Monday, February 15, 2010

The Interview as Art and Science

I would hate to be given the challenge but if a client told me I could pick only one specific skill to teach his or her staff, I would select, "The Interview as Art and Science." Allow me to explain why.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I define philanthropy as a social compact, an unwritten culturally-held agreement between donors and doers to get something of mutual interest done. Defining what is of mutual interest is the key and the process best begins with an interview of the potential donor by the organization proposing to get something done (although I know of potential donors who interviewed representatives from a number of organizations before making a gift). Interviews are effective tools in broad discovery exercises, such as those conducted by students at Georgetown, or propensity screening interviews which I would recommend as the best way for an advancement officer to engage a prospective donor on a first visit. However, if these interviews are to yield strategically insightful information, a great deal of forethought and planning is required. In particular, the interviewing organization needs to think about the attributes it is seeking in its donors, the questions that will best reveal those attributes, and how to catch, record and develop follow-up strategies from the most telling answers. Of course the person being interviewed has to care enough about the institution represented to give thoughtful, candid answers if the alignment-seeking process is to be productive. So, let's take a closer look at each part of that process.

Key Attributes

The most important attributes organizations should be looking for in their prospective donors include:

Evidence of a committed life. This comes from people who believe in something larger and greater than themselves and commit themselves to it. For instance, many might describe themselves as religious or spiritual but the studies show that the person who attends church regularly is much more likely to give. The linkage between word and deed is important, in this case, between faith and observance. I worry that some could take church attendance too literally. What we should be looking for are those who live their beliefs.

Believers in reciprocity. This is often manifest in the notion of giving back. We should look for those who see themselves as beneficiaries of a faith, culture, political system, way of life or institution and who believe they have an obligation to pass that gift on to those who will come after them. Again the linkage is important. Many will express gratitude for what they have been given, fewer will feel a deep moral obligation, much less develop a plan of action, to pass it forward.

Meaning seekers. Those who think deeply about or see meaning in their life will be more motivated to share it with others, to hope others will learn from or build upon what life has taught them. In another earlier blog post, I cited the case of Ben Franklin who, having struggled as a printer's apprentice, established through his will a loan fund to help young tradesmen set up their own businesses.

Reformers or "better world" architects. This thread runs deep in the American psyche and American philanthropy. It seems to have been first expressed very early in American history when Governor Winthrop spoke of the new country as "a city on the hill" that would set an example for others and light the way for humanity.

Attribute Revealing Questions

I know many people would like me to write out a long list of questions to make the aforementioned attributes just pop out but it doesn't work that way. The interviewer may have some broad questions in mind but will have to make many adjustments to first put their subject at ease, then intuit from the way the subject's narrative unfolds, in substance and style, when to dig deeper and when to go easy. If one goes after the key attributes in too linear or too aggressive a fashion, the subject may feel as if the questions are prying or presumptuous. The interviewer is often a guide to the subject's own self-discovery. This is where the art comes in. One must know how to guide, and neither pull or push. Yes, I do believe this can be taught, not with a list of questions but by helping naturally curious and sensitive people prepare for a highly-individualized interview from a template of possibilities. Interviewers don't conduct psychoanalyses; they ask questions about the person's outlook and attitude toward the vision, mission and strategy of the institution they represent, then pay acute attention to which of the various lenses people choose to see those things through and which of the various portals they access in interacting with that institution.

Catching the Most Telling Answers

Most people don't reveal their innermost thoughts to a stranger at a first interview. Yet, if that interviewer is skilled at asking and listening, he or she can glean some very important information. The interviewer must listen for word choices and think about what they say about the speaker. It matters whether a person says "I think" or "I feel" or "I believe." The first may be an indication of a conceptual/analytic mind, the second of an intuitive type and the third of a spiritual person. A well-trained interviewer can learn whether the subject is an introvert or extrovert, whether they are deductive or inductive, whether they have a strong belief system, and whether they tend to think in tactical or strategic terms. The key is to understand how all those things come into play as the subject explains and explores the relationship of his or her value systems to the purposes of the institution. That is, or is not, the basis of alignment.

As with so many things in life, it is wise to begin with a strategic reconnaissance, and that is best begun by asking the right questions.

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