The Art of the Interview

Since 2014, the prospect research team at the University of Chicago has been conducting in-depth interviews with industry professionals and sharing the data with our departmental colleagues and the larger prospect research community. While interviews and focus groups are a common investigation method for social scientists and market researchers, it has not been a common practice for prospect researchers. However, the University of Chicago team has found in-depth interviews to be immensely useful to our work and that of our fundraising peers. This article will walk you through our methodology, results and our recommendations for best practices.

Why interview?

As researchers, we are acutely aware that we live in an era of unprecedented data availability. Previously, the greatest challenge across fields was to find information at all; now, the greatest challenge is to curate and analyze data. In-depth interviews with industry insiders help prospect researchers understand the professional and philanthropic culture of particular industries, which in turn helps researchers interpret information about a prospect’s career and philanthropic history in more sophisticated detail. Furthermore, interviewing industry professionals gives insight into how people in that field discuss their work, including jargon used and preferred methods of communication, as well as how they talk about philanthropy. This information helps gift officers ask the most relative qualification questions and interact more effectively with prospects; it helps analytics teams develop better text-mining queries and other data analysis tools; and it helps prospect research shops know where and what to look for when researching a prospect in a specific industry. 

As one of my professors in survey design liked to say, “It is as important to ask the right question as it is to ask the question.” In addition to identifying the right prospects, prospect researchers have the unique opportunity to guide our fundraising colleagues to the right questions.

How to find interviewees

Researchers have a big advantage when it comes to identifying potential interviewees—we are already mapping relationships to our organizations and we interact with many different colleagues and units. At an educational institution you can tap into your school’s alumni career network; at a small organization you can ask your board and core volunteers to check their professional and personal networks. For our interview project, members of my team reached out to gift officers as well as program administrators and asked them to share names of donors, volunteers and staff who worked in start-ups, private equity, hedge funds or venture capital and might be willing to be interviewed. One interviewee was an acquaintance of a staff member, one was an adjunct professor in addition to running his own firm, and one was introduced to us via our business school’s career center. Once frontline fundraisers experienced the advantage of having in-depth industry knowledge, several started keeping an eye out for potential interviewees and even made introductions.

When reaching out to potential interviewees, keep in mind the following ethical considerations and etiquette. First, be transparent about what you do and how the information will be used. Per the Apra code of ethics, prospect researchers should never misrepresent who we are and what we do. For many industries, in-house research is common and the idea of fundraisers doing data analysis and work similar to market research was interesting and relatable to our interviewees. Second, check with the respondent about what level of anonymity they prefer; some may want to be completely anonymous while others might want their name attached to the data. If you would like to record the interview, you need to ask the interviewee first.

In terms of etiquette, keep in mind that giving one’s time and expertise is a form of philanthropy and treat the interview like the gift it is. Ask for a specific amount of time for the session and stick to that schedule (though if the interviewee wants to go over, that’s fantastic!).

Thank the respondent afterward (maybe even send a thank-you card) and generally dress and act with the same decorum you would for a job interview. And of course, give the respondent your business card in case they want to follow up or connect you to other interview candidates.

You got the interview! Now what do you do?

Before the interview, read up on that field of work in industry journals, news articles and reports, and look for any other prospect researchers’ recorded presentations on the topic. Figure out the holes in your knowledge and what needs clarification. Some questions my team used in our interview project were:

  1. What are typical career trajectories in your field?
  2. What trends in organization and business practices do you see in your field right now?
  3. How does compensation work in your field?
  4. How do professionals in your field view philanthropy? 
  5. What do you wish fundraisers knew when they talked to someone in your job?

During the interview, aim to listen more than you talk and don’t stick to your questions so rigidly that you aren’t open to the interviewee bringing up new topics or questions. Part of the purpose of talking with an insider is to open our minds to new perspectives and issues in an industry, which means they may bring up topics you didn’t know existed. As psychologist and researcher Thomas Lynch writes, “We don’t know what we don’t know!”

While taking notes, in addition to recording the content of the respondent’s answers, pay attention to their choice of words, body language and outlook regarding different topics. What seems exciting to them? What seems annoying? What phrases and jargon do they use to talk about their work? These cues can give you insight into the work culture of their field and can provide more accurate terminology.

