How to Hire and Retain Professional Fundraisers For Your Nonprofit | Step-by-Step
Fundraising is a non-negotiable for all nonprofits. All nonprofits need to raise funds in order to survive and thrive, regardless of their size. From multi-million dollar organizations to small community charities – fundraising is inevitable. So, by default, fundraisers are too. But, there just aren’t enough fundraisers to go around. There is a bigger demand…
1. Assess your current situation and determine your needs.
At large nonprofits, there might be a whole team of fundraisers, all reporting to a development director, while at mid-sized nonprofits, a development manager may be one of only a few fundraisers at the organization.
At small nonprofits, it’s common for one employee – likely the executive director – to be the organization’s sole fundraiser.
Whatever your situation is, take stock. Take a good look around.
How’s your nonprofit doing?
What are you doing really well?
Which areas are you struggling in?
Why are you looking to hire a fundraiser?
How would they contribute to your overall strategic plan?
How do you expect to bring in those dollars?
What do you want them to do?
The answer to those questions will give your nonprofit a sense of what type of fundraiser you should be looking to hire.
For small organizations, chances are the fundraising position will be that of a more ‘generalist’ type of role. These ‘generalist’ fundraisers are often in charge of a mix of activities such as events, major gifts, grant writing, marketing, and communications.
Before hiring a professional fundraiser, ask yourself
Is our board committed to fundraising (not just as an idea, but as a board activity)?
Will we support this new person with an adequate salary, authority, budget, and staff?
Do we have realistic expectations for developing a fundraising department?
Do we have realistic expectations for the time it will take and the funding it requires?
Many differentiate between a fundraiser and a development director. The first one works to bring in the money an organization needs to carry out its programs. The development director’s primary responsibility, however, is to oversee fundraising, rather than to actually raise money. This person may write grants, research foundations, and corporations, and oversee or implement other fundraising strategies, but they work mostly behind the scenes, establishing a structure for effective fundraising.
To sum up, it’s essential to first get crystal clear on who and what exactly you’re looking for.
Now that you know what you’re looking for when hiring, write it down. If you’re stuck, we list a few key qualities to look for when hiring a fundraiser further down in the article. Otherwise, you could look at examples of similar, respected organizations and their job listings.
Writing a clear and compelling job description will bring the right candidates through the door.
Your job description should clearly outline what you want the fundraiser to accomplish and also share more about your organizational culture.
Always be very upfront about what you can offer in terms of compensation and benefits, especially if it’s significantly less than the industry standard.
Incorporating routine tasks as well as big picture objectives into your job description will give candidates a sharper idea of their day-to-day experiences at your nonprofit.
Include specific information about how to apply and what materials should be submitted (e.g. resume, cover letter, references).
It also helps to come up with (if you don’t have one already) a rigorous recruitment process (including resume reviews and initial phone screenings) that develops a number of strong, talented, and competent candidates.
Pro tip: Be realistic. If you’re a small nonprofit just starting out, it’s not realistic to expect a fundraiser to raise $1,000,000 in their first year – and to be responsible for the membership program, Christmas gala dinner, the annual report, major donors program, crowdfunding, planned giving, grant writing… Don’t spread the fundraiser’s responsibilities too thin – to the point where nothing gets done well.
Look internally first. Sometimes, great candidates can come from within the organization.
Ask your network to reach out to relevant candidates and spread the word more broadly through social media and email. Consider referral bonuses to team members who refer candidates whom you end up hiring.
If you feel you might get swamped with offers, consider asking the candidates to submit a simple assignment as part of their application package. This will weed out those who aren’t committed enough and will give you more information about the candidate, their work ethic, and their communication style.
Shareable digital content (flyers, photos, videos, etc.)
Online nonprofit job board postings
Don’t be afraid to open up the potential fundraising candidate pool to those who have for-profit sector sales experience. Although your nonprofit might not be able to offer them the same kind of compensation, there are so many people in the corporate world that are growing weary of the corporate atmosphere and want to do something different.
Pro tip: A job advertisement isn’t the same as a job description. Only by adding your job description online, you cannot expect to get a lot of excellent applications. A job advertisement should emphasize why a qualified individual should apply for your job, not just a list of what you need. Ask yourself – what is it that we offer that can make us appeal strongly to a good fundraiser. Maybe you’ll attract people because they love the work your nonprofit does. If passion doesn’t draw applicants, be sure to offer a competitive salary and benefits package.
