10 Great Questions to Help You Collect Better Stories


As I wrote in my last post, Make Your Story a Memorable One, storytelling in your fundraising can be very effective. A good story will help to support your fundraising offer and connect your donor to what your nonprofit does.

There’s good reason for this, too. Telling stories is what humans do best. Ever since we were drawing pictures onto the side of rocks, storytelling has been our go-to form of communication. With a good story, we’re able to share our passions, our hardships, and our joys. It’s often the best way to explain how things work, how we make decisions, how we persuade others.

For us fundraisers, a good story is vital to engaging our donors. A moving story, if told simply and well, will invoke emotion and motivate her to give. But putting a story together is not always easy. Especially when you’re dealing with beneficiaries who may be embarrassed, shy, or reluctant to share about the difficulties they’ve faced.

So how can you collect the information you need to tell a compelling story in your fundraising communications?

To collect a good fundraising story (including emotional quotes that you can use to help the donor feel something) you need to first see several sides of the beneficiary. And one great way to do that is to interview a beneficiary in person, over the phone, or via email.

But it’s not just a matter of asking them to “tell their story.” You need to ask specific questions that are worded and framed correctly. Do this, and you will get the responses you need.

To help you get started, here are 10 interview questions I’ve used to get great responses from beneficiaries. If you end up using any of these questions, make sure that you adjust the wording to suit your cause and your nonprofit.

  • Tell me your first memory of (what your nonprofit prevents or supports)?
  • What did you find most challenging about (the cause)?
  • What was the best/worst thing to happen?
  • What would someone be surprised to know about you?
  • Tell me how you first got involved with (your nonprofit)
  • What did you think when you first met (your nonprofit)?
  • Tell me how (your nonprofit) helped you
  • If you hadn’t met (your nonprofit) what do you think your life would be like?
  • What does your future look like now?
  • If you had the chance to say something to those who have helped you, what would it be?

You can also pepper any answers with follow up questions like, “What makes you say that? Can you give me an example? How did that make you feel?”

Stories inspire us to act. So whatever it is that your organization does for others – providing food, clothing, safe housing, safety, or spiritual support – capturing and then telling a beneficiary story can support your offer and help you raise more money.

Happy Fundraising!

Unhelpful questions

Bad questions

I get asked questions about appeals ALL THE TIME.

And I believe that all questions are good questions. But not all of the questions are helpful questions.

There are some questions that are signs that a fundraiser or organization is heading down the wrong path.

Think of it this way. Say someone asked you…

“When I’m making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, when do I add the roast beef?”

You’d know that there’s something they don’t quite understand. “There’s nothing wrong with roast beef,” you’d say, “but it’s not a good idea to put it on a PB&J.”

I call questions like that…

Wrong Path Questions

Here’s a small handful of questions where organizations are asking about “when to put the roast beef on their PB&J.”

My reason for doing this is not to poke fun at the silly things nonprofits do (though that’s fun and, let’s admit, there’s a lot of material). My hope is to help Fundraisers like you know how to answer the questions that will invariably come your way from people in your organization who aren’t trained in all this stuff.

“How can we convince people we are effective?”

In a nutshell, you don’t even want to try to convince people that you’re effective in a letter or email. In my experience, doing so will cause your letter or email to raise less money. Donors do care about whether you’re effective, but in your mass donor communications your effectiveness is NOT one of the top reasons they give or don’t give. And in a letter or email, you only have time to talk about the top reasons.

“How can I make this sound like my Executive Director (or ‘our voice’)?”

Making direct mail or email sound like a particular person or “voice” is almost always a mistake. A more helpful goal is to learn the best practices for direct mail and email, then make your materials sound like those best practices. That means short sentences and paragraphs, it means being direct and repetitive. Those approaches are tested and proven to work the best. If “sounding like your voice” means your letter doesn’t sound like effective direct response fundraising, then your voice is hurting your fundraising, not helping.

