Could you pick out a fundraiser in a crowd?

Cecil B. Ledesma has found the light. He wants to be a fundraiser. And so he wants to know if I’d be able to “tell by talking to someone or having them take a test whether they would be good at fundraising as a lifelong career.”

Great question, and one I should be able to answer. After all, I “is” (or was) a fundraiser and I’ve hired many more. But truth to tell, I didn’t always feel that I was “good” at my job and certainly not all my hires were successful.

I decided, therefore, to ask some fundraising colleagues this question. Then I decided to also ask Board members at a few charitable organizations and CEO’s—those who hire the fundraisers. I even asked if I could quote people, but I got so many responses (see my last blog entry—Asking for Advice) that they all shall remain anonymous. But thank you, thank you to all.

A large number of people wrote back to say that they look at past performance as an indicator as to whether someone will be a good fundraiser. Well, yeah. But that’s not helpful for someone who is trying to break into the field. Others look at how much money a person had raised over the past several years. That seems to me as useless as the question I always got on interviews: Tell us about your largest gift.

Let’s face it, on the basis of those questions someone who has been raising funds for a Harvard University, for example, will be perceived as more talented than the fundraiser at your local homeless shelter. An unfair and, frequently, untruthful assessment.

Interestingly, only one of my respondents mentioned “transferrable skills,” as important indicators of success for someone who is trying to break into the field. But my respondent didn’t elucidate as to what those skills might be. I imagine that a good place to start would be with the characteristics many of the respondents said they look for.

Listening skills was one that most people valued. And here I concur completely. Now, I love to talk. I love to talk. But unless you are really hearing what your donor or prospect is saying, you won’t be able to build solid relationships. And relationships are the foundation on which development sits.

Along with listening, a few people touted eloquence and personality. Both good traits, as long as they don’t cross the line into glibness.

Passion was another thing many people mentioned, though it was unclear to me whether it was passion for the cause or for the activities connected with fundraising, or something else entirely.

Virtually everyone agreed that no test could identify a good fundraiser. Seems that you can’t get away from the old-fashioned interview process—sitting across from someone, asking questions and listening hard to their answers. This, at least, should give you a strong clue if the person will fit into the culture of your organization. And fit is critical. You can’t be positive about a place if you feel that you don’t belong there.

What was interesting was the number of people (and the number of those people who were the very people who did the most hiring of fundraising staff) who said, “Haven’t a clue.” Or, as one friend wrote, “What an interesting question. I wish I had an interesting answer. How can you tell if someone is a good dentist?”

Some responses were more interesting by dint of who said them than what was said. The several people who serve on various nonprofit boards looked at whether a person gave of his or her own time or money. Those who get paid to do this work—fundraisers--were less likely to see that as important. They identified knowledge of philanthropy and development strategies as necessary, though a number of them added that knowing and doing can (and often are) two different things. People in executive search also cared whether a candidate could converse about trends in fundraising, but a candidate’s past history was their most important indicator.

Several people mentioned creativity as an important trait, but I’m at a loss as how you could measure that during an interview. Only one person mentioned writing skills. That, I confess, surprised me. Writing is something that fundraisers do a lot, and while I have known some very good fundraisers who can’t write, I think it limits a person.

Reading all the responses made me think a whole lot more about what makes a good fundraiser. All the above, I would say, along with fearlessness (or the ability to act as if you are fearless) and an attention to detail. Oh, I know, that’s boring, but necessary. Too many gifts don’t get brought in because someone dropped the ball. And more money has been raised not by schmoozing (which is, I believe, totally overrated as a fundraising technique) but by a person who crosses the “T’s”, dots the “I’s” and calls when he or she said he or she would make a phone call.

Unlike music or art, where you really do have to have some talent to succeed, fundraising is something that can be learned. So beyond everything else, to me the most important traits are someone’s willingness to ask for help, listen to new ideas, put his or her ego on the back burner and remember that, above all, it is about helping our clients and moving the mission of our organization forward.

Janet Levine is a fundraising consultant. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at