passfail 2015-Feb09
What should you consider when hiring a major gift officer? Jeff and I get asked this question frequently. To me, it is a question of alignment: does the person align with the organization?
Years ago, I came up with hiring criteria to help answer this question. The criteria have two parts, which I am going to address in this post and the next. The first is about attitude, answering the question: who are you? The second is about aptitude, answering the question: what can you do? One is about your core values, beliefs and style. The other is about your abilities.
I am never interested in a person’s abilities and what they can do until I know that their values, beliefs and style are aligned. The problem is that most résumés don’t start with this information – they start with experience and tenure, plus education, etc. So in some ways, when you make your first pass to select who to talk to, you’re limited to these attributes. Fine. I start with that first step as well. But once I have selected people based on what they have done and what they say they can do for the organization, I get into the attitude part.
The attitude part, for me, has two sub-points – a check on being donor-centered, and a check on operating style.
The first thing I want to know is if the person is donor-centered. This is critical. If they aren’t, you need to move on. Donors are the core asset of a non-profit. If a prospective employee does not value donors, their technical contribution to the organization will be short-lived and minimal.
What are the characteristics of a truly donor-centered MGO? Here is how we would answer that question.
A donor-centered MGO or development professional operates with a fundraising philosophy that centers on caring for and nurturing donors while pursuing organizational objectives. If a prospective employee is solely focused on numbers and strategies to secure money, I would be concerned. If a prospective employee does not understand that money comes from donors who need to be personally engaged and desire fulfillment and meaning in return for their gift, then there is a major problem in that person’s thinking. You do not want to work with or hire a person who thinks this way.
Our short list of what makes for a donor-centered MGO or development professional is:

  1. The person articulates an operating philosophy that values the donor as much as the mission of the organization.
  2. The person creates and maintains systems, strategies and processes which prove that his stated philosophy is truly operational. For instance, a MGO may say he “just loves donors,” but then he supports a donor receipting and thank you system that abuses them – not receipting and thanking on a timely basis, or not giving feedback on how the donor’s giving has made a difference, or not recording donor preferences and interests in the database, etc. Jeff and I came across one system where the people in charge claimed to love people and donors, but where it took 45 days to acknowledge a donor’s gift. Not exactly donor-friendly. Or a donor asks a MGO for a simple explanation on why the organization is managing a program they way they do, and the donor is ignored or politely told to “mind their own business.”

These are the two big measuring points for us. One is a statement of belief. The other is the proof that the statement is really true.
So when I am asked to evaluate a prospective MGO along these lines, here is my thought process and the questions I ask to gain satisfaction that the person is actually donor-centered:

  1. I ask about their operating philosophy as mentioned above.
  2. I ask for proof that what they are saying is actually true. I usually dig on this point with questions like: “you have said you truly value and care about donors. What have you actually done in your past or current employment that illustrates that?” Then I ask follow-up questions to get to the core truth. For instance, in one situation, the person answered my question on receipting by stating: “I worked with accounting to set up a system where the gift is processed in one day.” Seems like a good answer. But underneath that answer was this cold reality: the organization processed the money in one day – they banked the money. The donor was left to languish for 30-60 days, and the MGO did nothing to work around it. This was not a truthful answer, and that sealed it for me on this person.

The bottom line for Jeff and me is this: if there is a system, strategy or process in place that hurts or dishonors the donor, then the person who created or maintained that system is really not donor-centered. We’ve seen hundreds of MGOs who truly love and care for their donors. And we have seen plenty of MGOs who claim to care for and honor donors but really don’t. It is all about what they can get from the donor. Just last week I watched one MGO “get caught” when data processing discovered (because of undeliverable mail) that one of his “very good and close” caseload donors was actually deceased. Here was a MGO claiming a solid relationship, when the truth was that he did not have one at all. Attitude.
If you want to dig into more detail on questions you might ask or areas you might explore on being donor-centered, take a look at this post on valuing donors for more resources.
So the first attitude check is about being donor-centered. The second attitude check is operating style. In my opinion, there are two areas to look at here:

  1. Is the person a team player? There is nothing worse than a solo player where everything is about them, their gifts, their contribution, etc. You have been around these folks. They are tiring. I don’t want any solo players on my team. I want someone who recognizes and values the contributions of others. I want someone who knows, deep in their soul, that their success is dependent on what others contribute to it. If this is missing in how a prospective employee thinks, then I don’t want the person on the team.
  2. Can the person accept constructive criticism? One of the important questions I ask in an interview is this: “What are the areas you need support in? Where do you tend to fall down and need help?” I ask these questions because I want to know if the person is aware of their weaknesses. We all have them. I have never met a human on the face of the earth that didn’t. So it is not a big deal to have weaknesses. But it IS a big deal to not be aware of them. If the person is not aware of her weaknesses, it means she will not be able to accept constructive criticism and help. And if she can’t accept constructive criticism and help, there is no way the person can be guided to do better. This will not work, and it is a deal-killer for me.

So when hiring, your “attitude check” is to see if the prospective MGO is donor-centered, if they are a team player and if they can accept constructive criticism. If the person passes these tests, it is time to move on to examine their abilities, which I will address in the next post.