Looking for Your Next Fundraising Job? Here's Some Candid Advice From Seasoned Pros

photo: Lucky Business/shutterstock

photo: Lucky Business/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 11, 2018.

The fundraiser had completed multiple interviews with officials at the same organization, and he was very close to getting a top-paying job offer. There was just one last step: dinner with the president of the board.

When the fundraiser licked his finger after running it around his empty soup bowl, the president was horrified and the job evaporated.

Another fundraising candidate was disqualified for pulling a sandwich out of her bag and eating it during her interview for a college position.

“Both of these instances are embarrassing to us as a recruiting firm,” says Lois Lindauer, founder of a search company bearing her name, which had recommended the candidates.

Food issues, however, are not the most common reasons candidates get rejected for fundraising jobs, says Ron Schiller, a former fundraiser who leads the Aspen Leadership Group, a recruiting firm specializing in development positions, executive coaching and other career services. A bigger problem, by far, he says, is the candidate who talks too much in fundraising job interviews.

A third or more of the job candidates with whom he and his colleagues work have that problem, often because they are nervous, Schiller says. To help fundraisers slow down in interviews and contribute no more than half of the conversation, he wrote Create a Dialog, describing how exhausting and distracting overly talkative fundraising candidates can be and offering solutions.

For example, rather than citing numerous steps to increase fundraising returns, Schiller recommends telling one well-chosen story that convinces the interviewer that the candidate likely has many similar stories and asking follow-up questions like, “What areas of your fundraising need the most attention?” Another way to promote a give-and-take conversation, he says, is asking interviewers for more details about the kind of information they’re seeking before answering some questions. 

Interviews with executive recruiters and seasoned fundraisers who’ve hired numerous development officers uncovered many other job-seeking mistakes. Among them:

Betraying donor confidentiality. Many job candidates share detailed personal information about donors they have worked with, which is unethical, says Joshua Newton, president of the UConn Foundation, a university fundraising arm.

“I had one candidate pass around a donor profile in an interview to tell a story about the donors who were identified by name, about how they met and engaged them and secured the gift, what the amount was, and how it was paid,” Newton recalls. “Sharing that kind of thing in an interview was a big red flag.”

When job candidates share such confidential information about donors, Newton says, “I tell them one on one that this is inappropriate. They are often embarrassed.”

Inflated fundraising accomplishments. “One of the big mistakes is overstating what your contributions have been in the organization you are coming from,” says Curt Simic, president emeritus of the Indiana University Foundation. “Some people come in with a little arrogance.”

“I really like it when someone says they like what Indiana has done and recognizes our progress,” Simic continues. “If you get the message from candidates that your organization really needs help and they are the only ones who can help, that is a turnoff.”

Kent Dove, Simic’s retired, long-time colleague, agrees. “Fundraisers tend to exaggerate their success,” he says. “Anytime someone starts talking about ‘I,’ it is a concern. Fundraising is about ‘we.’ When someone starts talking about ‘I,’ you have to be careful because they do not understand fundraising.”  

“Major gift officers are good listeners more than being good talkers,” Dove adds. “If you are self-absorbed in the interview, you will be that way on the job.”

Without taking all the credit, recruiters say, fundraisers should make it clear in job interviews what their role was in securing donations.

But “it doesn’t work when candidates make me listen too hard because they do all the talking,” says Dyan Sublett, president of the Martin Luther King Community Health Foundation in Los Angeles. “I was happy with one candidate who came in with a yellow legal pad and a pencil to take notes. And he didn’t just take notes, there was a lot of eye contact and dialog. He said, ‘I am so excited to learn about your work.’”

Sometimes admitting that you don’t know everything about raising money can pay big dividends, agrees June Bradham, a consultant who created her company, Corporate DevelopMint, to help organizations raise money. Bradham says the best consultant she ever hired was actually a clinical psychologist in his 50s who stayed with her company for 15 years until he retired.

