Discovery interviews: a deeper kind of networking

What do you do when you want to...

Connect with someone you don't know?

Deepen your relationship with a donor?

Expand your network?

Some leaders have an easy, natural, bold talent for connecting and networking.

 Others, like me, have a touch of shyness, and can use a little boost. That's what this page is about.

Let's start with these two key words...

The point of this interview is to discover if there's a match. Does this person have a need to contribute what you would like to receive.

Throughout this interview you call on your natural curiosity about people.

Discovery is the goal and curiosity is the method.

On the surface this kind of interview seems like a very simple strategy. But this is relationship work, so it's important to go into it bringing your whole self, all of your talents and strengths and experience and moxie. This is not a tricky technique. It's an authentic exploration. You get to bring your heart. And it matters that you bring your heart.

Why do I call this an interview rather than a conversation? Because your time is precious. You're on a mission. This is not a casual conversation. There's point to it. You're discovering if there is a match or not.

A discovery interview is a super intentional kind of networking. You're not just doing it to "get to know people" or to "have more contacts." You're doing the work of organizing. You're building constituency for your mission, you're finding more donors, you're developing your PLN or success team.

This kind of interview can be a lot of fun, but it's also serious business.

I learned the basics of this strategy from Jim Camp to use for fundraising. I talk about him on my asking page. But I've found that you can use it for lots of the things nonprofit leaders need to do, like...

1.  Interview a possible donor about how they like being asked for money.

2.  Interview a possible donor about your mission

3.  Check out someone you think you might want for your Board.

4.  Check out someone you think you might want for your PLN.

5.  Interview someone you might want to hire.

6.  Network yourself into your next job.

7.  Enjoy a surprise bonus.

8.  Enjoy the pleasure of pure exploration.

I'm going to go through these in order, but you've got the links so jump to whatever you're curious about.


1.  Interview a possible donor about how they like being asked for money.
Let me start by telling you about the first interview I did.

April and Reggie were two architects who ran their own firm together. I knew them from Chamber of Commerce events I went to in my desperate search for business people who might support our child abuse prevention work.

I called up April and said,

"I want to ask you for something special. I'm wondering if you'd be willing to meet with me for an hour and let me ask you a bunch of questions about how you decide on the nonprofit donations you make. I promise you that during this hour I will not ask you for money.

"You're an experienced donor and you care about this community. I believe you could help us find better ways to talk about CAP and the work we do. I know we can improve. Actually a lot. And I'd appreciate it so much if you could help us figure out what we need to do differently.

"But if you don't have time or this doesn't sound like fun, please feel free to tell me no."

Without hesitation she said yes, so we set a time to meet.

I got busy drawing up charts and graphs to show off our rather amazing growth. This was back in the days BC, before computers, so I drew everything by hand and added colors with markers.

When I got to the meeting, I was jazzed. April said she was looking forward to the meeting and was very curious what I was going to ask her. I gave her three minutes of background on CAP, then whipped out my first chart, showing how much funding we had compared to our early days. Then I asked her for her response.

"Oh," she said. And then she was silent for a moment looking down at the floor. Then she looked back up and said, "That's too big."

I asked her what she meant and she explained that she and Reggie liked giving to start ups. They liked to be there when no one else was. She said it came from their own experience of rough times in the beginning when they were building their business.

CAP was now well past what she considered start up size. And she seemed disappointed.

I asked more questions, finished the interview, thanked her and left, feeling like it was a failure. But during the day, insights kept coming to me...

The presentation I was so proud of killed the possibility of a contribution.

There never was any chance for a contribution because CAP was just simply not a match for April and Reggie's need to give.

I made an assumption that a business person would love to see growth. So maybe it would be good to get rid of all my assumptions and go into an ask ready for anything.

And it would definitely be good to actually talk with the person, back and forth, like real people in a real conversation, and find out what matters to her first, before I do my dog and pony show.

In fact, maybe I should just stop doing dog and pony shows.

I also realized that even though I told her I would not ask for money, I was secretly hoping that she would fall in love with CAP and write a check. So I saw that if I was going to keep doing curiosity interviews, I really had to go in with pure curiosity and no secret hopes.

So was this interview a failure? Not at all. I learned so much from that one hour. In fact, just from that first question.