Marginally effective: direct mail written in your voice.
Effective: direct mail that follows best practices, featuring small elements of your voice

“How can I use emotion without being emotionally manipulative?”

The idea that any of us fundraisers can emotionally manipulate donors is ridiculous. Donors are adults. They can make their own decisions. What you’re trying to do in fundraising is tap into emotions the donor already has.

“We don’t like to share any bad news or Need; how can I Ask effectively?”

You can’t Ask effectively if you don’t share Need. If you don’t like to share bad news or a need, you’ve just removed one of (if not the) most effective tools you have to motivate donors to give. Most donors, most of the time, are motivated to help people (or a cause) in need. Or to avoid the loss of something. If you don’t want to share need, you’ve placed an artificial ceiling on the amount of money you can raise for your beneficiaries or cause.

“We aren’t simple like those big organizations. How can we describe everything we do?”

Those big organizations aren’t simple. They are more complex than you know. But they are incredibly disciplined with their fundraising. They only talk about the parts of their organization that raise the most money. Your job is to find out the parts of your work that donors respond most to, then be disciplined and only talk about those parts. You’ll raise more money that way.

“I don’t like the way fundraising letters look; what else can I use that’s effective?”

Professional fundraising letters look the way they look because that “look” has been proven to work best. They key here is to set aside personal preferences and trust the testing that’s been done over the last 70 years of sending mail to people and analyzing the results.

The Challenge

The challenge for smaller-shop fundraisers is to make sure the “wrong path” questions don’t take your fundraising further down the wrong path.

That’s hard work. Because at small shops there are often multiple people with no direct response fundraising training, and they’re asking questions based on their opinions, not on the science of fundraising.

I hope this helps you face your challenges – at least with these particular questions!

Good questions

Man with questions.

I get asked questions about appeals ALL THE TIME.

The questions tend to fall into three buckets:

  1. Tactical questions
  2. Right Path questions
  3. Wrong Path questions

The tactical questions are good ones. They’re a sign of people and organizations trying to figure out the best practices for fundraising in appeals and e-appeals.

These are things like, “How long should my letter be?” and “Who should sign it?” (I should mention that I answer a number of these every week during Free Review Fridays.)

Right Path Questions

There’s a set of questions that I think are signs that a Fundraiser or organization is “heading down the right path” toward creating successful appeals and e-appeals.

Another way to put this: they are questions that people are asking about the things that really matter in the success or failure of appeals.

Because working on the things that matter will help you be more successful, faster.

My hope is at least one of them sparks a conversation about your appeals that leads you to the next level.

So here are just a few questions that I love getting, because they’re a sign that an organization is moving their donor communications forward…

  • What am I actually trying to make happen with an appeal?
  • Do we want our donors to “like” our appeal?
  • What should not be in an appeal?
  • What’s my offer?
  • Does the headline on the reply device make perfect sense after reading the letter?
  • Is the letter repetitive enough?
  • How many times should I ask?
  • Should I use “I” or “we”?
  • How do I create custom gift ask amounts?
  • Who should I send this to?
  • What should and shouldn’t go on a reply card?
  • What types of teasers work best?
  • What information should be a “headline” and what should be a “copy point”?
  • What should I leave out of the letter?
  • Should I do a different version for major donors?
  • Is my first sentence super easy to read?
  • What’s the real purpose of underlining and/or bolding?
  • How long before a deadline should I mail a letter?
  • Should I send a follow-up mailing?
  • What kinds of offers work best?
  • How can I use email to increase response to my appeal letter?

Each of these questions – to me – is a good question. It shows that the organization is wrestling with an issue that will help them better connect with their donors and raise more money.

Next Post…

Then there’s a set of questions I call Wrong Path Questions. They are questions that are usually a sign of an organization that is already on its way down a path towards raising less money.

It’s like a flock of birds arguing whether they should fly East or West for the winter when, really, they should be flying South.

Stay tuned for those in my next post.