Time to analyze the data!

If you took handwritten notes during the interview, type them up and add anything else you remember as soon as possible. If you took notes on your computer, it is still a good practice to go over them immediately and add material that you remember, but may not have been able to put down quickly. It’s difficult to write down absolutely everything during a conversation, and going over your notes immediately helps expand and preserve information.

If you recorded the interview, transcribe the recording. Recordings can capture more info than notes, but it is challenging to search a recording for specific keywords or answers. Depending on the length and number of interviews, it may be helpful to use text-mining or other textual analysis tools.

As you review the conversation, pay attention to patterns of thinking and behavior expressed by the interviewee, along with their answers to your questions. For example, a venture capital professional interviewed by the University of Chicago team described his field as “highly competitive” and said that “everyone in his job is constantly looking for the best deals and transactions.” When we asked him how he and other venture capital professionals viewed philanthropy, he explained that his colleagues want to feel that they are getting a “good deal” in the transaction, and it has some benefit to themselves or their firm, such as employee recruitment or publicity. With that in mind, our team concluded that it would be effective to frame philanthropic activity as a transaction and emphasize the potential benefits to a venture capital firm or professional by giving. For instance, we might prioritize research on venture capitalists when prospecting for student internship programs in finance, since venture capital firms are interested in recruiting students in computer science, data science and finance. We also might recommend venture capitalists who recently started a firm when looking for potential sponsors for a highly publicized arts event, since new firms often want lots of publicity and name recognition.

Sharing the data

Each time my team conducted a series of interviews, we put together a white paper and PowerPoint presentation that combined our pre-interview research and the information we got from our conversation. The first presentation to our fundraising department was so well-received that one of our gift officers asked us to do regular presentations as part of continuing professional development and new staff onboarding. As our team did more presentations and white papers, we started tailoring them to our audience by adding lists of recommended qualification questions and suggestions for gift proposals aimed at prospects in specific industries. We saved our white papers and presentation slides in a shared folder that could be accessed by any development staff member.

We’ve continued to share our data with the larger nonprofit community by presenting at Apra Prospect Development conferences, giving webinars and writing guest blog posts. In addition to being a good collaborative practice, sharing interview data and analysis elicits feedback from our colleagues in prospect research, prospect management and other fundraising partners. We can use that feedback to inform future interviews: Is there a question that many prospect managers have about an industry? Is there a problem that lots of frontline fundraisers are running into when cultivating prospects in a specific field?

Looking toward the future

At the University of Chicago prospect research shop, doing in-depth interviews has fundamentally changed how we capacity rate and prospect for donors. The insights gained from our conversations with industry insiders has led us to more accurately estimate wealth and pinpoint liquidity events, and knowing more about the work culture and mindset in different fields has helped us create better prospecting strategies and recommendations. In the case of entrepreneurs, after interviewing an entrepreneur, we had a better sense of how to gauge how well a start-up is doing, and we could recommend alternative strategies for engaging with entrepreneurs while their money is still tied up in their new company.

Moreover, in-depth qualitative research is something that must be done by a researcher, it cannot be duplicated by an algorithm. As our field moves toward more quantitative data analysis, detailed insider information is something that can add value and inform quantitative analysis as well as shape professional training and continuing education among frontline fundraisers. The fundamental objectives and methods of prospect research—compiling information on individuals, predicting future philanthropic behavior based on past behavior, translating raw data into a narrative and strategy—all have their roots in the social sciences. Why not borrow once again from social sciences methodologies to enhance our work and support our organizations’ missions?

Amelia Aldred is a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago. She specializes in international research, arts fundraising and internal communications and has an academic background in ethnographic field research and survey design. Follow her nonprofit adventures on Twitter, @ameliaaldred, or via her blog at

1 Comment

Great idea!

March 1, 2017 01:13 PM by Roseann Fitzgerald

This is a great idea and I think can easily be applied to smaller shops.  Just think of your constituencies and identify industry experts that help with estimating compensation.  I have done this on an ad-hoc basis and it works  great.  Thank you for this great article.  I will look forward to seeing the data from your study.  

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