4. Narrow it down.
Before you start narrowing down your pool of candidates, make sure you’re very clear on the criteria based on which you’ll be doing so (e.g. results, years of experience, key skills, and more).
Go through the cover letters and resumes (and any other parts of the application package i.e. assignments). Select 5-20 people to do phone interviews with.
Hiring for fundraising positions can be difficult to get right at this stage, as the difference between a successful and professional fundraiser and an average fundraiser often comes down to personality traits, which resumes rarely reveal. For example, professional fundraisers have to be able to keep picking themselves back up, and this is very difficult to assess that type of inner-fortitude from a resume or a cover letter.
Don’t just look at financial achievements and university degrees (see the bonus tip #3 below). Look at the diversity of their experience, which might indicate they are adaptable, have useful transferable skills, or are volunteers or members of clubs and societies. These can say a lot about the candidate. They could be creative, resilient, versatile, great team players, interested in developing themselves, and more.
Competencies and achievements matter as well, but don’t get too stuck on them. Nearly all of the qualities of a good fundraiser can be learned or acquired over time with practice. They are not innate.
Pro tip: Despite the increased risk, don’t be put off by the prospect of having to bring on a fundraiser with limited experience due to budget limitations. Rely on your own assessment and interviewing process to find someone who will deliver.
5. Conduct phone interviews
Phone interviews, at this stage, tend to be about 30 minutes long.
Here are some questions you can ask:
What’s your interest in our mission? How does our organization’s work resonate with your professional and personal interests?
In your research about our organization, what do you believe is unique about us that you can use to demonstrate this is the right place to donate to?
What drew you to fundraising?
Tell me about a time when you persisted in spite of challenges and obstacles?
What do you consider your most successful role in fundraising? Why?
You might want to ask the candidates to tell you more about their most recent fundraising positions and what they learned or accomplished in each.
Leave room for candidates to ask their own questions.
Pro tip: Ask each candidate the same questions. This will allow for consistency in the interview process and provide a basis to compare candidates. Ask one question at a time and use open-ended questions to encourage more input from the candidate. Do not ask leading or closed-end questions.
6. Set up in-person interviews.
Next, organize multiple face-to-face interviews of a small pool of candidates by a diverse hiring committee that is prepared to ask penetrating questions about the character (not competence). These will get to the heart of the matter.
At this stage, you’ll want to select your best-fit fundraising professional as well as 1-3 backup options.
See if they meet at least some of the following criteria:
Do they have experience with nonprofits in your sector? The fundraiser you choose ideally understands the realities of your sector and has experience building successful campaigns for nonprofits like yours.
Do they have experience working in your region? Alternatively, can they adapt to the diverse regional fundraising need?
Are they a good cultural fit? You’ll want to pick someone who aligns with your nonprofit’s culture.
You can also check for evidence of:
Securing and closing gifts faster
Obtaining high yield gifts
Striving to exceed goals
Setting higher standards for professional excellence
Funding growth patterns
Years of tenure
Size of secured gifts
Here are some sample questions you can ask
Describe your greatest accomplishment as a fundraising professional and what you did to bring it about.
Tell me the story of the largest individual ask you have ever made. Did you get the gift? Why?
Describe the toughest decision you’ve had to make professionally and how you handled it.
What elements make a fundraising event/appeal/campaign successful?
How do you grow revenue from a planned giving/membership/major donor program?
What’s the role of social media in fundraising?
Tell me about a gift you identified, cultivated, solicited, closed, and stewarded.
What are your expectations of me (the CEO) in fundraising? Board members? Other staff?
What do you enjoy most about fundraising? What do you enjoy the least?
Do multiple interview rounds to be absolutely sure and don’t cut corners due to time constraints. It’s a big decision you’re making, so don’t take the easy route. An assessment, presentation, or assignment in one of the interview rounds can be very helpful to help you reach a decision.
Pro tip: When interviewing, stay mindful of the ‘passion gap’. Someone who’s successfully raised money for a museum may be a poor fit for an animal shelter — simply because they may not feel as strongly about the cause.
7. Extend an offer and onboard.
After you’ve hired an exceptional fundraiser for your nonprofit, the final step for your nonprofit lies in extending the offer, establishing your new hire’s position, and training them accordingly.
Ultimately, your new fundraiser should be aware of how their role fits in with the bigger picture of your nonprofit. They will be working with your executive leaders to carve in their new place.
A few things to consider when developing this new hire’s role in your nonprofit may be:
Working with them on a written plan of objectives and responsibilities.
