Your Philanthropy Career: Ace the Interview for Your Next Fundraising Job

  mentatdgt /shutterstock

mentatdgt/shutterstock

Interviews for mid-level and senior fundraising positions increasingly rely on nationwide searches and online interviews, at least for initial contacts with job candidates. Skype, Zoom and other videoconferencing programs allow candidates and employers to connect from different locations. They help employers narrow the pool of applicants and save money on out-of-town candidates’ travel costs.

Yet fundraisers—even highly experienced ones—often bungle the online interview, executive recruiters say.

One man applying for a senior position conducted his Skype interview in front of a clearly visible, unmade bed, recalls Jay Berger, chief executive of Morris & Berger, a Glendale, California, recruiting company. “Another guy had his wife working out with barbells behind him.”

Candidates need to be aware of what interviewers can see online and take pains to project a professional image, Berger says. Another problem: Candidates who hold the phone in a way that makes eye contact with the potential employer difficult or impossible.

Senior consultant Anne Johnson of the Aspen Leadership Group, a recruiting company working nationwide to help nonprofit clients find key staff, was disappointed when a highly qualified fundraising candidate was forced to postpone her online interview with one of the company’s clients. She hadn’t bothered to test the technology, as she was advised to do beforehand. The candidate, who did not progress any further in that search, “realizes this cannot happen again,” Johnson says.

A videoconferencing snafu is just one thing throwing candidates out of the running during the multiple interviews required to land a good fundraising job. Some common interview errors by fundraisers (e.g., talking too much, inappropriate attire) were covered in an earlier Your Philanthropy Career piece about job-seeking.

Following are additional interviewing tips gleaned from conversations with 17 fundraising recruiters, consultants, professional development experts, employers and fundraisers seeking new positions. All are senior professionals with extensive job interview experience.

Explain why the job is a good fit. “The No. 1 interview mistake is not having a concrete answer to the question of why you want this position, why it is a good move for you professionally right now,” says Aspen’s Johnson. “You should answer in a succinct and powerful way.”

“Even seasoned professionals often don’t take the time needed to come up with a good response,” Johnson adds. “I’ve had several vice president or assistant vice president candidates fail to advance because of this. You have to have your elevator pitch.”

Even if the question is not posed in the interview, fundraising candidates should find a way to make it clear why they want the job and how it is a strong fit with their professional background and goals, Johnson says.

But all too frequently, she notes, “really great candidates don’t make this point and fail to advance.”

Prepare for negative questions. Fundraisers should be ready to describe a failure or a challenge in addition to achievements, says Johnson. “You need to be prepared for this,” she says, but many people are not because they only want to talk about positive aspects of their career.

Sometimes fundraisers are asked to describe a professional weakness or mistake. Some human resources experts tell people to describe perfectionist traits or how hard they work, but “saying you have workaholic tendencies is a canned answer,” says Jennifer Dunlap, president of DRi Development Resources, a recruiting company based in Arlington, Virginia.

With questions about mistakes and weaknesses, she says, interviewers “are trying to get at whether fundraisers will be honest and what they have learned.” Better than talking about their work ethic, Dunlap says, is when fundraisers can say something like, ‘When I became director of development and had the direct mail operation under me, I realized I didn’t have the data analytics skills I needed. So I took direct-mail workshops and also got our chief financial officer to explain the analytics he needed to track our direct mail.’

Another question candidates for fundraising jobs frequently get is about how they’ve handled difficult donors. Most people attempt to show that they turned a bad situation around quickly, but that’s not how fundraising works when persistent donors repeatedly challenge nonprofit leaders or how things are done by the organization, says Lee Kappelman, a former fundraiser who’s now a principal at m/Oppenheim Associates, a recruiting company headquartered in San Francisco.

“Fundraising is about cultivating donors over time, and sometimes it takes years to deal with difficult donors,” Kappelman says. “Their passion is an indication that they care very much. They may make a transformative gift, donating far more than someone without the same passion.” Better to describe an eventual big-gift outcome, she adds, than showing fast resolution of problems.

Bill Moran, a recruiter leading a Kansas City company bearing his name, says that he has been advised to ask fundraisers about their professional reputation. Other recruiters sometimes ask, “What would your critics or detractors say about you? When has your integrity been challenged, and what was your reaction?”

Ask for clarification. It is perfectly acceptable for fundraisers to ask for a specific example or other clarification if they don’t understand an interviewer’s question, says Sally Bryant DeChenne, chief executive of the Bryant Group, a Dallas-based recruiting company.

“If you do not know how to answer the question,” she says, “it is fine to say, ‘I am not sure I know the answer, but based on my experience, here is how I would respond.’”

Bryant DeChenne recalls “one candidate who said, ‘I reserve the right to change my answer three months into the job.’ The client organization loved it. That woman ended up being the top candidate because she was so real.”

Make eye contact in group interviews. Fundraisers in consideration for senior positions often sit for group interviews with potential bosses and colleagues during which one person asks the candidate a majority of the questions.

However, “candidates make the mistake of looking at the person asking the questions but not at others in the group,” says Bryant DeChenne.

“People don’t really think about looking at each person as an individual,” she says. “When they are asked a question, they should try and look at others in the group. The people who don’t get looked at feel left out.”

Provide data to back up achievements. Too many job candidates come to fundraising interviews without being able to offer concrete details on what they have accomplished, says Dunlap of DRi Development Resources.

“They don’t have data on their achievements, like, ‘I took the budget from X to Y,’” Dunlap says. “They do not have these things top of mind.” Dunlap’s client organizations, she says, have commented about fundraising candidates’ lack of statistics to back up their professed achievements.

