Sam Laprade discusses interviews and storytelling

Episode aired June 17, 2021: Storytelling

You need stories for your fundraising campaigns, email marketing, brochures, social media, website and more. Who better to learn from how to interview subjects and get the info you need than fundraising specialist Sam Laprade, who’s also a radio host?! In this episode Sam discusses

  • what makes a good story
  • how to prepare for interviews of service recipients
  • tips for successful interviews
  • the importance of quotes and  
  • how to use data to get an emotional reaction from your audience. 

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.

Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit podcast, the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832 Communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us a talented fundraising strategist, data analyst and interviewer par excellence, Sam Laprade. Sam, how you doing today?

Sam: Well I’m better now that I’m with you. This is great. Thank you. 

Ephraim: So glad to hear that. Good. Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

Sam loves to connect people. As a professional fundraiser, Sam works closely with generous donors to impact some of the most vulnerable people in her community and country. Over a 30-year period Sam has raised money for important charities in her community such as the Ottawa Hospital Foundation, the Ottawa Humane Society and the Ottawa Mission Foundation. 

In 2009 Sam started as Director at Gryphon Fundraising. In addition to her work with Gryphon Fundraising, in October 2017 Sam launched her full-time consultancy to assist nonprofits with fundraising strategy, stewardship, board relations, coaching and audits. Sam is a very engaging speaker. She’s spoken at AFP International Conference, the Canadian Association of Gift Planners, the Association of Donor Relations Professionals and AFP Congress. In 2021 Sam will be the keynote speaker at the national conference for the Fundraising Institute of New Zealand.

Sam is the creator and host of ‘An Hour to Give’ on City News 101.1 Ottawa. This radio show highlights nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. Sam also writes a monthly column for the Ottawa Business Journal entitled ‘Philanthropy in Ottawa.’

What Makes A Good Story?

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss getting the story that your organization needs. Let’s dive right in. Sam, storytelling is critical to fundraising and marketing. What elements make up a good story? 

Sam: A story that will cause donors to take action. It really is all about emotion I think. Any great story takes the listener, the reader on a journey and I think that journey sort of ebbs and flows. It needs to touch the heart of the reader, of the donor in this case in order for them to take action. I think a lot of people try to sort of take down those resources in terms of emotions and I always say to them, don’t do that. If the person you’re talking to that has been a beneficiary of the funds says something in a way that is really emotion driven but it isn’t maybe said in the best English, that’s okay. It’s all about the emotions. So I really think it’s emotions at the heart really structuring that great story and I always always tell people, try to find a way where your donor can see themselves in that story. Have the smells, the sounds, all of those sort of five senses. Try to ignite those in people and that’s really the formula for a great story.

Research Before Interviews

Ephraim: I love it. I love that idea of lighting up the five senses and getting people involved in the story. Excellent. Before interviewing someone, what research should a nonprofit do? Meaning what prep should the interviewer undertake before starting the conversation with the beneficiary?

Sam: You know you’re gonna kind of be surprised at my answer. I’ve learned certainly in radio to be prepared enough to ask five questions and really I find when people over prepare themselves, they don’t let themselves catch those nuances.

So when I started doing for instance the radio show, I had all my questions. I had 20 questions prepared and I was focused on this piece of paper and about six months into my show, I had a conversation with my producer and I said, I’m gonna come with five questions but I’m gonna listen more and I’m telling you right now without a word of a lie, that is when my show changed. That is when I was really thinking more about the listener than I was about the structure of what I was doing, right? Because sometimes the person you’re interviewing and especially when you’re writing stories for direct mail or legacy giving campaigns, they will say things but if you’re so caught up in here’s the list of questions, you’re going to miss those nuances. And that is really the sweet spot of interviewing somebody, is you get that little nuance, that little nugget and if you can cling on to that and maybe the person takes you in another direction. That’s okay too.

Ephraim: Excellent. Yes. Always have in mind the listener or the reader…

Sam: Exactly. 

Ephraim: About marketing and fundraising collateral.

Tips For A Successful Interview

Today’s actionable item. You’re the host of a weekly radio show in Ottawa called ‘An Hour to Give.’ Could you please share with us three to four pieces of advice and tips that are critical for a successful interview?

Sam: Yes. So once again I think it really is hoping to have that open mind when you’re interviewing somebody and really listen for that language. You might call something one thing and the person you’re interviewing might call it something different. So take the time to really look at the semantics. That would be a sort of my number one piece.

The other piece is to when you ask questions- I love asking questions- like open-ended questions that let you know the person. Sort of take the story where they want. One of my big questions that I ask is, what’s your biggest fear about whatever we’re talking about? Or when you put your head on your pillow at night, what do you dream about? And I find phrasing it that way, people can sort of see themselves in that. So those are some of my favorite sort of go-to questions.