Providing a designated workspace equipped with resources.
Scheduling one-on-one time between them and executives.
Introducing them to a team of friendly and informative co-workers to help train them.
Onboarding can be particularly tricky when developing a brand new position, which is why it’s even more essential for your new hire to have an abundance of training resources and assistance at their disposal.
Have a capable onboarding committee/buddy in place to educate your new hire on their budding role as well as standard organization policies and procedures.
Beyond these fundamental steps, activities that provide continuous learning and a clear career path for growth lead to greater retention. This is especially true for millennials. Ensure you are having consistent conversations and check-ins to examine employees’ progress and performance.
3 Bonus Tips For Hiring Great, Professional Fundraisers
1. Consider promoting an existing employee.
One of the biggest advantages of hiring internally is that it reduces your overall recruitment costs. Not only do you not have to invest in advertising your role on third-party websites or on social media, but it’s also unlikely you’ll have to set aside as much time for interviews.
Onboarding and training costs will also be significantly lower as the employee will already understand how your nonprofit works.
Check if you have employees —typically program staff — who are ambitious, passionate about your cause, and willing to learn. If they need additional training, invest in that.
This way you start with someone who’s deeply familiar with your work. Furthermore, giving people the opportunity to progress will make them feel more valued at your nonprofit, as well as allowing them to showcase their contribution to the organization.
Pro tip: See if your executive director could and would want to spend most of his time raising money, delegating most program and administrative responsibilities to managers so he can focus on outreach to major donors and other funders. A lot of funders and donors are more interested in talking with the boss, rather than fundraising/development staff, so this is an added advantage.
2. Consider hiring a recruiter.
This will likely cost more than if you were doing the recruiting yourself, but a good recruiter will help you figure out what you need, and will do the necessary legwork to get the best people in the door for you to interview.
They will also contact people who are not checking job sites but who could be a great fit for your nonprofit.
Hiring fundraisers is complex. In some cases, the wrong people are part of the recruitment panel and sometimes they ask the wrong questions. For example, if a non-fundraiser is involved in hiring your fundraisers, they might not have a profound understanding of the area they are hiring for.
This is why, unless you have great confidence in your recruiting skills, it can be wise to hire a specialist who can help with the assessment.
3. “How much they raised” matters, but it isn’t everything.
It might be tempting to focus on those candidates who have personally raised large amounts of money in the past.
Of course, we need to know that candidates for fundraising positions can actually raise funds. But selecting based only or mostly on financial achievements isn’t necessarily going to get you the fundraiser you need.
This fails to account for a wide variety of factors that you would look for in good fundraising professional. For example, what about those fundraisers from smaller nonprofits who might not look as good ‘on paper’ as candidates whose experience has come from larger organizations, but who might be even ‘better’ fundraisers, given their circumstances?
Things to Look For Across the Board – Key Qualities of Successful, Professional Fundraisers
Fundraising is multi-dimensional and requires a specialized skill-set.
Not only do fundraising professionals need to be good at research, but they need to be excellent at communication and strategic thinking. They need to be perceptive, empathetic, detail-oriented, and ambitious. That’s a lot to ask of one person, which is why many large nonprofits have multiple fundraising team members to fulfill these specific roles.
It’s important to note that there’s a lot of variety within fundraising roles. You wouldn’t look for the same skills in a planned giving officer and a digital fundraiser.
However, to get you started, here are the qualities that pertain to most effective fundraising professionals:
1. Building trust and relationships
Donating is a personal decision. Hire fundraisers who have passion for your mission and a desire to inspire others about your cause. Hire fundraisers who would connect well to your target audience.
Your ideal candidate might have experience in longer sales or business development cycles, or is a natural partnerships builder. If a fundraiser genuinely cares about building real relationships with donors, the rest is easy.
Pro tip: It goes without saying professional fundraisers need to be comfortable asking for money (most of us aren’t)!
2. Discipline and follow up
In addition to passion and motivation, great fundraisers develop stewardship plans and databases. Running those well and consistently requires discipline, attentiveness, and skill at follow-up.
For example, a good major donor officer often remembers the details of their interactions with important donors and keeps note of things that matter to the donor.
Look for someone with acute attention to detail, who knows how to set priorities and stick to them. Great fundraisers are also not afraid to set measurable goals and be accountable for them.
They’re able to think about the long-term but also the tactical day-to-day steps to get there.
