Hiring your first fundraiser: Finding the right fit

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This first article in a two-part series covers tips and stratgey for small nonprofits looking to hire their first fundraiser. Don't miss the follow-up article, Hiring your first fundraiser: Hitting the ground running, where we provide advice for fundraising professionals newly hired as an organization's first fundraiser. 

Every nonprofit needs to fundraise.

Fundraising is one of the sector-wide eternal truths, a non-negotiable that all nonprofits need to carry out in order to survive and flourish, regardless of their size.

From multimillion-dollar national organizations, down to local charities with staffs of just one or two, all nonprofits need people to actually meet with donors, shake hands, deliver fundraising calls, and make asks – these frontline fundraisers are essential.

At large nonprofits with beefy budgets, there may be a whole team of fundraisers, all reporting to a development manager, while at mid-sized nonprofits, a development manager may be the only fundraiser, or they may be one of just a few in the organization.

However, at small nonprofits, it’s common for one employee – likely the executive director – to be the organization’s sole fundraiser, tasked with tackling fundraising along with a host of other responsibilities.

As a small nonprofit seeks to mature, it quickly becomes apparent that sustained growth requires money. If additional money cannot be reallocated from its budget, the organization has one option – raising it.

Raising additional funds is an action that sounds simple on the surface, but a web of complexities lie within: the nonprofit may not have enough manpower within the ranks of its volunteer board and existing staff to raise the money, or current fundraisers may be too swamped with other responsibilities to fully turn their attention to the level of fundraising required. It’s a recurring theme that small-sized nonprofits are used to facing; they’re no strangers to having resources stretched to the limit.

So what next?

Expanding services requires a bigger budget, but boosting coffers will likely require an extra set of hands.

With this in mind, it may be time to seriously consider hiring a professional fundraiser to help achieve financial goals.

A shifting landscape; Assessing your needs

When a small nonprofit makes the decision to hire their first fundraiser, it usually means the organization is growing, or is planning to grow, at a significant rate.

As a result of this expansion, the appointment of a fundraiser becomes crucial: while each hire at a small nonprofit is important, the fundraiser is especially important, because the scale of the organization is on the line.

“If you get the hire right, and you expand as planned and knock it out of the park, your ability to deliver more services goes up dramatically,” says Edwin Jansen, the head of marketing for Fitzii, a recruiting software company that has developed a predictive applicant tracking system, “But if you fail, and you get the wrong person, or that person doesn't deliver, it can throw the whole strategic planning process out the window.”

With much of an organization’s ability to grow hinging on this hire, making this decision becomes increasingly important, especially in a landscape where small nonprofits are finding dedicated fundraisers more and more necessary for their survival.

“Here’s a market that, until recently, saw fundraising as something that was largely carried out as a volunteer activity, so this whole idea of actually having professional staff manage this area is very, very new,” says John Wong, a nonprofit fundraising professional based out of Saint John. “Small nonprofits have become very used to their source of income coming through large agencies like the United Way or government grants, but these sources are tightening up, so organizations are now scrambling for dollars.”

Wong notes how small nonprofits are now warming up to the notion that they can raise more money with a more formal fundraising, with “a professional fundraiser managing that process.”

Planning ahead for a successful hire

However, a certain degree of planning needs to occur between making the decision to hire a fundraiser, and actually hiring a fundraiser.

One of the first questions the nonprofit should ask itself is, “how do we expect to bring in these dollars?” The answer to the question will give the nonprofit a sense of what type of fundraiser it should be looking to hire.

“For small organizations, chances are the fundraising position will be that of a more ‘generalist’ type of role,” says Wong. “A mix of activities might include events, major gifts, grant writing, marketing and communications, but each organization may lean towards one or two major fundraising streams.”

The hiring budget will also help to determine the range of ideal candidates, as the more money allotted for the position, the more experience an organization will be able to bring in.

“The more money that you’re willing to pay, the more contacts, relationships, and proven fundraising abilities that you’ll be able to bring in,” says Jansen. “The less funds that you have – and this will be more common with smaller nonprofits – the more you’re going to have to take a chance on someone who has more limited experience.”