And there was one more big benefit. The next time I saw April and Reggie at a Chamber event, I went right over and told them how much I appreciated their support for start ups. And it was true. I'm such a fan of people who do that kind of risky giving right at the beginning when it can make a life or death difference for a new nonprofit.

From then on, instead of chatting up April and Reggie in a semi-mercenary way, angling for money, I could relax with them and enjoy their company and feel good about knowing such great people.

Here's the good news...

You can't fail at a discovery interview.

That's because the only point of it is to discover what you discover.

Now let's take a look at a story with a very different outcome.

Jess, a friend of a friend, is the ED of an alternative school for at-risk teens in southern California. I had been to one of their fundraising events when I was down there and got to see her in action, along with Colleen, the Chair of her Board.

Their school was in a building they expected would soon be condemned. So they decided to see if they could raise enough money to buy the land and build a new school on the property, which the owner was putting up for sale.

The first person Jess and Colleen called to solicit was Luke, a very successful real estate agent who had given a lot to the community. But they were not able to get a meeting. They kept getting waffles. His secretary would say, ""This is not a good time, call again in a few weeks."

Jess called me to ask for suggestions. I told her about negotiated asking and she said, "Oh, God, that's so gutsy. I'm not ready to do that. I'm really not."

So I said, try just this one sentence. Call and say: "In this meeting, we won't ask you for money, we just need your best thinking about building a new school."

She tried it. The next day they had an appointment set for the next week, and Luke showed. I had seen how very compelling Jess and Colleen were when they were being themselves without any fundraising tricks. If Luke was in fact a kindred spirit as they suspected, I knew that a relationship would ignite. And it did.

Luke got so fired up about the idea, he volunteer to be their agent on the deal. Then he organized other agents to make donations. He gave the capital campaign the initial social proofing it needed to take off with a bang.

Then as money started coming in, Luke went to the owner of the property and even though there were two higher bids from developers, got the owner to commit to sell to the school and to give them time to raise the money. Luke donated his commission which was considerable.

From one sentence which produced one curiosity interview, came a cascade of donations. The school is now built and it's the pride of the neighborhood.

What I love about curiosity interviews is...

You get to relax.

You get to play.

You get to be nosey.

But what I love most is that...

You get to be kind to yourself.

What do I mean by that? There's nothing that has to happen by the end of the interview. You don't have to get a yes. You're not even asking for a decision.

Perhaps you've come to this page from Asking kindred spirits for money, and despite my best attempt to take the pressure out of fundraising, you're saying to yourself, "I'm not ready for this."

Well, believe me, I get it. Once Jim Camp showed me how to do negotiated asking, it still took me a long time to grow into it. Actually a very long time because of my classic nonprofit, co-dependent, earning-love-through-good-deeds personality.

And as I've said before, I don't want you to pressure yourself into doing non-pressured asking. That just wouldn't make any sense.

So I'm really happy to be able to give you this page because...

Discovery interviews helped me grow into negotiated asking, and it's my hope that they will help you, too, if you need that.

Over time, as you do 10, 20, 30 interviews or more, here's what might happen...

You start to feel at home talking to people about their need to contribute.

You get the behind-the-scenes view of asking.

Your fears gradually dissipate and disappear.

You get to experience the pleasure of having a real conversation with a kindred spirit about money.

You discover your own asking voice.

Doing discovery interviews can demystify fundraising. When I meet someone new, I'm almost always curious about who they are and where they come from and how they see the world and what their ambitions are and what they care about the most.

Curiosity comes naturally for me, and I think that's true of the great majority of nonprofit leaders since we're into nonprofit work because we care about people. These interviews allow you to bring your curiosity into the world of donations.

For some leaders I've worked with, once they see what the negotiated ask looks like, they say, "I can do this. This is no big deal." And they're off and running.

For others of us, like I said, it takes time.

But I urge you, if you hate fundraising, to check out what that means...

You might hate sacrificial fundraising, but when you do negotiated asking, you find you like it, have a talent for it, enjoy it, and actually want to do it.

Or you might find out you're good at it, still don't really like it much, but are able to do it effectively and are willing to do it.

Or you might find out that even under the best circumstances when you're asking in a way that's totally aligned with your values, you dislike it so much that you're just not going to do it. And you make that decision, not because you failed at asking, but because you can see so clearly that asking is not a match for who you are. You've proven to yourself it's not one of your talents or strengths.

