The job interview – it’s not just about you

This is a post directed to my fellow fundraisers in the trenches.

It’s pretty much a cliche in the charitable sector that fundraiser turnover is high.  We’re told that boards and executive directors are scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to do about it. Some play the blame game, accusing fundraisers of jumping ship when a better salary is dangled in front of them. Others try to make their workplaces more attractive by offering more vacation days, free parking, gym memberships, and so on, to compensate for the fact that they can’t manage a salary competitive with the for-profit sector.

Let’s just  put the truth on the table.

Most charities don’t know how to be attractive to fundraisers, because they don’t know how to be fundraising organizations.  That is why, you might argue, they’re hiring fundraisers, right?  Fair enough.  But many charities limit their fundraisers’ influence and refuse to take advantage of the expertise they’re paying for.  So, in frustration, the fundraisers leave.  The charities come up with all the wrong reasons, blame the fundraisers, talk about “It wasn’t the right fit,” and proceed to go through the same pain again.

Too many of us have been there.  We’ve been charmed by a wonderful cause, engaging executive director, and eager board.  We accept the job only to find out that the board wants the money now, the executive director already feels her head on the block, and that in order to even begin fundraising, years of crappy stewardship and bad public relations have to be cleaned up first.  We tolerate it as long as we can, but then we tell ourselves life is too short, and we start looking for other opportunities.

Fundraisers need to break the cycle during the interview process.

We need to collectively own the job jumping that is rampant in our field.


We need to help charities understand how to hire good fundraisers, and to know what to do after they get them.  We can lay the groundwork before we even get the job offer.

It starts with asking better questions during the interview process.  This will help charities know what kind of organizations they should strive to be in order to attract good fundraisers.

I’m amazed at how few questions job applicants tend to ask.  In an ideal world, the applicant would ask as many questions as the interviewer.  After all, the fit needs to be right on both sides.

There are dozens of good questions to ask, and among them are these:

1.  How engaged is your board in the fundraising process?

You might not be looking for a board with 100% participation – – anything over 75% is good.  (Hint: that’s not the correct answer on a certain professional certification exam.)  You also don’t need to look for a board in which all members are comfortable going on asks.

You’ll want to see a board that is not looking to offload the entire responsibility of fundraising to staff.  Board members should be willing to make thank you calls, attend events (or better, host them), sign appeal letters, look at suspect lists, and so on.  And a handful of them should be willing and able to open doors and accompany on donor visits.  And if a few of them are willing to make asks, then hallelujah!

The wrong answer is “The board doesn’t fundraise.  That is why we would be hiring you.”

During the keynote speech at AFP Calgary Chapter daretodo! Professionals Forum & Awards Lunch, Rory Green had us proclaim in unison “I am not an ATM!”

When I ask how engaged a board is in the fundraising, I’m looking for a sense that I won’t be seen as an ATM.  I’m looking for some level of understanding of how fundraising works.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  Many boards, especially those for smaller or new charities, have no idea of how to foster a culture of fundraising.  But if they’re willing to invest in a little eye-opening on behalf of the organization they claim to support, it can be an exciting journey for everyone.

2.  What kind of leader are you?

Reactions to this question can be quite interesting.  There are no right or wrong answers, but it does send the message that we prefer to be managed well.

I like to hear clues about employees’ autonomy.  Several years ago, a prospective boss answered this question with “I like to hire good people and get out of their way.”  I was offered the position, and I accepted.

3.  What are the targets and how are they set?

I’m not a fan of targets being handed to me without my input.  If a charity has a small donor base, but the board believes they can raise millions if they but hire the right fundraiser, I recommend moving along.  However, if a target is handed to me after a careful and well-thought-out process, I might still be interested in the position.  If they already have a target in mind, I ask how the target was determined, how it compares to what was raised last year, and other good questions along these lines.

I also like to know if I’ll be growing an existing portfolio or building one from scratch.  If it’s the latter, I ask questions to determine their timeline expectations.   If they believe a robust giving program can be built within six months and the cash will flow like a river, I move along.

By the way, these charities exist.  An executive director of a small, very niche-y charity with a very small donor base said to me once, rather flippantly, “Universities raise millions and millions!  I don’t think a couple million dollars our first year is asking too much.”

4.  How much time in this role would be dedicated to non-fundraising activities?

If you’re hired to raise money, then you want to be given the time to do it.  All time spent in non-fundraising meetings, social committee work, database cleanup, shooting the breeze in the break room and so on means unrealized revenue.  The greater the expectation that you participate in non-fundraising activities, the lower your targets must be.  And there’s a point at which you won’t be interested in the role because, after all, you’re a fundraiser.

I also ask questions about their philosophy on work/life balance, what happened to the role’s predecessor, where they’d like to see the organization in 5 years, and more.

Most interviewers expect two or three questions from applicants, and are a little taken aback.  Usually they see it as a sign of keen interest.  Sometimes they apologize and state that we’ve run out of time.  That’s fine – – usually there’s a second interview with more opportunities to ask questions.  If I’m offered a position before I’ve had answers to my questions, I simply say that I can’t make a decision until all of my questions are answered.  And of course, if there’s any unwillingness to entertain all of my questions, then they’ve self-selected themselves out of consideration for me.

But these questions do more than just help us find the best fit for ourselves.  They send a message to charities that want to hire us.  When more of us take responsibility for asking these kinds of questions, charities will learn that in order to attract good fundraisers, they need to put a good deal of thought into the role.  They need to ask themselves how they can best set the role up for success.



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