What hiring managers are looking for in fundraising candidates: An interview with Claire Axelrad

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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: Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I’m so pleased today to interview Claire Axelrad, JD, CFRE, of Clairification.com. Before her career as a consultant, she was the development director for the San Francisco Food Bank. Is that correct, Claire?

Claire Axelrad: Well, I was development director for a number of different nonprofits. The food bank happened to be my last full time position. I worked 30 years in the trenches. But yeah, that’s true.

MT: Where are some other places you were development director?

CA: Oh, I worked at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. I worked at the Jewish Community Center. I worked at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and I worked at the California School For Professional Psychology.

MT: And at these jobs, were you in charge of hiring and firing?

CA: I was. Yes. I seemed to specialize in building departments. So for example, at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, when I started, I had a staff of two people. By the time I left I had a staff of 20 people. That was in development and marketing. So you know, as the budget of the organization also builds as well, our fundraising increased from $67,000 my first year to $12 million the year that I left.

MT: How long were you there?

CA: I was there for 22 years. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work at organizations of different sizes. Some of them were different sizes in the time I was there, and different causes: Social services, arts, education, community center, and while fundraising is a little bit different, the basics are fundamentally the same. What you look for in a fundraiser is fundamentally the same.

So I do have a pretty good sense of what it takes to be successful in the field and I’ve done a lot of hiring and unfortunately a bit of firing as well. I usually try to work with people and kind of counsel them out of the job so that they see it’s not really a good fit for them.

MT: Right. But when you hired fundraising staff, what qualities have you looked for?

CA: Well, there are two things that I look at. One is what I would call their performance habits, and the other is the innate qualities and strengths that they bring to the job. So I’ll often ask people what they consider to be the top three to five traits of an effective fundraiser. This kind of helps me see if they get it. If they understand what they need to do to be successful.

If they come up with the ubiquitous "I’m a great people person", for me that’s like a big red flag. Because well, everybody says that. The fact that they’re not a reclusive person is really lovely. But it’s kind of the same for almost any job that you would be in. Anybody who thinks that all they need to succeed as a development officer is to be friendly and chatty are kind of missing the forest for the trees. Because development staff need to act within a context. So I’m probing for the context that people act within, in the interview.

So I want to know, can you be strategic? Do you understand how donors think? Do you know how to find out how they think? Are you able to plan? Are you able to set specific goals and measurable objectives? Can you articulate what success would look like? You’re coming into a new job here. What do you think success would look like at the end of three months, six months, a year? Do you know how to uncover problems? Do you know how to fix them? Do you know how to measure and demonstrate your success? So I’m a people person doesn’t quite get to the heart of what matters in terms of performance habits or innate qualities.

So I guess some of the habits that I look for is that it’s the type of person who picks up the phone. A real sort of doer, can do person. The most effective fundraisers I’ve met are people who pick up the phone to just get something done. They don’t send an email then send a letter then wait by the phone. They love the phone because it puts them in touch really quickly and directly with whoever they need to talk to, be it a potential grantor or a donor. But it helps them build a relationship with the person.

So it shows they’re really not afraid to interact with people, and the other thing I look for is people who also are not just verbally inclined but also a little mathematically inclined so that they can focus on metrics. They know that they have limited resources and they’re not going to be able to get every possible activity done. So they have to spend their time doing what works the best. The only way to know what works the best is to track the metrics. Track the return on investment for all of the strategies that they’re using so that they can then go, huh. This works. I should do more of this. Or this doesn’t work so well. I should take this off my plate because it’s getting in the way of me being more effective and doing a better job.

The other thing is I like people who ask for referrals, who ask other people for help. Like, who else could I talk to? They don’t just stop with what’s at hand. It’s one of the things that I suggest people do when they do research interviews, when they’re interested in entering the field, is that they do research interviews with lots of different folks and that they never leave the room without saying, “Do you know two or three other people I might talk to?”

That’s a really good quality for a development staff who is meeting with a donor, to say, “Are there some other people I should talk to?” You should do that when you’re talking to foundations too. You’re interested in this project. What are some other foundations you think we should contact that might be good? So I guess I’m looking for people who demonstrate that they’re both curious and they’re good networkers. I guess that leads to the next quality, people who are lifelong learners.