Discovery interviewing can help you clarify your relationship to asking. It can help you make a genuine choice.

Now what about the people you interview? What's the experience like for them?

Think about this first. How often has someone asked you to talk about why you give and how you give? And they were not secretly trying to get into your wallet. They were sincerely interested in you.

In all the times I've asked about this in my workshops, I've only had one person say they had been interviewed. One other person said, "Kind of."

I think this is an indication of the taboo about talking about money. Yet, what I have found is that if you are coming from a place of genuine interest, there are people who are glad to talk to you about why they give. Some people are hungry to have this conversation and be witnessed in this way.

I'm often struck, too, by how much thought some people put into their giving and how much pleasure it gives them to share their decision making process.

Here's an example.

Stella, an ED I worked with, did a curiosity interview with a couple who had been making significant gifts together for 20 years. They were shocked at each others' answers. They had talked a lot about the what of their giving, but not about the why. They had some different motivations for giving the same gifts.

At the end of two hours they were so happy with the interview, they asked Stella to come back the next day and ask more questions.

In discovery interviews, not only do we as the interviewer, discover things, but the people we're interviewing often discover things about themselves, too.

Of course there are people who will not agree to an interview. But I'll bet that in almost every case where someone does agree, it's going to be a meaningful experience for them.

To make sure it is, though, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1.  The upfront contract
Even though you will not be asking for money, and you are not even asking for a decision about money, still it's important to give the person explicit permission to say no to the interview.

One thing I sometimes add as an extra permission is to say, "If there's any question I ask that you don't want to answer, just say, "Pass."  You don't even have to explain, I'll just immediately move on to the next question.

These interviews get personal, so giving permission to say "Pass" is a helpful thing to do, either as part of the upfront contract, or in the moment when you see someone balking at a question.

2.  Complete detachment from money.
Even though you may spend an hour talking about money, it matters that you stay detached from getting a donation.

Why do I emphasize this? Because if the person you're interviewing is a kindred spirit, they might decide to write you a check at the end of the interview. I've had that happen. It's a possibility. But you're better off if you don't even think about that.

You've made a promise so you're definitely not going to ask for money with your words. But your energy might ask. If you are longing for money, or desperate for it, those feelings might leak into your energy. So I recommend creating a ritual for yourself if you need to, to let go of any desire for a check before you go out to do a curiosity interview.

And if someone does offer to write a check, I think it's a good thing to take a moment to re-negotiate. You might simply say, "I promised that I would not ask for money during this hour, so I want to check in with you. Are you sure you want to make a donation? Is there anything else you need to hear about first?"

When I did the set up for the interview with April, I said, "During this hour, I will not ask you for money."  I didn't say, "I will not ever ask you for money."

During the interview, if I see that this person is a kindred spirit, then I might want to call back in a month and do the upfront contract for a negotiated ask, or add her onto my list for direct mail, or whatever seems appropriate for the relationship the interview creates.

3.  Really ask your questions.
You're going to use all your relationship smarts, savvy, and sensitivity of course. But this is not a casual conversation. You're not just shooting the breeze. Your time is precious. You're doing this interview because you want to learn and discover and make progress in your ability to ask.

If this experience is going to be meaningful for you and your interviewee both, then your questions have to be meaningful, not fluff. So once you've got genuine permission to ask questions, I urge you to be serious about asking.

Who do you interview?
I'd say start with supportive friends so you can build your confidence.

Then perhaps ask family members, father, mother, sisters, brothers, partners, and kids. Notice the similarities and differences between you and them.

And don't forget yourself. Have someone interview you. The more you understand about why you give, the more you're likely to understand the motivations of others.

Then as you get comfy, think about who intrigues you and call them. It might be someone you know, or it might be someone you've never met. Giving the permission to say no is a great way to take the pressure out of calling up a stranger.

What about doing a discovery interview with your Board?

If you have a small Board, they can talk together as a group about why they give. A large Board can break into triads.

Or you and your Chair may want to interview each member individually to deepen the relationship and show them how much fun a discovery interview is so they might be inspired to go out and do a bunch themselves.

Of course, there's nothing that says you have to fly solo. You can take a friend with you if that's more fun. Just make sure it's someone who understands the spirit of the interview.

