5 Lessons We've Learned About Interviewing Stakeholders : Successful Nonprofits

5 Lessons We've Learned About Interviewing Stakeholders

by Ro

5 Lessons We've Learned About Interviewing Stakeholders

by Ro

by Ro

“Stakeholder Interview” Defined

We start nearly every strategic planning engagement with stakeholder interviews. We start the process by helping our clients brainstorm a list of key stakeholders, pick up the phone (or click the Zoom link), and actually have a structured conversation about where your organization has been, where it is now, and where they hope it will go in the future.

The Power of Stakeholder Interviews

You’re probably thinking, “Wow. That’s a looooot of work.” And you would be right. But the perspectives and insights you get from these interviews are invaluable as you sit down to write the future of your organization in your strategic plan.

And not only do these interviews support the planning process, they also build and strengthen lasting relationships with stakeholders who are key to your organization’s success. People like to feel included and heard – and your stakeholders are no different.

Identifying Key Stakeholders

So, who are these magical stakeholders you should be talking to? It’s different for each nonprofit. But think about a representative sample of clients, volunteers, staff, Board members, donors, funders, partners, community leaders, and local elected officials. In other words, all the folks who are impacted by or support your nonprofit’s work.

It’s important that your stakeholders meet at least one of the following criteria:

      1. They have strong knowledge about an essential area of your nonprofit
      2. They are part of a key relationship you need to build or strengthen AND know at least a little about your organization and its work

What to Ask Stakeholders

Here is the answer that does not satisfy: that depends on your organization and what you want to find out. But check out the template below for some interview questions we’ve had great success with over the years:

A lot of our consulting colleagues make you sign up for their newsletter in order to get their templates. We aren’t going to do that, but we would still like you to consider signing up for our newsletter. So if you would like to know about all the great stuff we’re doing, then sign up below and stay informed!



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Setting Your Timeline

We use a strategic planning work group composed of board members and a few senior staff to conduct the interviews. These are busy people who will need about a month from the day they receive their list of interviewees to the day they must report back on their interviews.  Add in two to three weeks at the beginning for brainstorming and collecting contact information and then at least a week for transforming your interview data from qualitative to quantitative (though two is ideal – there will be a lot of data to sort through!). That’s roughly 8 weeks from the day you begin brainstorming to the day you present your findings. Of course, this process can go faster or take longer depending on your interviewers and how many stakeholders you identify.

Our Lessons Learned

We’ve included stakeholder interviews in our strategic planning process since Successful Nonprofits® started back in 2015. Considering we do 6+ planning engagements a year, and that’s a lot of stakeholder interviews. Read on for some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years:

1. Identify the right number of stakeholders

We’ve found that most interviewers can only manage six to eight interviews before they become overwhelmed. Also, stakeholder interviews are just like a party. So you can expect around 70% of your stakeholders to actually schedule time to interview with you. So, if you have 8 work group members conducting interviews, each work group member should have about 10 stakeholders – or 80 stakeholders total (30% won’t schedule an interview, so the average work group member will have 7 interviews),

2. Be sure to respect everyone’s privacy and confidentiality.

Some of your stakeholders may need to remain confidential (ahem, looking at you, clients!!). So, make sure you follow your nonprofit’s policies and any laws regarding sharing of names and contact information.

3. As long as we’re talking about confidentiality…

By the nature of these interviews, your conversations will not be “confidential” (which would be keeping them private or secret) because you will be sharing what you learn with the rest of the work group (otherwise, what’s the point?). Rather, these conversations are “anonymous” because no names or identifying information needs to be shared with anyone beyond the interviewer and the consultants crunching your data.

There are two caveats to that: (1) we always tell our interviewees that we will report anything regarding someone’s health or safety and (2) we always welcome an interviewee to let us know if a comment, or even the entire conversation, needs to be “off the record” and therefore not included in any reports or data crunching.

We’ve had some Boards request to see the stakeholder interview narratives. In these situations, we have asked the board how their funder/former board member/client would feel if they learned that their anonymity was breached.  Most Boards change their mind at that point.

4. Don’t underestimate the lead-up to interview day

You will have a much better success rate if you personalize the email asking your stakeholders to meet with you; most folks ignore a generalized email they’ve been BCCed on. And your Office 365 or Gmail templates can be a huge time saver in personalizing your invitations. 

Additionally, make sure you remind stakeholders as their interview day nears. Many of us out there are calendar-challenged and appreciate a friendly reminder.

And this is a little off-topic but super important — don’t forget to say, “Thank you!!” after your interview!

5. Pay attention to what is not being said

My English teacher used to call this “using your lizard eyes.” While what a stakeholder says is absolutely important, sometimes there is a lot of value in what is NOT being said.   For example, is one of your key programs unknown by most everyone interviewed? Or maybe only a couple of interviewees know about your big annual fundraising event? These are important things to notice, discuss, and act on. So make sure your “lizard eyes” are paying attention to the lines and what’s between them throughout your interviews and your data analysis.

Why I’m Writing About This

Drafting a strategic plan is a commonly accepted best practice in the nonprofit sector. But far too often, nonprofits end up with a lackluster plan that doesn’t serve as a catalyst to grow their impact and ensure sustainability. Stakeholder interviews is one of many activities we include in our planning process to help make sure you end up with the plan that you not only need, but that also energizes staff and sparks your nonprofit to creatively increase its impact. 

If you’re thinking about starting a strategic planning process, make sure you check out our webinar page to find out when we’re hosting our next strategic planning webinar, Everything You Wanted to Know About Strategic Planning (but were afraid to ask).

Post Title: 5 Lessons We’ve Learned About Interviewing Stakeholders

Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Blog: 4 Activities Every Strategic Planning Process Should Include

Podcast: Ep 213: The Magic of Strategic Plans with Liana Downey

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