Good fundraisers are constantly working to be better at what they do. They read fundraising books and blogs and they attend conferences. They do training opportunities. I might ask somebody, what fundraising blogs do you read? Because I want to get a sense if...this is really a profession that they’re passionate about. I think the other thing that lifelong learners do is they work with mentors and they connect with their peers. They get some practice in with other people who are maybe more skilled. That’s how they learn new skills.

Then I guess the other thing that I’m really looking for is that people prioritize. So I might ask them, “If you were to take this job, what are the top three things that you think you should focus on?” Because the most effective development professionals, like probably the most effective professionals anywhere, follow the Pareto rule, the 80/20 rule, where they spend most of their time focused on the activities that offer the highest return on their investment. They continually are testing new things and they’re keeping what works. They’re cutting out the rest.

When they have too much work on their plate, what do they do? Sometimes I ask people how you handle stress, which is one way to get at this. But rather than just going crazy when they have too much work on their plate, they figure out a way to get some of it off their plate by prioritizing, by delegating, or just figuring out what makes sense to be really working on and what is getting in the way.

MT: So how can someone show you they really want the job, before you interview them?

CA: Well, one way is to write a really thoughtful cover letter that shows that they’ve read the job description. They’ve done a little bit of research on the website and they’ve got some specific reasons why this would be a really good job for them at this point in their journey. Not just a boilerplate cover letter that I can tell that they sent to ten or 100 different organizations, but something that’s really thoughtful.

Then coming into the interview prepared. Again, having shown that they’ve done their research. Certainly having thought a little bit about how they can be helpful. Most people who are doing hiring are looking for someone that’s going to help them. So looking at the job description and actually saying to me, you know, I read this in the job description and between the lines I read you may have a problem with donor retention. Or you may have a problem with not having enough donors, or whatever it is. Then they say, I’ve given some thought to how I might be able to help you. Of course, I have a few questions to make sure that this would be the most helpful way that I could address this problem. But let me tell you a little bit about how I think I could help. So that shows me, you know, yeah. They want this job. They want to help me.

Then I guess, finally leaving, I think sending a thoughtful thank you letter and saying, I really want this job. That tells me that they do.

MT: What can readers do right now to get more hirable in fundraising?

CA: Well, one of the things that people always say is volunteer. Go volunteer. Get some real life nonprofit experience. I think that’s always a really good thing to do. I also recognize that it’s really hard for a lot of people who are in full-time jobs now to find the time to volunteer. So the other thing that I say is read fundraising books and blogs. Become familiar with the lingo in the area of fundraising into which you’d like to be hired.

So that when you’re in an interview, you can start talking about it chapter and verse and your interviewer is going to be like wow, this person really knows this stuff. She’s got data on donor retention that I wasn’t aware of that we could use to benchmark our donor retention against. So I think that’s a really good thing to do and I don’t think enough people do that.

One person that I hired once for a marketing director sent me a link to his blog where he had written a whole bunch of articles about marketing that I thought were really, really smart. I thought, oh, I want this guy. He seems to really get it. So anything that you can do that shows that you get it.

The last thing I would say is what I alluded to earlier, which is go on research interviews. Especially if you’re transitioning from another profession into fundraising. Go talk to people in fundraising. Just say, I’d like to come talk with you about what you do as a development director on a daily basis. I’m thinking about making a move into this career and I’d really like to get a grasp of what it entails. I would always take those types of interviews. Then it shows that you know what you’re doing.

When someone comes in with a sales background, which sometimes can be very translatable into fundraising, but clearly has no idea about anything to do with fundraising, I’m kind of like, come back when you’ve done your research.

MT: That’s wonderful. When people are connected to the research, that resonates with you even if they don’t have the necessary experience. They want to explore what it really means to get involved in fundraising.

CA: Right, because I’m looking for people who are problem solvers. I’m looking for people who want to figure out how to get things done. So show me you can figure out what it takes to do this job. I don’t expect you to know everything, but the fact that you’ve tried to figure out something on your own is a good start.

Join us for the 3rd annual Fundraising Career Conference April 17th, 19th and 21st 2017. Since 2015 over 900 people have attended this online conference, resulting in more successful job interviews, 42% salary increases, new jobs, better workplace environments, and more! This year we're going deep, with sessions on how to build trust with your boss (and not get fired), how to be a better mentor and manager, creativity and play at work, and more! Learn more.

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 wildwomanfundraising.com. Join her at the 2017 Fundraising Career Conference.

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