Despite the increased risk, small nonprofits shouldn’t be put off by the prospect of having to bring on a fundraiser with limited experience.

“In those cases, everything can work out and be successful, but nonprofits really have to rely on their own assessment and interviewing process to make sure that they find someone who will deliver,” adds Jansen. “Proper planning, and having a sense of the type of fundraiser you’re going after, will help reach those successes.”

Transitioning to a job ad and trusting your mission

When nonprofits are angling for a fundraiser, their job advertisement serves as the bait.

However, similar to when a wharf is riddled with too many fisherman and not enough fish, nonprofits searching for ideal fundraisers are competing against all other fundraising jobs – both corporate and nonprofit – that are available on the market.

“Nonprofits need to realize there is a lack of supply in the market, in terms of talented, dedicated fundraisers, and that even if you get a lot of people applying for your job, that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting enough capable candidates,” says Jansen. “It’s sad to see, but too many nonprofit job postings are stuck on ‘here’s what our organization does, and here’s what the job is’ – that's it. They’re job descriptions, not job advertisements.”

As a means of helping nonprofits stand out from the saturated crowd, Jansen urges organizations to shift from the tired practice of simply posting a job description, and move towards a habit of posting an advertisement for positions: a job description emphasizes what an employee has to achieve on a day-to-day basis and how success will be measured, while a job advertisement also includes why a qualified individual should apply for the job.

“Most organizations are stuck in ‘job description mode’, but postings often don't strike the right chords with potential candidates,” says Jansen. “For example, Fitzii starts off our fundraising job ads by indicating the difference that a successful fundraiser will make in that specific role.”

Wong agrees with this approach, noting that a job posting shouldn’t look like a “wish-list.”

“The reality is finding an experienced fundraising professional possessing all the necessary experience and skills, and who is also keen enough to work for a small nonprofit as a generalist, is often rare,” he says. “It’s important for the employer to be clear and reasonable as to all the essential things they want their new fundraiser to do.”

An easy way to make this transition is to include your organization’s mission at the top of job postings.

“Use your job posting as a lead-in for candidates to share how they personally identify with your mission,” adds Wong. “Give candidates an opportunity to see how their experience, knowledge and skills support the mission to make an impact in the community.”

Wong has seen numerous examples where an employee’s passion for their organization’s mission can make all the difference between success and failure in their role.

“Working in a fundraising environment can be very, very challenging,” he says. “For a prospective employer, you really need to put your mission at the forefront, because it’s that personal connection the candidate has to your cause that will be a forceful driver in their success.”

Determining the ideal candidate

Hiring for fundraising positions can be among the most difficult type of nonprofit role to get right through the interview process, as the difference between a successful fundraiser and an average fundraiser often comes down to personality traits, which resumes rarely reveal.

“Remember that people aren’t paper,” says Alan Kearns, founder of career coaching and counselling service CareerJoy. “Just because you get a quick synopsis on a resume, it doesn't necessarily explain who the candidate really is.”

Kearns’ must-haves for successful nonprofit fundraisers include multiple qualities that can’t be determined by simply reading a resume. He looks for people that can tell a story: those who “describe how they are risk-taking and adventurous, have an ability pursue against the odds, and take action where there might be resistance.”

“You also want to find somebody who really enjoys people, because really, a fundraising role is really a relationship role,” adds Kearns. “At the end of the day, you have to genuinely enjoy working with people, because it takes a lot of energy to take on outbound work like fundraising.”

Possessing ethics and integrity are also vital qualities for nonprofit fundraisers, which can be exemplified through a working knowledge of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Principals.

“At a high level, the role requires someone who can successfully manage a fundraising program and achieve results through analysis, planning, execution and evaluation,” says Wong.

When Wong has interviewed fundraisers in the past, he often has the candidate describe what they think “culture of philanthropy” means, and then has them explain what they feel are the necessary qualities required to successfully build and sustain a culture of philanthropy for the organization to support its mission.