And then the other thing too is don’t be afraid when you’re speaking to… I know a lot of people work in health care or maybe in education and interviewing maybe professors or doctors or researchers or someone that we feel is a higher education than us. The best question I’ve ever asked a doctor researcher is, they’ll tell me all about their particular work and they’ll be talking in very technical terms and in the middle of all that I say, this is fantastic. Can you take me to the day you got into medical school? Or can you take me to the day you found out you were gonna be a professor? And it literally… you can see them shed. It’s like you can hear it, you can see it, sort of shed this hard exterior and not everyone’s like that but you can just see them do that and then they’re like, oh my gosh I never thought I’d get in or oh my gosh, my mom got the envelope and you hear this incredible story and it humanizes them. So anytime you can humanize somebody, definitely definitely do that. Have that opportunity to take them to a place, take me to the moment, take me to the time. Where were you standing and a lot of memories come back rushing back for us when we think like that. So I love asking those kinds of questions as well.  

And once again just really have an open mind about where the interview is going to go and when you’re capturing sort of the essence of the interview, always remember that it’s not necessarily what you were hoping to accomplish. Sometimes we have to let the person that’s telling the story guide that and sometimes I’ll be honest with you, they’re better at it because it is their story in many ways, especially when you’re speaking to a single mother or someone that is terminally ill. Those kinds of times it’s okay to be emotional as an interviewer.

I had somebody, when George Floyd was killed, I had somebody come on and tell me about a time that his brother was killed and he was a Reverend now and they were only young when it happened and I got to a point in the interview that I was literally crying so hard, I just said I have no words and then guess what? He took it from there and he really was able to keep sharing and I think that that’s what made the interview special is, to your point, we want to hear from them, right? I always tell all the people I interview I’m the wallpaper, you’re the main event and when we let that person shine, that’s when the sweet spot happens for sure.

Crucial Elements Of A Story

Ephraim: I really like what you said there about you may come in with a certain goal or a direction and they may take it somewhere else but let them take it because that’s where you’re going to get the better scoop, the better story. Alright, so now you’ve interviewed. The interview is over and you have the information you need. As a fundraising strategist, what elements of the story that you’ve just heard are you most likely to consider using for marketing and fundraising collateral?

Sam: Quotes. If I can say one thing… all of my organizational terminology and our mission statement and our values, put all that way over here and really try to capture them. We’ve got so many different ways to do this now, where we can actually capture and listen back to interviews. So it’s really those quotes and once again, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s whatever you can come up with that they’ve said that would make the listener or the reader feel like they’ve heard that themselves? That’s your gem, for sure.

Using Data In Storytelling

Ephraim: Perfect. Now we’re gonna continue with things you like. So we talked about you being a fundraising strategist. You also love data and you also love numbers. Since we’re discussing storytelling today, in what ways can data tell a story to donors?

Sam: Well this is fantastic. So I think- and there’s a lot of organizations that do this really well. One of them and I might get the number wrong so forgive me for that but there’s one organization that you open up their website and it says something very very simple: One of three female children of this age will become a bride. That is taking… that is using numbers to create emotion. I mean as a mom of a 13-year-old daughter, I’m thinking my daughter shouldn’t be a bride at 13. No child should be a bride at 13, 15, 11, whatever it is. So I think making sure that program staff understand how that data is going to be used maybe will inspire them to know that there’ll be more funding at the end. I mean I could go on for hours about the relationship between program staff and fundraisers because sometimes there’s this big wall but if we can break the wall down and use data to help tell those stories.

And of course, on the flip side of it, donor data tells a a really incredible story too, because if you’ve got, I don’t know, three out of ten donors giving you a second gift, those seven other donors that never give you a second gift, they’re telling you a story too. They’re really speaking to you in a kind of a bizarre way. But my good friend Clay Buck, I know he’s a good friend of yours as well, we often have conversations about the donor is speaking to us through the data. So we can speak to the donor with program data but we also need to listen to the donor from the data we get back from them, of course, in those treasures called databases. 

Ephraim: Not Excel. Proper database.

Sam: You’re going to make me have a heart attack.  

Ephraim: I just want everybody who’s listening or reading or watching, the example that Sam used of the one and three girls will become a bride before the age of, that’s taking the rational- which is the data, the one and three- and turning it into the emotional. That is a brilliant example. I love that. I don’t love what is happening out there in terms of that but I love that framing of it to get me right away and now I know what you do as an organization and you’ve got me hooked. That’s a very good example.

Let’s Learn More About Sam

Alright let’s move on to the lightning round and learn more about you Sam. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Sam: Oh my heavens. I’m gonna take you to a little town of Deep River, Ontario and I was going out dressed as Olivia Newton-John. My buddy was dressed as John Travolta from Grease and my mother put that UNICEF box around my neck and my world changed. I was more excited about collecting pennies and dimes and nickels and quarters than I was about collecting candy. I really think that that moment a fundraiser was born.

Ephraim: You see? You just did what you asked people: take me to a time and place and tell me the story. I love that story. Okay. So now given all your years, decades worth and tons of experience in the sector, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Sam: Wow, how long do we have? It is one thing I know. To be honest with you I’m gonna continue on, in 2018 I gave the closing plenary at AFP Congress in Toronto and spoke about three things and I know you just want one but I really spoke about sexual harassment in the nonprofit sector, I spoke about mental health and of course I spoke about bullying in this sector. Queen B Syndrome, that kind of thing. Those three are still top of mind for me because let’s face it, they haven’t been fixed, there’s a lot of work to be done there.