Look for someone who can both map out and then implement a fundraising strategy – from prospecting to cultivation and making asks, to stewardship.
4. Persistence and grit
Fundraisers get rejected a lot. You need someone who can make that bold ask of a prospective donor, get rejected, and be able to move on.
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. They need to be able to just pick themselves back up.
5. Passion for the mission
Working in a fundraising environment can be very, very challenging. Put your mission at the forefront, because it’s that personal connection and passion the candidate has for your cause that will be a forceful driver in their success.
According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the lifespan of a development director in a given organization is typically 18-24 months.
Losing a fundraiser—particularly a high-performing one—is a major source of revenue loss. If donor relationships are broken, the revenue and morale dip and team productivity suffer. The organization is also saddled with the cost of recruiting and onboarding a new frontline fundraiser.
A report from the Center for American Progress found that turnover can cost as much as 213% of a lost employee’s salary. That means an expert frontline fundraiser earning $120,000 can carry a replacement price tag of $255,600.
Research shows that fundraisers tend to stay at a nonprofit less than two or three years and that many leave after being recruited by other organizations.
A recent survey of 660 frontline fundraisers by the consulting firm Bentz Whaley Flessner found that 56 percent had been contacted about other job prospects six or more times in a year.
In fact, development director roles are often referred to as “revolving doors”—with employees cycling in and out of organizations at an alarming frequency.
Key elements to help your fundraising staff stick around
Studies suggest that 75% of CDOs and 62% of CEOs considered unrealistic expectations to be the chief reason for high development director turnover.
Development professionals are often expected to work long hours and possess a perfect balance of personality traits—analytic and creative, assertive and warm, extroverted while insightful.
Don’t be unrealistic and confusing. Set clear and realistic expectations and your fundraisers will be more likely to stay.
Many nonprofit organizations want to survive with very low overhead. This can often lead to burnout or an inability to hire great talent. Social change is a marathon, not a sprint. And a marathon requires adequate staffing – which costs money.
High-performing fundraisers will be looking for a competitive salary. Before you start a search, educate everyone who’s a decision-maker in your organization about the need to pay great fundraisers at or above the market rate. Explain how low pay can undermine donor relationships and the overall financial well-being of the organization.
Pro tip: If you can’t offer a competitive salary, discuss special benefits packages that may help you close an offer when the salary is not as elastic. Special benefits and workplace flexibility, including remote work or parental leave, help attract and retain valuable employees.
Give your fundraisers considerable freedom to run their own calendars, set donor visit schedules, and do their own reports.
Don’t micromanage them. This doesn’t mean there’s no structure and that they don’t work toward established goals. It simply means you show them trust.
Fundraising can be stressful and thankless work. The demands to raise more money are never-ending, and while the donors are thanked for their generosity, fundraisers are frequently overlooked.
Creating an environment of appreciation, recognition, and gratitude – not only for donors but also for the fundraisers who work with them.
And also make it very clear that other people know that they’re doing good work.
5. Team Environment
Many fundraising professionals find themselves disconnected from the rest of their organization’s operations, working on their own for days or weeks. While many fundraisers like to work by themselves, this sense of isolation can distance these staff members from the broader mission of your nonprofit.
Furthermore, make sure your fundraisers have some input in the plans that use the funds they worked so hard to raise.
6. Opportunities for Growth
Fundraisers are often an ambitious bunch. Nothing is more frustrating for an ambitious fundraiser than discovering they are out of personal or career growth runway. Have a process that reviews the different career and development opportunities for your fundraisers.
Because their field lacks natural career ladders, some fundraisers (for example major-gift officers, particularly those not interested in management positions) often jump to new jobs to find new challenges and opportunities for growth.
Pro tip: Phase-out performance measures over the first 18 months to two years. Offer chances to informally mentor others, for instance, or manage transformational gifts – a role that puts them in coveted partnership with your top leaders.
Over to You
If you take the time to think about the fundraising role you’re looking for if you ask the right questions, and if you hire for the character – you will hire great fundraisers.
If you’re clear, if you inspire, trust and lead your staff well – you will retain your best fundraisers.
Hiring and retaining excellent fundraisers can be difficult. But with constant attention and prioritization, you can ensure success.
And don’t forget that a nonprofit cannot just hire their way out of a fundraising lull and the position of development director or lead fundraiser cannot simply be inserted into an organization, expecting to create magical results.
Fundraising needs to be a priority that’s shared among everyone in the organization, including the executive director, staff, and board.
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