Thinking Critically About Hiring: Deciphering the Frontline Fundraiser Resume

Originally published October 8, 2014

Fundraising organizations are constantly hiring new talent, both to grow the size of their shops and to replace those fundraisers who have moved on. However, due to the talent shortage the industry faces and the variations among fundraising organizational structures, finding a pool of qualified candidates and identifying which individuals bring the skills, performance potential, and approach needed most by your team can be difficult.

As you look towards your next hire consider the following:

Proactively focus on the people you want. The organizations that do best in fundraiser recruitment are proactive in hiring, not reactive. They look to a pool of previously identified candidates and desirable hires before a position is even open. Development shops should focus on who they would like to join the team in the next two years, not just what specific positions they would like to fill. Then, each open position becomes an opportunity to create the right appeal for the candidate you want.

Similarly by focusing on the hires you want to make, and not only the specifics of a position, you can consider qualified individuals with positions that don’t look like an immediate match but may become the perfect fit. For example, an experienced, high-performing individual who has the title of director of development for a college of engineering might have a passion for art and be the best candidate for partnership with your art school.

Remember that the culture of your particular organization and personalities of your development team may determine which individuals will be most successful. Someone may have the perfect background for a specific program or initiative, but not the right personality for the team involved.

Don’t be blinded by institutional prestige or titles. BWF often observes the 80:20 rule for fundraisers: 20% of your staff are high performers who bring in 80% of gifts and gift income. Choosing a candidate based solely on his or her institution or title runs the risk of choosing a low performer from a high-capacity organization.

Title seniority and responsibility vary widely across the development sector. Individuals might have a senior title yet have no real difference in responsibility from their junior colleagues. Likewise an individual may have a strong history of high performance, but his or her employment history is at an institution that does not use “senior-sounding” titles for promotion.

Be wary and know the signs of “position hoppers.” A recent BWF survey of fundraisers found that generally less than 7 percent are actively seeking new opportunities, while 25 percent are passively open to opportunities that are sent their way. Within this industry there is a subset of “position hoppers” who have resumes filled with 2- and 3-year stints at institutions with increasing title and prestige. Be very cautious with these candidates. Chances are your organization will not be the exception to their rule of taking the next bigger and brighter thing. Considering that true fundraiser performance doesn’t occur until around the 4th year, these sorts of hires are extremely risky for your organization, because in 24–36 months you will face yet another vacancy and a portfolio of partially developed prospects.

Look for a history of strategy over activity. Many position descriptions for fundraisers request some history of soliciting gifts at a certain level. While a history of actual gifts secured can demonstrate competence and qualification, the candidate’s ability to use and create strategy to secure those gifts and to build the donor relationship is a more valuable predictor of success. There are fundraisers who technically have secured 7- and 8-figure gifts merely by having the luck of a particular prospect being assigned to their portfolio.

Look for individuals who can both articulate the relationship building and challenges of securing a gift and demonstrate results, not necessarily those who just have the right numbers. For candidates from a smaller organization, the strategy, outreach, and engagement required of a $50,000 gift might far exceed that of another candidate with a higher capacity prospect pool and established program.

Ultimately, a fundraiser must do four things: contribute to the institutional culture, add value to the team, increase capacity in reaching and engaging donors, and secure major gift commitments. Filling a position haphazardly or waiting for the perfect candidate to appear will result in bad hires, decrease donor outcomes, and can negatively impact team morale. Look for the candidates who demonstrate their qualities and results to you, not just allude to it with a resume, and you will be a step ahead.