Make sure that at least some, if not the majority of people you interview are people who enjoy giving, so you can get a feel for what it's like at its best. Don't just interview a long string of grumpy, curmudgeonly philanthropists.

And remember that people go through changes over time, so that's something to ask about, too.

For example in my 20s and 30s, I liked giving to as many groups as possible, but being a nonprofit person and not having a lot of money, that meant I was giving the bottom membership amount.

At that time in my life, and I know this sounds weirder than weird, I liked getting direct mail solicitations. The more the merrier. I read every word of every letter I got. I loved studying the psychology of the ask, but I was also super susceptible to the appeals.

Then when Kate and I started CAP, I put almost all my money directly into our work. I still gave a few gifts to other organizations because it felt too selfish to give everything to CAP.

In the years since CAP, I've given larger amounts to fewer organizations and I think very strategically about who I'm going to support. In just the past year, my strategy shifted, something I wasn't expecting, and my giving underwent another major change.

So I urge you to pay attention to the developmental nature of giving. Some people grow into new stages of giving, and those changes can be fascinating.

What kind of questions might you ask?

Here's a list to play with.

I find that two of the best questions are the simplest:

What are three of your best experiences with giving?

What are three of your worst experiences with giving?

That second question is usually the most triggering.

I asked it of Sadie, a woman I knew who had recently married a man worth $100,000,000. She said, "We gave $900,000 to the university medical center and all we got was a thank you card."

She was furious. I was dumbfounded. I still am. I don't understand how that's possible that they only got a card, but there it was.

And being flummoxed, I was inappropriate enough to blurt out, "If you gave $900,000 to CAP, we'd be sending you thank you bouquets every single day of the year." She ignored me and we carried on with the interview, but nothing positive she said about other gifts matched the intensity of that negative experience.

When you ask your questions, please let yourself develop a flow. Let the interviewee's answer lead to naturally to the next question.

An ED in one of my classes, took my list of questions and asked them in order, every one. He said the interview didn't go very well. No wonder. This is not supposed to be a survey questionnaire. That's too impersonal.

I always like to give this warning, too. Whatever questions I offer are only to give you a place to start. Please stay in the moment and in relationship with your interviewee. It's great to think ahead of time about what questions you might like to ask. But then in the interview let go of the questions and let your curiosity, and your heart, guide you.

And if you do, what might you hear? Click here for some examples.


2. Interview a possible donor about your mission.
Here's an example. At CAP, we were always trying to find better ways to talk about our work. After reading a dozen books on marketing, I decided that we needed a positioning statement, or tag line, one memorable sentence to capture the essence of CAP and inspire people to give.

So I called up ten total strangers, who from what I had read or heard about them, sounded like creative thinkers.

Every one of them said yes to an interview. I cut out pictures from magazines and mocked up eight advertisements, with different tag lines, because I wanted to give them something to respond to, and I had already done a whole lot of thinking about this.

The interviews were fascinating and fun.

One therapist I interviewed had never heard about CAP, but loved it at first sight. She started sending us annual gifts of $100, so that paid for my time for the interviews.

The interview I was most excited about in advance, turned out to be by far the dullest. But as I was driving back to the office, frustrated and talking out loud to myself about how I just wasted a couple hours of my time, suddenly a brand new tag line came to me: "CAP...So every child will know what to do when it really matters."

This tested so well that we made it official. We were surprised that it didn't have the words "abuse" or "prevention" in it. But we felt a special kind of affection for it, because it expressed the heart of our work.

And I was very thankful for each of those ten people who were part of the process of discovery, including most especially the last most disappointing one who triggered the breakthrough.

How else can mission-oriented interviews come in handy?

Plan B pivot
Supposed you're doing a negotiated ask. You've done your upfront contract and your prospect said she could tell you no. But now halfway into the conversation you're not so sure. You're feeling a lot of resistance. You run back through the upfront contract again, but you can feel the resistance even stronger. You can tell that for your prospect the pressure is not gone.

And personally, if the pressure's not gone then I don't want to go for the ask. So here's Plan B:

"You know what, Iris, I said I was going to ask you for money, but suddenly I'm not in the mood. Could I ask you for something else instead? I think we could do a lot better at how we talk about CAP. Could I ask you some questions about what might or might not matter to you about our work. And please only say yes, if this is something you'd enjoy doing."

