Nonprofits need to reach and engage many different groups of people: potential and current clients, employees, board members, volunteers, community residents, policy makers, funders, donors, and so on. (Whew!) It’s important to periodically ask these stakeholders what they need and want, what they observe and think, and how they feel.
While interviews are more time consuming than surveys and typically limit the number of people you can involve, they also allow for more engaging and nuanced dialogue. Asking someone to sit down and share their experiences, motivations and desires yields a very different dynamic and set of insights than answering questions on a computer. (That said, surveys also have valuable strengths and both methods should be used to inform major organizational or brand developments.)
Stakeholder interviews can help build strong relationships, and help avoid well-intentioned but faulty assumptions that can cost valuable time, energy and resources. But before you start inviting people to chat, let’s pause to consider how to set the stage for effective, positive and beneficial conversations with stakeholders.
1. Mentally prepare yourself to solicit and receive honest feedback.
This may be the most critical step and the most human place to stumble. Remember, you’re not looking for a chorus of affirmation, as nice as that would feel—You’re looking for honest feedback about perceived strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Some of the feedback may sting, but if you can identify disconnects between efforts and perceptions, you can work on addressing them. And if you commit to soliciting feedback annually, you can more easily make course corrections.
2. First, think broadly about what you hope to learn from the interviews.
Are you trying to assess a program experience or your marketing efforts, or do you need an overall understanding of stakeholder perceptions and motivators? What you’re trying to learn and achieve will influence who you ask to participate and what you ask them.
3. Think through the mix of people to invite.
Make a list of the different types of people you need to engage to meet your learning objective. Then identify (or ask for) a few people in each group who can provide diverse perspectives.
Perhaps there is a long-time volunteer who can share their motivations and articulate observed areas to improve. Perhaps there is a board member who has expressed a desire to see some changes because he or she also sees potential. Or maybe there is someone your organization would like to get more involved—People who are aware of your organization but not very involved often carry the most telling (mis)perceptions and can help identify factors that motivate or prevent conversion into a stronger supporter.
4. Consider who should conduct the interviews.
To help encourage honest feedback, consider whether you are the right person to conduct the interview. If you’re new to the job, you might be! Interviews can be a great way to get the “real story” and establish a trusted relationship with key stakeholders.
If you’ve been at your job for a while, stakeholders may hold back from sharing their honest opinions for several reasons, some of which may have nothing to do with you. Remember, this is about uncovering perceptions. If you think stakeholders would me more honest speaking with a consultant, then consider hiring one.
5. Prepare questions that can yield audience and organizational insights.
You want to better understand your audiences so your organization can meet them where they are and motivate their participation and support. That means also asking questions about them as people, not just as stakeholders!
To uncover your audience’s motivations, you need to learn a little bit about their lives: What do they want or care about? What influences their decision making? Why would they engage with an organization like yours?
Then you can move into questions that clarify your value to them: How can you meet their needs? What sets you apart? What are you not doing or what would they want to see more of? How can they actively and positively contribute to your efforts and shared motivations?
Whether you’re trying to develop a program, your brand or communications, stakeholder interviews can you help build the understanding and empathy required to meet people where they are, and meaningfully connect with and motivate them. They can take considerable time to prep, coordinate and conduct, but the human insights and relationships will be well worth the effort.
(And if you could use some help along the way, drop me a line.)