At the Oregon State University Foundation, vice president Jeff Comfort says he is surprised by how many candidates for planned-giving jobs seeking bequests, donated stock, and other big gifts are unable to answer basic factual questions.

When he asks how much money in planned gifts the candidates closed in the past year, Comfort says, “about half the people cannot respond.”

 Comfort also asks planned-giving candidates what their annual goal is for visiting people and how many donors and potential donors they actually had meetings with in the past year.

“Some say they only made a few visits,” Comfort says. “They offer the excuse of other things they’re supposed to be doing, like marketing or handling gifts of stock.” Such explanations, he adds, “don’t bode well for their candidacy in our program because donor visits and gifts are the primary goals.”

Don’t apply for jobs misaligned with your goals. Comfort recalls interviewing one man for a planned-giving job and asking him where he saw himself going professionally over the next three to five years.

“The guy said he wanted to be running a restaurant off the coast of California,” recalls Comfort.

“What I want to hear is that the person wants a career in development,” Comfort says. “We agreed at that point the interview was over. I appreciated his candor, but it takes a good year or two to come in and develop relationships. We make a big investment when we bring someone on here.” 

Offer solutions for organizational shortcomings. Fundraising job candidates often ask how a nonprofit board is engaged in raising money, says Dunlap of DRi Development Resources.

When they hear that not every board member is involved in raising money, they no longer want the job, but “this is a crutch in many cases,” Dunlap argues.

“They should say, ‘Okay, this is what I am going to do with the 20 percent who are involved.’ For the first 20 years of her previous fundraising career, Dunlap says, “I didn’t have full board participation, and I created auxiliary groups. Meeting board members where they are and engaging and exciting them is what a talented person does.”

Discuss your entire career. Candidates for fundraising positions often talk about their present job, but they should discuss earlier professional achievements that are relevant and fit the needs of the openings they apply for, says Bryant DeChenne, the Dallas recruiter. 

“I recommend looking at the breadth of your experience and consider what fits this position, pull out those things during the interview, and make those connections for the organization,” Bryant DeChenne says. “You cannot expect the organization to do that on their own.”

“Don’t forget that what you are doing now is not your full experience,” she adds. “Sit down and think about what your superpower is, what makes you different?”

Don’t blow the writing test. Bob Carter, a seasoned fundraising consultant who has hired dozens of development officers in his long career, says that he’s learned that testing a person’s ability to write is essential to making good hiring decisions. 

Fundraisers, he notes, “are working on case statements and memos to volunteers all the time, ghostwriting for presidents and top-level volunteers. You want to know they can put an idea on paper.”

Writing skill, he adds, is hard to find, and even harder to determine in an interview.

That’s why Carter’s former company gave a writing test to every fundraiser it hired as part of the final interview process.

Candidates for fundraising openings, says Carter, should read The Elements of Style, a classic how-to text about writing, and practice by crafting letters to ask people for a gift or an appointment. 

 Assist people providing professional references. Bryant DeChenne’s recruiting company advises candidates for fundraising jobs to provide their references with a job description about the position they’re applying for. That way, she says, the reference will be better prepared to speak with the potential employer about how the fundraiser is a good fit for the opening.

This simple practice, she adds, “is helpful to the candidate and to us, because most of the time, we’re doing these reference checks for our clients.”

Expect bias in favor of local candidates. In national fundraising searches, an organization’s leaders sometimes fear that candidates from other regions will have a harder time building relations with donors than fundraisers who have lived in the region or have some connection to it, says Johnson of the Aspen Leadership Group.

 “I had a client recently ask a candidate from out of state how he would get to know donors quickly as opposed to other candidates in the state. The candidate answered it well because I knew this was important to the client.”

The candidate, Johnson says, convinced the organization that he would get to know donors very quickly because he had evidence that he’d done so in a similar situation.

“We prepared for this beforehand,” she says. “This search is ongoing, and that candidate is still a candidate.”

****

 11 Interviewing Tips For Fundraising Professionals

Talking too much and other common interviewing mistakes trip up many candidates in the running for senior fundraising positions. In summary, executive recruiters and seasoned professionals offer the following additional advice:

  • Be professional in videoconference interviews.

  • Explain how the opening is a good fit for you professionally.

  • Expect negative questions.

  • Request clarification when questions are unclear or difficult.

  • In group interviews, make eye contact with everyone.

  • Back up your professional achievements with statistics and other data.

  • Pursue positions fully aligned with your career goals.

  • Offer solutions to potential employers’ problems.

  • Brush up your writing skills.

  • Give your references a description of the job you’re pursuing.

  • In national searches, employers often prefer candidates with knowledge of the local area. If you lack professional ties to the area but have personal ones, be sure to mention them.

Editor's NoteThis article is the fourth in a monthly series, Your Philanthropy Career, by veteran philanthropy journalist Holly Hall on navigating a successful career in the nonprofit sector. The series is a partnership between Inside Philanthropy and the Aspen Leadership Group, which focuses exclusively on search and talent management in the field of philanthropy. Recognized leaders in the field recruit and provide counsel to other leaders and emerging leaders, building enduring, productive relationships and supporting exceptional careers. Learn more at www.aspenleadershipgroup.com and www.philanthropycareer.net.

Holly Hall has been covering fundraising and related issues for nearly three decades. She holds a master’s degree in philanthropy and development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota and has been a featured speaker at numerous fundraising events and conferences. Her journalistic experience includes working as a writer for Psychology Today magazine and writing for other national publications such as the Washington Post. She also worked for more than three years in communications for the American Red Cross, where she created and edited The Humanitarian, an award-winning quarterly magazine for Red Cross constituents.