This way you can keep the relationship okay and the curiosity conversation may reveal what her issue is with the ask. At the very least, it will likely be a much easier conversation with her. And it is genuinely helpful, so she can feel good about giving the gift of her responses and insights instead of just hitting the wall with the ask.

Getting your Board in motion
What if your Board members know lots of influential people with money and have named names, but every time you ask them to actually pick up the phone and make a call there's an excuse, "Oh, this is not a good time. I think he's really busy right now. Maybe in the fall."

It's one thing to talk about the people you know, maybe even brag a little bit, and quite another to put the call through. So instead of wrestling with your Board, if you believe they are shy about asking, you can invite them to try the curiosity interview.

If they are not going to ask anyway, then these interviews will at least get them out in the community talking about your nonprofit, making connections, and spreading the word. Some of them might get donations that way. And some of them might get warmed up to asking and discover that they can do it.


3.  Check out someone you think you might want for your Board.
On my page about Board recruitment, I talk about using the discovery interview strategy to check out someone you're thinking about inviting onto your Board, but you don't really know them and you want to do your due diligence and check them out in depth.

If you think George might be a good Board member, see if he'll meet with you to think through how you can better talk about your work to major donors. Or where you should be headed in the next couple years given your past success.

Ask the kinds of questions so that his answers reveal to you who he is. See how he talks with you, see how he talks about other people, see what his relationship is to your mission, see how excited he gets brainstorming strategies for the future.

There are some people who have great public reputations who are a nightmare to work with on a Board.

There are others who don't have a big public presence who are super effective when they are passionate about an organization.

Discovery interviews are one way to get behind the scenes with someone and see who they are and see if there is a match between them and your mission.


4.  Checking out someone you think you might want for your PLN.
On my page about getting the support you want, I talk about how to use the discovery interview to vet someone or take them for a test drive before you ask them to be one of your supporters.


5.  Interview someone you might want to hire.
On my page about recruiting staff, I talk about using networking instead of just relying on the typical job ads. The discovery interview allows you to go looking for the kind of top talent you want, and no one knows that's what you're doing till you decide to make an offer.


6.  Network yourself into your next job.
If you're thinking about what's the next step for you in your career, if you feel like you're getting ready to think about going after a new position, you can use discovery interviews to check out possibilities with no risk. Discovery interviews are way more effective and way more fun than the conventional job interview.


7.  Enjoy a surprise bonus.
What if you're single and you never seem to be able to find the time to get out and meet new people or go on a date? Call up and ask for a discovery interview about your mission...

Hi, Chris! I'm calling with a special request, and please feel free to tell me no if you don't have time for what I want to ask. Please only do this if you're intrigued and would find it enjoyable.

Here's what I'd like to do. I'm the ED of the ABC nonprofit and we do great work. We get so many compliments and honors. But I think we could do a lot better at talking about what we do. Especially with major donors. Now don't worry, I promise you during this hour I will not ask you for money. I just want your best thinking. I would like to tell you about each of the four key programs we do, and then get your response about how we might explain them to possible donors.

Now please, take a minute and think about whether you'd like to do this. It won't hurt my feelings if you say no, but I really would like to talk about you because I was impressed with you when I met you briefly at the Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday.

(Or: I've been hearing good things about you from a couple people I know. Or: I read that article you have on your blog about strategy.)

If Chris says yes, you get to go meet and ask lots of questions and see what kind of person this is. Do you respect their intelligence, do you get into bantering, does personal chemistry show up.

I call this stealth dating. You get to check out the person with no pressure and no risk. I think this is especially good for women who are often shy about asking to meet someone they're interested in and for whom there is indeed more risk in being bold like that.

The cool thing is that you are actually doing work. You're going to learn some things that may very well be useful for your organization in its PR and fundraising. But you're also getting to do an important thing for yourself personally at the same time.


8.  Enjoy the pleasure of pure exploration.
I'll bet you can invent more ways to use discovery interviews. Remember curiosity is not some special eystical talent. It's built in to human beings. You don't need a master's degree in curiosity to go out and have a lot of fun with it. And there's no telling where it might take you.


Thank You!
This page is based on the work of Jim Camp. More about him on my Acknowledgments page.


© 2008 Rich Snowdon