“He wrote one of the best letters I ever read,” Bradham recalls. “He said ‘I’ve been told I would be good at raising money, and I would like to offer you my time for three months free of cost.’” The former psychologist did more than anyone else for Bradham’s company, she says, including groundbreaking research on factors influencing hospitals’ ability to raise money. Armed with the findings, Bradham and her colleagues created a highly successful conference for hospital leaders who were able to compare and increase their fundraising returns.

Inadequate preparation. Brian O’Rourke, vice president of development and alumni relations at Clemson University, says he always asks job candidates what they already know about his institution. “If they cannot go into depth, that shows they haven’t done their homework,” he says. “That really shuts me down.”

O’Rourke says a problem that Schiller of the Aspen Leadership Group noted is also a pet peeve of his:  candidates who want to work at a particular organization but cannot explain how their skills fit the position they’re seeking.

“If all they can get across is that they love the institution, that isn’t enough,” O’Rourke says. “A person from a financial background was asked how he could help us raise money, and all he talked about was his love of the institution. He couldn’t tell me how his skills would translate. You have to bring talents and skills to move the organization forward.”  

Another sign of poor preparation is the candidate who has few, or even zero, questions for the interviewer, says Schiller. “People need to go in with really smart questions,” he says. “When asked by a potential employer if they have questions, some candidates have none. This usually takes them out of the running.”

Lack of energy and enthusiasm. Schiller says that another problem he sees frequently is fundraising candidates who don’t impress the hiring organization because they are not compelling or motivated enough to get a job offer.

“I hear about candidates who are too serious or dry or have no personality or are not interesting,” he says. “You must be passionate and energetic about a cause.”

Another problem is when fundraisers are perceived by the hiring organization as lacking authenticity, says Schiller. “I have heard candidates described as plastic or too shiny,” he notes. “They are perceived as selling too hard, or they come across as phony or insincere in some way.”

Inconsistent behavior. Interviews for fundraising positions, which tend to be well-paying jobs, have become increasingly arduous for finalists, involving multiple back-to-back interviews, various types of tests, role playing, and the like. That may be one reason why a significant number of candidates don’t make the grade, by behaving inconsistently in interactions with different people at the same organization, says Sublett at the Martin Luther King Community Health Foundation.

The finalists who Sublett recommends for fundraising openings undergo a half-day process, meeting numerous potential colleagues. “You might see candidates be on their best behavior with me, but a little too casual with the human resources person, like HR didn’t matter or the candidate is really tired,” she says. ”In other cases, if a potential fundraising colleague has a negative impression, that is a problem.”

As the person doing the hiring, Sublett adds, “what you want to hear from your colleagues, including those not in development, is ‘what a great hire you made.’”

Another type of inconsistency executive recruiters complain about: dates or job descriptions that don’t match on a person’s resume and online sites such as LinkedIn.

Lying about experience. One recruiter recalls a candidate describing himself as a consultant when he was actually let go by his former employer and other candidates who say they are “present” at jobs they have already left.

“I’ve had people tell me they love their job, but then I find out they have given notice or been terminated,” says Jay Berger of Morris & Berger. “I do not want to recommend someone based on false information.”

Other recruiters say that being terminated is not necessarily a cause for rejection by future employers. Better to be honest about such situations and to talk briefly about how the job “wasn’t a good fit” rather than lie about it. At the same time, they say, fundraising candidates should always avoid talking badly about any former employer.

Problematic resumes.  Executive recruiters get annoyed when fundraising candidates submit overly detailed resumes or use the same cover letter and resume for every job they pursue.

“People think they can have a 15-page resume, but that is not helpful to your chances,” says Bill Moran, whose Baldwin City, Kansas, company places fundraisers who account for 40 percent of its searches.

Adds Christopher Bryant of the Bryant Group: “Using a generic cover letter and resume for every opening is a big mistake. Every resume should be specific to the position and totally mistake free. You would be surprised at how many applications come with mistakes. We see more of this than we should.”

Others complain about “functional resumes” that abandon a chronological listing of past experience in favor of clustering a person’s background and skills under headings such as “leadership experience.”

With that type of resume, “it is hard to know what they have accomplished, when and where,” says Kris McFeely, a senior executive search officer  at Campbell & Company, a fundraising consulting firm that helps client organizations fill 25 or 30 fundraising slots annually. “We like a chronological resume so we can really see your story.”

