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MVP or Benchwarmer?: Interview Questions to Help You Hire a Star Fundraising Professional

By Ashley Gatewood posted 11-01-2021 13:55

There’s an opening on your fundraising team. You’ve trimmed the stack of applicants to a shortlist of what appear to be exuberant fundraising super stars.

Getting that next hire right can be the difference between dancing on top of your desk because your team sprinted past its fundraising goals earlier than expected or fighting the lump in your throat as you look at a chasm between your targets and the reality of funds brought in.

Fundraising is a team sport. One bad hire can have your team feeling they’re consigned to the minor leagues. You’re seeking someone with that championship-winning secret sauce of fundraising knowledge, motivation, perseverance, and more than a dash of affable congeniality.

In a 2017 survey, 74% of employers admitted to having made a wrong hiring decision. Bad hires not only crush morale and fuel disdain, they can cause your MVPs to desert you for a more harmonious team at another organization.

We asked CFREs what their top interview question is when hiring for a fundraising position. Read on to discover the questions your peers pose when sat face-to-face with a prospective new teammate.

Add your favorite interview question in the comments. 

Danisha Bhaloo-Shivji, CFRE
Calgary, AB

My favorite interview question: If you had a choice between attention to detail or meeting a deadline in a role like this, which would you choose and why?

Now, there's no right or wrong answer here so the following is my own opinion for what my own preference would be.

As a fundraiser and storyteller (in most cases), you will never get anything perfect. Needs of clients will change, donor expectations change, and there is a culture in the social impact sector of doing the best that we can with the information that we have, while also being flexible to what's around us. Given that, I would always choose meeting a deadline.

In a fundraiser's role, you are likely running events, applying and reporting back on grants for funders, and soliciting and stewarding donors. In all those cases, you are on others' timelines/deadlines. If, for example, you are so busy attending to details on a grant application that you miss the deadline, it doesn't matter how "perfect" your application was, you missed the opportunity to submit anything.

From a personal or social aspect, I often equate it to being late. Being late, in my opinion, often is a sign of disrespect for other people's time. You should do your best to avoid having other people waiting for you, no matter how much, "You're worth the wait.” It's a matter of respect. Similar to meeting a deadline, others' who put that deadline in place are often moving on to the next step in their process and don't have time to wait for any latecomers, no matter how much attention they paid to detail.

Also, while I would pick meeting a deadline to attention to detail, I believe you can do both if you are organized and can manage your own time.

Dane Bland, CFRE
Toronto, ON

My favorite interview question: A question I've been asked a lot is "What's the largest gift you've ever received?" Instead of asking this, I prefer, "What's a gift you worked on from start to finish that you're most proud of?"

This question digs deeper into what a fundraiser is most proud of in how they manage a donor relationship, their approach to philanthropy and donor relations, and their stewardship processes.

It allows for a broader response—because sometimes large gifts happen easily and smaller gifts happen less easily, and size of gift is not as important to me as a Director in terms of the work than how they arrived at the gift and worked with the donor.

Joan Cheaney, CFRE
St. Louis, MO
United States

My favorite interview question: "How do you build strong relationships with donors?"

This is my favorite question because it provides insight into the candidate's philosophy on relationship building with different types of donors.

Alice Ferris, MBA, CFRE, ACFRE
Flagstaff, AZ
United States

My favorite interview question: “Tell me about a gift that you had to turn down. What was the situation and why did it work out that way?”

"Tell me about a gift that you didn't get or had to turn down. Why did it work out that way, and what did you learn from it?"

Often, we learn more from gifts we didn't get than from those we did. This answer may be as simple as understanding how to apply a gift acceptance policy. The stories are more often about a candidate's first encounter with applying fundraising ethics in real life or a pivotal moment when their fundraising philosophy became clearer. Also, this question allows the interviewer to hear how the candidate rebounds from rejection and obstacles.

Carrie-Ann Goodfellow, CFRE
Toronto, ON

My favorite interview question: “Why did you want to become a fundraiser and why do you want to work for our organization?”

My favorite question to ask might seem a bit simple, but to me it allows the individual a chance to show their passion. Maybe fundraising was always their career goal, or maybe they kind of fell into the role and then realized this is the job they had been looking for.

Being able to communicate enthusiastically about the cause is key in our profession. Without the passion for the role and, more importantly, for the charitable organization you are working or want to work with, the Individual will not thrive as a fundraiser.

Stephanie Maitland, CFRE, FFINZ
New Zealand

My favorite interview question: “What do you think are your most useful skills that could assist our fundraising program and why?”

I like this question as their answer can tell me many things, including:

  • Their awareness of their own skill set and level of confidence
  • Their knowledge of possible fundraising activities and sometimes their understanding of fundraising principles
  • If they prepared for the interview by researching our fundraising program

Clemencia Osa, CFRE

My favorite interview question: Have you ever been faced by an unethical concern in your previous role as fundraiser? What was the situation and how did you handle it? Given the experience you have now, would you still handle the situation the same way, why or why not? What did you learn in that instance/situation?

I ask this question to determine whether the interviewee knows about ethics in fundraising and to have a feel of what ethical challenges the fundraisers have gone through as well as develop a database of possible solutions to identified issues.

Astrid von Soosten, CFRE

My favorite interview question: “Given that all candidates that we interview come with the same level of expertise, why should we hire you?”

Tycely Williams, CFRE
Washington, D.C.
United States

My favorite interview question: “What values influence your decision making?”

Values influence beliefs which ultimately influence behavior. Fundraisers are relationship builders. Relationships are created and cemented by shared values. When building relationships, a fundraiser will intrinsically rely on personal values to determine every course of action. A principled mindset always outshines a perfected skillset.

Anson Wong, Ph.D., CFRE

Vancouver, BC

My favorite interview question: "With a new wave of social impact investors or millennial donors that mirror successful business models to address environmental and social challenges, how can fundraising professionals articulate the level of both intangible and tangible impacts of a worthy cause or projects that gain their buy-in?"

By asking this question, you discover how candidates focus on achieving outcomes, embracing innovation and taking risks. It is no longer as simple as just asking donors to write a check and revert. Fundraising professionals need to work with the rest of the team to clearly demonstrate the project reflects a high level of SROI or EROI in the immediate term, medium term, and long term.