“With this technique, you’ll also get some insight into their sense of ethics and integrity, while also having them relate the qualities to their own knowledge, experiences and skills,” adds Wong.

Wong also notes that while Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification stands out on a resume, small nonprofits shouldn't treat this designation as a must-have.

“There are a lot of really good fundraisers that don't have their CFRE, and there are a lot of fundraisers that have their CFRE that aren’t necessarily good fundraisers,” he says.

Successful fundraisers also carry traits such as a high degree of self-initiative and drive, which Jansen has seen through his work with Fitzii.

“Successful fundraisers have to be able to just keep making those phone calls, even if they’re getting rejections, or voicemails, or if no one’s getting back to them,” he says. “They just keep picking themselves back up, they keep going and going, and it’s very difficult to assess that type of inner-fortitude in an interview.”

Jansen has found that within the fundraising industry, pre-employment psychometric tests – personality tests that have been calibrated over many years to be able to predict who is going to be successful at fundraising – will do a better job identifying ideal candidates than by looking at resumes and interviewing people alone.

“This is the toughest part of the whole hiring process,” says Jansen. “If you don’t have the budget to hire someone who’s been fundraising successfully for 10 years – and most small nonprofits don't – than you have to figure out methods to assess whether they’re good at it, and these tests can significantly help in this process.”

Don’t fear corporate sector experience

With the talent pool of dedicated fundraisers smaller than most nonprofit hiring managers would like, it’s no wonder that more than 50% of executive directors say they can’t find well-qualified fundraisers.

Nonprofits not only have to compete with one another for dedicated fundraising talent, but also with the corporate sector.

“Many of the top fundraisers could also be successful in the corporate world in sales, and make two or three times the amount of money in the process,” says Jansen.

But if the nonprofit sector is losing out on qualified fundraisers to the world of corporate development, why not open up the potential fundraising candidate pool to those who have for-profit sector sales experience?

“Often nonprofits are scared of looking at someone from the corporate world who doesn't have nonprofit fundraising experience,” adds Jansen. “The thing that the sector is afraid of, which they have every right to be, is that someone coming from the corporate world won’t last at the nonprofit, because there isn’t the same amount of budget, they don't have a big expense account like they’re used to, and in many cases, they’re not making the money that they used to.”

However, Jansen says that taking a chance on someone with corporate experience can be a risk that pays off – “big time” – if the search is handled properly.

“There are so many people in the corporate world that are growing weary of its dog-eat-dog atmosphere, and want to move to a workplace with entrenched values,” he notes. “Being really explicit about what your nonprofit environment is like, what the budget is like, and what the fundraising process is like, will go a long way in attracting talent with corporate experience.”

Kearns has also seen a trend in professionals dissatisfied with the corporate world and are wanting to explore “more meaningful” work that can be found in the nonprofit sector.

“Those wanting to cross into the nonprofit sector are likely not driven by money, but they’re motivated by wanting to make a difference, or to be part of a cause,” he says. “Nonprofits want to find a fundraiser who has a natural values system that aligns with the cause, and corporate sector candidates shouldn't be ruled out based solely on their experience.”

Wong echoes this sentiment, but urges hiring managers to take enough time to fully determine if the candidate is “cause-driven.”

“Someone with sales experience might possess the necessary transferrable skills to make for an ideal fundraising candidate, but it’s also about having the right mindset to successfully work in philanthropy,” he says. “By having the conversation about a culture of philanthropy as it relates to the organization’s mission, the candidate’s qualities should enable the employer flush this out.”

While the fate of a nonprofit’s growth may seem like a lot of pressure to heap on just one employee, the fact remains that if a fundraiser reaches their goals, the impact that the nonprofit is setting out to make will likely be realized.

“You want, more than anything, that mission-driven fundraiser who wants to choose your organization for what it stands for,” says Jansen. “The great ones can work anywhere, but they will choose your organization because they care about the difference your organization is striving to make.”

Brock Smith is a communications specialist based out of Markham, ON, with a special interest in the nonprofit sector. Brock can be reached on twitter at @brocktsmith.

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Photos (from top) via iStockphoto. All photos used with permission.

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