How (Not) to Hire a Fundraiser

There were seven of us talking about this and that when the conversation turned to how it was for organizations to hire decent development officers.

It’s because they don’t know what they are looking for and don’t understand what the job should entail,” said one.

”That’s for sure,” said another, which turned the conversation to a dissection of the interviews we’d collectively been on over the years, sharing horror stories and hilarity.

”And then there’s my favorite question,” someone said with a laugh and we all jumped in: Tell us about your largest gift and what your role was in securing it.

I don’t know about you, but over the years, many of the largest gifts received on my watch came in as bequests. Frankly, in most cases, I had nothing to do with it. The second largest gift I ever received grew out of a business deal with my institution. Oh sure, I had to write the proposal and make sure that the right people were involved—and I did arrange for the check presentation.

The third largest fell into my lap when an annual donor called to tell us that he had sold his business and now had a huge an financial problem with appreciated stock. Could we help? You betcha.

This is not to say that what we do isn’t important, but judging by size gift is not the best way to understand how someone goes about the business of raising funds. Indeed, I’ve worked hardest for some of my smallest major gifts. Picture a shrug here. Was I happy that I had spent a lot of time to get a small return? Of course not. But I know that fundraising is about relationships and I also know that the best donor is an existing one, so I knew that over time the odds were that this donor would make a large gift. And it would be because I had cultivated well and—most of all—knew the value of keeping in touch with my donor in between asking for a gift.

So how would I hire a fundraiser? First of all, I would spend a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted this person to do.

Too many nonprofits hire a development director and then expect that person to log in the gifts, send out thank you letters, manage the annual gala and the golf tournament, make nice to board members (but don’t for pity’s sake ask them for anything), keep the files up to date, get out a newsletter, arrange for the bus to pick up….and oh yeah, in your spare time, could you make sure you close the financial gap between our revenue and expenses.

All these tasks may belong in the development department. But not even superman could accomplish all and do any of it well. For starters, these all require different skill sets. Beyond that is the fact that most people who are not in the business of fundraising do not seem to understand that development is not a single thing with a single set of tasks that require a single set of skills to be accomplished in a single timeframe.

The skills to be a good annual giving fundraiser are vastly different from those required of a planned giving officer. Major gifts need a lot of lead-time—and are best accomplished with a team. Each type of fund raising requires different things, and while your organization may be able to afford only one fundraiser, when you start thinking about hiring, be realistic about your specific needs. What type(s) of fundraising does your organization really require?

Be clear about your expectations and make sure that your job description outlines them completely. And then develop questions that will truly dig into a person’s style and beliefs. Make sure your questions will let you know if someone honestly knows how to do the job you want done.

If my organization doesn’t have a robust fund development program, I want to know the steps someone will take to develop one. If we don’t have a rich prospect pool, I will ask what—exactly—will this person in order to create one. I want to know what they think is most important in fundraising, and why. But I don’t really care about the size of the gifts they’ve gotten, or what they are going to tell me they learned from a mistake.

Because I believe that interviews are two way streets, I also want to make sure that my candidates know what they could be getting themselves into. What questions I ask should give them a transparent picture of the situation. If not, why am I asking? I once was asked in great detail—several questions in fact—what I would do in my first 90 days to connect with current major donors. Not a bad question except this particular organization had no current major donors. They had no individual donors at all. They had been largely federally funded and wanted to change that. The questions they should have asked me would have focused on how would I begin to identify major donors and what would I do—if I would do anything—to build an annual giving program.

Hiring the right person is hard. It takes a lot of work and a lot of serious thought and planning. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your new staff person, by creating a job description and developing screening questions that have no connection to reality. The average tenure for a fundraiser is 18 months. Given the disconnect between what most fundraisers think they are getting into and what most of organizations think they are getting, it’s a wonder that fundraisers stay on the job that long!

Janet Levine is a consultant who works with nonprofits and educational organizations. She can be reached at Her online grantwriting class is available at