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10 Unconventional “Ice Breaker” Questions to Ask a Nonprofit When You First Meet

Next week, I will attend the annual Community Changemakers event hosted by Spur Local (formerly the Catalogue for Philanthropy.) It will feature dozens of organizations serving the DC region who are there ready to tell their story and introduce themselves to the evening’s guests. In an atmosphere that almost feels like “speed dating,” I will try to meet as many nonprofits as I can and to learn about their work. It’s an exciting event, and even after more than 30 years in the nonprofit sector, I’m still learning about great organizations for the first time.

Nearly all facilitators open workshops or retreats with some sort of “ice breaker,” and I’m no exception. And to be sure, there are those who absolutely love those kinds of exercises and those who dread them. Regardless of how you feel about them, however, ice breakers always lead to interesting conversations and insights. They are a great tool for putting participants at ease and for building connections through stories and shared experiences.

For the Community Changemakers event, rather than going up to an organization and saying, “Tell me what your organization does,” I wanted to try some different. I’ve come up with 10 unconventional “ice breaker” type questions that I hope will prompt more interesting conversations.

Rest assured; I don’t plan on asking every organization all 10 questions. This just gives me a variety of starting points. Some of these are more challenging than others, but none are designed to be threatening or confrontational. They are listed below with the “easiest” questions first.

The Easy Questions

1. What are you just bursting to share about your organization? What are you most excited about?

This is a more interesting way to approach the standard, “What does your organization do?” question. Give them permission to brag or boast about their nonprofit and its work. See how passionate they get about what their organization is up to and whether it inspires you to want to learn more.

2. How do you like to stay in touch with your donors and funders?

Think about what’s important to you when it comes to being thanked or engaged by a nonprofit. Organizations can use a variety of ways to stay in touch with their supporters. See if this nonprofit does anything special or innovative when it comes to building relationships with the people who have invested in their work.

3. Tell me about your logo or Tell me how your organization’s name was created. What does it mean or represent?

While this might seem like an unusual question, this is a great way to open a conversation in a creative way. Many organizations pack a lot into their brand and logo. There is often an interesting story behind the symbols, colors, and graphics that go into their brand identity, or even the organization’s name. Let them share that with you and see if you’re intrigued or inspired to hear more of the story.

4. How does your organization take care of its people? Can you give me a fun example?

Anyone who works in the nonprofit sector knows that it can be a stressful and high-pressure environment. And it became even more so during the pandemic. Organizations that take care of their staff and make their wellbeing a priority set themselves up to be more resilient, which ultimately makes them better able to serve their community.

5. What is your favorite fact or statistic regarding your organization or your organization’s work?

Anyone at a nonprofit should be able to share with you one or two facts or statistics about their work. (“Did you know we’re the only organization that does ___?” or “Our organization serves more than ___ families every single week.”) It’s a chance for you to learn more about what makes this organization distinct or special.

The More Challenging Questions

6. What do you feel is least understood or appreciated about your work? What do you wish more people knew about what your organization does?

This gives them an opportunity to educate you on the details of their work, but it’s also an opportunity for you to see how they present that issue. Do they do it in a way that feels like complaining, or do they see it as an opportunity to build a connection through education?

7. Do you have a favorite donor or funder? (They don’t have to name them.) Can you tell me what about that relationship makes it special?

This question allows the organization to tell you what is important to them when it comes to relationship building with their donors. Listen to how they describe what they do as well as what the donor does to make the relationship work so well. Does any of it resonate with you and how you enjoy interacting with the organizations you support?

8. Does your organization have a values statement? If so, what value resonates most with you personally?

Organizations that have taken the time to develop a formal values statement invariably set themselves up for success. A values statement, like a strategic plan and a mission statement, can guide the nonprofit as it engages the community, develops programming, hires staff, and more. Can you tell if this organization’s values align with your own?

9. Has your organization needed to make some tough decisions or choices regarding diversity, equity or inclusion? Tell me about that process.

Whether it’s program delivery, representation on the board, messaging, staff makeup, or communicating more authentically with the people they aim to serve, all organizations need to use the DEI lens to shape what they do and how they do it. It is an ongoing journey for all nonprofits, and this is an opportunity for this group to share with you where they are on that journey.

10. Can you think of a time when your organization has demonstrated leadership in your field or even the nonprofit sector as a whole?

Excellent nonprofits see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem or movement. While focusing on their mission, they also appreciate the bigger impact of what they do, and they take steps to participate in that in various ways. Do they help “mentor” other organizations? Do the organization’s leaders serve on local or regional commissions or boards? Are they working with schools or universities to foster the development of future leaders in the field?

Your Turn

Next time you meet a nonprofit for the first time, try a couple of these questions and see what kind of response you get. These might inspire you to make up your own "ice breaker" questions. Either way, instead of a basic, "How do you do..." type of conversation, make it your goal is to have thoughtful and insightful conversations with organizations who might benefit from your philanthropic support. You never know what you might learn!

Nov. 2, 2023

An easy-to-download version of the 10 questions can be found on the Resources Page.

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