I think a big one that I necessarily haven’t been sort of public about but really really passionate about is posting salaries for the positions. I  think there’s a lot of game playing that goes on in this sector and I think we just need to stop it, to be honest. I know there’s a lot of work AFP chapters are saying they’re not going to put posts up without salaries and stuff. So there’s work in that area but I know I gave you four but yeah.

Ephraim: All four are very important and all of them need some shaking up big time. You’re a radio host. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed?

Sam: I have to say I’ve interviewed lots of musicians and athletes but the most famous person I think on the global front would be our 28th Governor General, the Right Honorable David Johnson. He’s our Governor General of Canada. He served for many many years and he is probably the most famous person I’ve interviewed on a global stage and he is just an honor to spend time with. I always leave inspired.  

Ephraim: Awesome. I’ll just follow up with that. Most famous musician because you mentioned it?

Sam: I would think probably… I’m trying to think who would be. Jason McCoy is one. Another one would be from Great Big Sea and I’m forgetting his last name. Oh my gosh. Alan Doyle, thank you so much. Alan Doyle as well. I’ve interviewed Alan. Don’t tell him I forgot his last name. Lots of different musicians over the years for sure.

Ephraim: Very cool. Most nerve-wracking thing about being live on the radio? 

Sam: Forgetting someone’s last name like I just did. I would say forgetting what sort of what direction you’re going or that kind of thing. I think in my job I’m very lucky I have about 12 to 14 minutes with each guest. So every 12 to 14 minutes I get at least two minutes of commercial break to kind of get myself back together again. But forgetting someone’s name or flubbing up the pronunciation. Something like that that always makes me a bit nervous.  

Ephraim: You’re in Ottawa. So I have yet to visit Ottawa. Three places that I must visit if I ever… when I make it to Ottawa.

Sam: Well you obviously have to visit Parliament Hill. That’s just the way it is. I think you can’t visit Ottawa without seeing it, so that would be one place that I would definitely suggest. One of my favorite places and you can actually see Parliament Hill from it is the Westin with a great restaurant called The Shore Club. So I definitely take you there for a great meal. And I think one of the best things about this place as well in terms of not only the sort of famous side of being a capitol and all those great things but it’s really that opportunity to visit some of our wildlife. We have a place called Park Omega which is about a 10, 12 kilometer driving road and you can feed caribou and deer and pigs and all that kind of stuff, right out your car windows. That’s always a great place. That’s just on the other side of the bridge in the beautiful province of Quebec.

Ephraim: Very cool. So now I know where I’m going with Sam when I make it to Ottawa. Finally we will turn the table. You get to ask me one surprise question. I have no clue what’s coming. You get to do your favorite thing, be the interviewer. not the interviewee. Go ahead.  

Sam: Absolutely. So my question for you is: What would you tell your five-year-old self about you now?

Ephraim: Okay, my five-year-old self? I was an oldest child. I started grade one when I was five and two months, less than that even. I was probably…  I want to say I was cocky because I knew how to read at age five already. What would I tell my five-year-old self? You’re gonna be okay when you grow up. You’re gonna have bumpy days, even though grade one was a wonderful time with my two teachers Mrs. Hamill and Mrs. Himmelstein, who I still remember fondly both of them and I have wonderful memories. In fact I just saw a picture the other day with my kids of my first day at school. My mother had the picture in my memorabilia box. I just saw it, what I looked like. I know that I fell asleep the first day on the way home on the bus from school. What would I tell?

What else would I tell? It’s mostly life is a big bumpy road but you’re gonna be fine. Grade one was tough but it’s nothing compared to grade eight and then grade 12 and university and life and everything else. The other thing I would say is I’m not gonna be a professional baseball player and I’d let my five-year-old know that back then so maybe he could consider a different career trajectory, how’s that. I was a cute little kid when I was five. I don’t know…

Sam: Well you’re cute now.

Ephraim: Sam, I will take that compliment any day of the week! The truth is I was the shortest kid in the class. I was only five. I skipped kindergarten. My parents did not send me to kindergarten. They sent me straight to grade one. Anybody who asked me, I always say I could color in the lines and that’s why I went straight to grade one. I didn’t need kindergarten. I still remember… I can tell you everything about the school, I can tell everything about the classroom, I can tell everything about the teachers and I still even have a couple of people who I went to school with 40 years ago who I’m still in touch with now which is kind of amazing.

Sam: I love hearing that. I love love hearing that. I think that’s fantastic. I love that answer. See? I took you somewhere!

Ephraim: You did. Thank you. I appreciate it. I love nostalgia, so I appreciate that. Was a wonderful quick trip down memory lane, thank you. Sam, thanks very very much for appearing on the podcast. You can learn more about Sam at and I also encourage you to connect with Sam on LinkedIn and on Twitter. On Twitter she’s @SamLapradeCFRE. You have a ton that you can learn from her. Sam, it was a pleasure learning from you today. Thank you.

Sam: Pleasure was all mine. Thank you.

Ephraim: Have a good day.

Sam: Take care.