer with your story that says, “Names and photos have been changed to protect privacy.”
  3. Ask for permission to record their story. Explain that retelling their story accurately is important to you, so you don’t want to risk taking incomplete notes. Once you’re freed from scribbling or typing notes, seize the opportunity to make your interview feel more like a friendly chat. Lean in, sit still, and be present. 
    If they prefer not to be recorded, respect their wishes and take careful notes.
  4. Offer to let them read their story when you’re finished writing it. Knowing that they’ll get to see something before it’s published can give them the confidence to share important details.
  5. Be empathetic. Understand that the person may be sharing information about the worst thing that ever happened to them. You may be asking them to describe something they are not proud of. Put yourself in their shoes while you listen to their story. Your tone should be sympathetic and encouraging.
  6. Go slow. You may be pressed for time, but rushing a person who’s hesitating to tell their story won’t do you any good. Allow moments of silence. That may be the moment they reveal something impactful that you never thought to ask.

The better you connect with the person you’re interviewing, the better your story will be! Chances are, you’ll find that talking to the people your organization serves is one of the best, most fulfilling parts of your job.

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