Job search advice for fundraisers: An interview with Phil Gerard

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Editor's Note: This interview originally appeared on the Wild Woman Fundraising website and is excerpted with permission. You can read the full interview here.

Mazarine Treyz: This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and today I am so excited to be interviewing Phil Gerard for our Fundraising Career Conference 2016. Phil will be speaking about how to structure and organize your fundraising job search. So Phil, what makes you different from all the other fundraising recruiters out there?

Phil Gerard: There are a couple of things, Mazarine, and thank you very much for inviting me back to your conference. What is very important to me is that I have a long-term view. I’m not just going search by search by search. I have regular meetings once a week, where I meet with fundraisers and aspiring fundraisers for coffee and talk with them about their career aspirations. I haven’t said no to anyone who has approached me and said they want to talk with me about a career in fundraising, about their next move. I think that’s really important, because this way I am getting to know the people in my network, what their background is, what their strengths is, what really makes them tick, what they want to do with their career. Then as opportunities come up in the future, I have a much better understanding of who could be a good fit for what job in what organization.

I’ve met with fundraisers that are not now fundraisers, but they might have just graduated from university and they were interested in the field. I don’t think many other recruiters meet with just regular, non-fundraisers for coffee to find out what interests them, why they want to be in fundraising and what their possible career paths might look like.

MT: Excellent. So that said, what work do you find most fulfilling with your consulting?

PG: Oh, I love my job. There are many things that I find fulfilling. One example is when someone calls me and they have tried to break into the fundraising profession, and we’ve talked a number of times and then this person calls me in the future and says, “Phil, I got the job.” Or even better, the year after, they call me and say, “I still have the job and it’s fabulous, and now I have a promotion.” That’s just an awesome feeling. MT: What are you teaching at the Fundraising Career Conference in 2016?

PG: This time we are going to be talking about organizing your job search. So this is something that I am looking forward to very much, because it’s going to touch on many different points. It’s going to be a really broad session, where we’re talking about researching the organizations that you are interested in that you want to apply to, preparing your resume and being strategic about your job search. How to prepare yourself for an interview, the dos and the don’ts, and how to present yourself in an interview and afterwards. Then also we’re going to talk about negotiating your salary, your benefits, and I really want to tackle a few of the uncomfortable questions about what to say. For example, what to say when you’re being asked for your salary expectation. I have some really sticky examples that we can talk about that you really often cannot talk to a hiring manager about.

So you can ask me these questions and I will give you examples, and I will also prepare some examples in my searches where an interview or a search process has not gone as well as it could have if the person had been more transparent, for example, or would have prepared better or approached the situation in a different way.

MT: Some of our listeners may have been struggling to break into fundraising. I know you meet a lot of those kind of people. Do you have any advice for them?

PG: Yeah. I think there are a couple of things that need to align to break into fundraising. First of all, I think you really need to know what you want. You need to know that this is your career. Not because the economy is bad and you just got laid off and fundraising looks like a good idea. That is not the best place to start from. I often say to people when they want to talk about a career in fundraising, “Why do you want to be a fundraiser?” You know, have you given this some thought? So I think it’s really important that you want to be a fundraiser as a career. So that’s number one.

Then you need to have the theory and the knowledge, right? You need to know how to fundraise. You can’t just start tomorrow and you know nothing about it. So the knowledge. The theoretical knowledge you can gain from books. Ideally you start a certificate program, a diploma in fundraising.

Then almost simultaneously, around the same time, I recommend that you start your job search. You will need to, in addition to your theoretical knowledge, be able to put your knowledge in practice. You need to find an outlet where you can build a track record. I like to give this example about becoming a realtor. Well, I, with my transferable sales skills and experience as a fundraiser, I can become a realtor, write the certification or whatever you need to do, in maybe two months. Right? But that doesn’t mean that tons of people are lining up to list houses with me, because I don’t have a track record. I need to get that first listing, and then I need to do a good job, and then I will likely get another listing. It will be a lot of work and I have to build my track record.

The same thing is true in fundraising. Just because you have completed a certificate program doesn’t mean that you can actually raise the money. You haven’t built your track record. So it’s really important to have these three pieces. Knowing what you want, then getting the theoretical knowledge, and then put that into practice. You need to get that first chance to show what you can do.

MT: And for others, they may be wondering how to go from a small shop fundraising job, say at a human services organization, to a fundraising job at a university or a hospital. Do you have any advice for them?

PG: Yeah, there are a couple of ways to do that. One would be to start in an entry level position. The earlier you start in a big shop, the easier it is. They have some people who know right from the beginning they want to work in a big shop, and they start as development associates or they start as a development coordinator, and they work their way up. For someone who has already been a fundraiser in a different type of organization, again, they need to know if this is what they want to do. Because fundraising for a social service organization is different from fundraising for a hospital foundation or a university. But if they really want to do that and they want to break into that sector, either they start at the university or hospital in an entry level position, or they need to gain quite a bit of front-line experience face-to-face – and that doesn’t have to be necessarily major gifts. That could be leadership annual giving, or it could be corporate relations. I actually have recruited a number of fundraisers who were in third-party events, community-based fundraising, and corporate relations into more of a junior front-line major gifts role because they had that face-to-face element. That is extremely important to universities and hospital foundations.

You might have been a generalist in a smaller shop. But as a generalist, you might have had this experience as well. You might have run a capital campaign or you had experience with annual funds, where you had face-to-face exposure to donors. Then you have a good chance to break into a front-line fundraising role in a university or a hospital foundation. But the challenge that many face is that even a junior mid-level major gifts position in a university already has a $750,000 to $1.5 million annual goal. If you’ve only raised $300,000 in the past, then that might be a challenge to overcome.

MT: Now let’s switch gears a little bit. Phil, since you, I’m sure, see so many cover letters and resumes, what’s one mistake you see people make over and over with a cover letter or a resume?

PG: I have many pet peeves when it comes to resumes and cover letters and LinkedIn profiles. We’ll talk about that at the session. But one mistake that I see over and over again is inconsistency, and that includes everything. That includes typos, that includes style issues. For example, you do bullet points in your resume and then you have a period in one bullet and then you don’t have one in the next. Typos, as I said. Comma mistakes. Inconsistency with fonts, font size, or addressing it to the wrong organization. So your resume, your cover letter needs to be flawless. Because the thing is that it’s so easy for recruiters and hiring managers to get the wrong idea, the wrong picture of you. You might be the best fundraiser they could ever hire. But for some reason you had a bad day and you pumped that resume out, and you don’t get the job. So it’s such an easy mistake and a crucial mistake to make. So that’s why I choose that as the number one.

MT: What do you wish more people understood about conducting a fundraising job search?

PG: That it takes time. Especially if you want to break into fundraising. It will take time, and I say this over and over again. Those who are patient and have a good attitude, are humble and gracious in the process, they will eventually be successful. Being humble and gracious, that universally applies for professional fundraisers who have been in the field a long time, as much as new fundraisers. But new fundraisers need to learn that it just takes time. You can’t expect to have a job within a month.

MT: Thank you, Phil! How can people get in touch with you?

PG: The best way to get in touch with me is through my website. You can also find me on LinkedIn and Twitter - feel free to contact me through there.

Click here to register now for the Fundraising Career Conference 2016. The low price of $36 ends on February 28th, 2016. It’s virtual, every session is recorded, and you will have access to all of the recordings after the conference is over!

Mazarine Treyz is the author of "Get the Job! Your Fundraising Career Empowerment Guide." Her popular blog has 50,000 monthly readers. Read more at Join her at the 2016 Fundraising Career Conference.

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