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Acing the Informational Interview

by Laura Gassner Otting, President, Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group
(This article is excerpted from Change Your Career: Transitioning to the Nonprofit Sector available now for pre-order on Amazon.com.)

Throughout your networking, you should be asking both for additional connections and informational interviews. Informational interviews enable you to accomplish several things at once. They allow you to:

  • Introduce yourself to someone who may have a job opening in the future
  • Learn more about the people who work at this nonprofit
  • Receive direction and guidance from someone who was once in your shoes
  • Learn a name to drop in your networking and personal connections you can use
  • Gain valuable insights from an insider about trends in the sector in general, this nonprofit specifically, and the language to use to describe both
  • Hear about some concerns, assumptions, or stereotypes that might be affecting your sector switch and how you might combat them
  • Audition some preliminary answers to obvious interview questions when a particular job isn’t on the line

Informational interviews can be a great boon to your job search if done well. If done poorly, however, they can only hinder your transition. Beware of the following "major don’ts" as you embark on your informational interviews.

Major Don’t #1: Asking for a Job

One thing you are not seeking from an informational interview, ironically enough, is a job. You are there to get information. You will talk about your skills and experience and why you think you could be right for the nonprofit sector, and, of course, you will leave your resume. But this isn’t a job interview. You are the interviewer, not the interviewee. Bring some directed questions, but mostly listen to what your interviewee has to say. If you seem right for the organization, and there is an opening, rest assured that your interviewee will put two and two together and move your resume along to the right person.

That being said, come prepared for an informational interview as if it were an interview where you might land a real job. You never know if it might turn into one. Most jobs are not advertised, and many employers do not even realize they have a need until they meet a person who might fill it. Be ready with great answers, extra copies of your resume, and an open mind so that you can pivot quickly to the interview chair if the opportunity arises.

Major Don’t #2: Disrespecting Their Time

Never ask to meet for coffee or lunch—even if it’s your treat—unless the time is offered to you. It is a bigger time commitment than the person might want or be able to make, and likely they value that time more than the $6.95 sandwich they would get out of the deal. Instead, offer to come to their office for a 15-minute conversation. Everyone has 15 minutes, and the easier you make the interview for them, the more likely they are to give it to you.

To keep your contacts motivated to help you, never give the impression that your time is more important than their time. Be ever conscious of how much time you are taking. Disrespecting the 15 minutes you were granted by asking question upon question will turn a friend into a foe or, at the very least, a complacent contact. Complacent contacts don’t open up and hand over names of their friends and colleagues, lest you commit the same time-sucking crime with them, too.

Major Don’t #3: Being Unprepared

A huge mistake many informational interviewers (that’s you) make is to assume that this is a chance to get basic information about an organization. Don’t waste your time or the interviewee’s time by asking them to tell you basic things that you could have found out by conducting the most limited research. They won’t feel as though you value the opportunity to speak with them and will feel undervalued, even insulted, as a result.

Arriving at an informational interview with more than basic knowledge about the person or the organization is more then just impressive; it’s essential. It makes you ask smarter questions. Be creative, be ingenious, and put information you’ve learned about them and their organization together with other information you’ve gathered elsewhere. You will look more intelligent and more like someone they might take a chance on introducing around, either at their own office or to friends who might have job openings.

Major Don’t #4: Talking Too Much

You come to an interview to learn from the person on the other side of the desk, not vice versa. Avoid the temptation to jump into the conversation as soon as you see an opportunity to talk about your skills and how great a job you would do in the nonprofit sector. Remember, studies show that people who talk more in conversations think that those conversations went very well. Why not give your interviewee a chance to be a “great conversationalist,” leaving a positive impression about you while at the same time getting valuable data about the organization and the nonprofit sector?

Bring specific questions and allow your interviewee to answer them. Be prepared to be asked questions, too. You’ll want to be able to pinpoint what you’d like to do and where you’d like to do it, but make sure you are using most of the time to learn more from them than they from you. There will always be another time for them to interview you if they are impressed from your first conversation.

Major Don’t #5: Not Listening

You are getting this time as a gift; use it wisely. Don’t ask the obvious, and avoid asking the same question over again. If you’ve run out of questions, say thank you and leave. It’s that simple. You can always call back later if you think of more questions. However, if you seem as though you are fishing around to fill time because you are unprepared or because you were unfocused for the first few minutes, your follow-up calls will likely go unreturned.

Pay exceptional amounts of attention to what the interviewee is telling you, but treating this opportunity like a college lecture with a quiz coming tomorrow will come across as strange and stilted. Take notes as needed but not so much that you fail to converse normally.

Smart Questions to Ask at an Informational Interview

You are unlikely to get all of your questions answered in an informational interview, so be direct about your most important ones. The smarter the questions, the smarter the questioner looks.

  1. What brought you to this nonprofit and this mission area? In what ways has it lived up to your expectations? In what ways have you been disappointed?
  2. I read with great interest about how your organization is expanding programs into four new states. This is particularly interesting to me as an entrepreneur. Can you tell me about the funding challenges that poses and how, given current philanthropic trends, you are planning to handle them?
  3. Whom do you consider to be your competition for funding, for media, for members, etc.?
  4. What is the working atmosphere like here? Is this typical for the nonprofit sector in your experience? What do you enjoy, and what do you dislike?
  5. I notice that many of the staff here, like you, have business backgrounds. What difficulties did that pose to you when you came into the nonprofit sector? In what ways did it make things easier? (Or, conversely, I notice that few of the staff have business backgrounds and wonder how you feel about the ability of people to switch sectors?)
  6. Which skills, experiences, backgrounds, or personality types have you found to be most successful in your role? Which have not?
  7. How has this organization and your role changed since you’ve been here? In response to what? How does it need to continue to change?
  8. How would you assess my background, and where would you think I ought to focus my professional development to be successful in the type of position I seek?
  9. Do you have any words of wisdom, advice, or warning based on your experiences? What do you wish you knew when you started that you know now? Who else might have valuable insights and a good network of friends and colleagues?
  10. May I follow up with you as my job search evolves to keep you posted and get additional advice along the way?

Laura Gassner Otting is founder and president of Nonprofit Professionals Advisory Group, a niche consulting firm dedicated to strengthening the capacity of nonprofits and their staff, and is available to discuss individual resumes, cover letters, and job search strategies.

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