Too many short tenures. “A big problem for a long time has been people not staying in jobs, and everybody will tell you the same thing,” says recruiter Berger. Either fundraisers are recruited by another organization, or they’re asked to leave because they are ineffective, he says. “Whatever the reason, short tenures put candidates at a big disadvantage,” he says. “Every recruiter has to grapple with that.”

“Staying a year or two is just playing the game, and that will catch up with you eventually,” says Clemson’s O’Rourke.

Oftentimes, O’Rourke says, he sees job hopping among his younger colleagues trying to advance professionally. “Everybody wants to be a vice president or assistant VP, and younger colleagues are hungry to get there after a very short time,” he says. “One mistake is thinking you can move a lot and quickly, but longevity is much more important to me.”

Not assessing a potential boss’s fundraising approach—and career plans. Kevin Edwards, a senior fundraiser in Scranton, Pennsylvania, who is now a consultant, left a vice president position at a large regional nonprofit organization after less than two years because his boss, the chief executive, didn’t want him to leave the premises or visit donors while working to raise money.

“He wanted me to sit in the office and make phone calls to get million-dollar gifts,” Edwards recalls. “He thought you could just do it on the phone. The guy was a businessman, and he thought if you ask 10 people, one will say yes. That is how he did business, raising money from people he knew for 15 years or more.”

To avoid taking a job with such unrealistic expectations, Edwards says, “I could have engaged him in a conversation about his philosophy for developing relationships with donors and how to keep them engaged.”

“There are two things that really matter: Who do you report to, and how does that person understand development?” says Simic at  Indiana University Foundation. “Also, does the organization have the right tools” and resources to support its fundraisers doing quality work?

Simic says that two staff members at his foundation were recently recruited into positions they are unhappy with because of problems in those areas. “Unless you get a chance to really understand the culture and make sure the tools are there and who you work for has the same philosophy about raising money, “ he says, “you could make a wrong move.”

Equally important, Simic says, is for candidates to get a sense of the future career of a potential boss, noting that he knows another fundraiser who failed to ask that question. “She thinks the world of the president, but how long will that person be there?” he says. “It is a critical piece of information to know. If [the fundraiser’s boss] is leaving in a year,” he notes, that could be a bad career move for the development officer if the boss is replaced with someone less compatible with a different fundraising approach. “This is something that could’ve been uncovered, but just doesn’t get asked.”

Poor clothing decisions.  Newton, the president of the UConn Foundation, says that fundraising candidates’ dress has been problematic for him. “This is their chance to shine, but everything about their appearance is off,” he says. “Their jacket is ripped or their tie is not tied correctly. I don’t want them for a very external role if they are not presenting themselves professionally.”

Not dressing well for an interview, Newton says, is more prevalent among internal candidates applying for a more senior, external role that involves meeting donors. 

“They don’t take the chance to really dress for the role, they look like they do every day in the office,” he says.

“We are in the people business, so you need to be thoughtful about how you dress,” agrees O’Rourke, the Clemson fundraiser. “Put a little orange (our school color) in your tie, not a bad idea. But if I see short sleeves with a tie, that turns me off.”

Being too pushy. Another thing that annoys O’Rourke are candidates who are pushy, especially in cases where he agrees to meet a potential hire but has no openings at that time.

“If I meet with them and say, ‘Let’s stay in touch,’ it is good to say thank you and follow up,” he says. “Monthly contacts might be OK, but weekly can be irritating. You have to balance it.”

And, he adds, “don’t have everyone calling me to say what a great person you are. That is annoying. All the person is doing is politicking.”

Failing to follow up after interviews. Two recruiters say they have noticed an increase in fundraising candidates who don’t follow up their interviews by sending a personalized thank-you note, either handwritten or via email, to potential employers after job interviews.

But at Clemson, O’Rourke says that follow-up communication from the fundraising candidates he interviews “is extremely important.”

“I still think people should send personal notes,” he says. “Post-interview, if they are not proactive in following up, that is another red flag.”

Editor's Note: This article is the first 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.