We are often asked if a degree or certification of some sort is really necessary to be successful in major gifts. And this goes to a much larger question of the role education plays in preparing a person to do the job. I go back and forth on this subject, a vacillation I will explain later.
CFRE International, the body that certifies fundraisers, says that “certification shows the public that fundraisers are committed to the highest ethical and professional standards and have gained significant levels of competence in their work.”
I’m not sure that is entirely true, in that a person could pursue certification and be unethical, dishonest and incompetent. Further, just because a person has secured CFRE certification does not mean they have gained significant levels of competence. I don’t think securing knowledge on its own gives you competence. It helps, but it is only part of the equation.
An AFP salary survey shows that fundraising professionals who are certified typically earn more than their noncertified counterparts. For example, the 2003 survey showed that CFREs earn, on average, 23 percent more than their noncertified counterparts.
This is interesting as well. Could it be that employers assign a value to certification that may not be there? Maybe. For instance, I have met quite a few managers who simply look at resumé work history, education, what the cover letter says and certifications to make hiring and compensation decisions. They do not dig into whether the person can actually get something done. The judgment of these managers is swayed by the “trappings” of the person, rather than by the actual content of the person himself. So is there a connection between CFRE certification and getting more pay, or is something else going on? I don’t know. But I am not willing to say that it’s that simple.
CFRE International lists a number of reasons a fundraiser should be certified. Here is what they say, with my comments attached to each:

  1. Certification grants you more credibility. CFRE certification serves as an impartial, third-party endorsement of your knowledge and experience against international standards in philanthropy.

This could be true if the person is actually committed to acquiring knowledge and experience, ratherthan doing the minimums.

  1. Certification can improve career opportunities and advancement. CFRE certification can give you the “edge” when being considered for a promotion or other career opportunities. CFRE certification clearly identifies you as an employee who has demonstrated mastery of fundraising principles and techniques based on accepted best practices.

I have met quite a few CFRE folks who have definitely NOT mastered fundraising/major gift principles and techniques. This reflects the saying “the paper does not make the professional.” There are other qualities to consider. I have also met quite a few CFREs that were indeed superior in their knowledge of major gifts and their practice of that knowledge.

  1. Certification prepares you for greater on-the-job responsibilities. CFRE certification is a clear indicator of your willingness to invest in your own professional development.

Yes, I agree that people who show the initiative to develop professionally demonstrate a quality I would like in major gifts. But you have to consider other qualities as well.

  1. Certification improves skills and knowledge. Typically, achieving CFRE certification requires training, study and “keeping up” with changes.

This is true if the person actually does more training, studying and keeping up and they show initiative in making sure their motivated abilities actually fit the job.

  1. Certification may provide for greater earnings potential. Many fundraising professionals who have become CFRE certificants experience salary and wage increases based on their certification status.

I would never give anyone a salary increase based on diplomas, certifications or awards. Compensation should be based solely on proven performance.

  1. Certification demonstrates your commitment to the fundraising profession. Receiving CFRE certification shows your peers, supervisors and, in turn, donors your commitment to your chosen career and your ability to perform to set standards.

I agree it can demonstrate commitment but, again, I have met quite a few good people in my career who have the “paper” but do not have the ability to deliver on the job. So the certification alone won’t necessarily do the job.

  1. Certification enhances the profession’s image. The CFRE certification program seeks to grow, promote and develop certified professionals, who can stand “out in front” as role models in the fundraising field.

This is good and I applaud CFRE for promoting our industry.

  1. Certification reflects achievement. CFRE certification is a reflection of personal achievement because the individual has displayed mastery of his or her field by meeting requirements and standards set in philanthropy.

While CFRE certification does show initiative, I do not think it demonstrates mastery of the field. Performance on the job is proof of mastery.

  1. Certification builds self-esteem. CFRE certification is a step toward defining yourself beyond a job description or academic degree while gaining a sense of personal satisfaction.

Yep, I can see that and I agree.

  1. Certification offers greater recognition from peers. As a CFRE certificant, you can expect increased recognition from your peers for taking that extra step in your professional career.

Discriminating and experienced peers will couple this achievement to actual performance on the job and THEN give recognition.

OK, so back to the question in the title of this blog: is CFRE certification worth it? Maybe. It is a good step for a fundraising professional to take. But will it bring you success or more money? Not necessarily. Success and increased compensation come because you deliver on the expectations of the job. And to deliver on those expectations you must:

  1. Have the relevant knowledge.
  2. Have the relevant experience.
  3. Have the personal drive and skill to achieve the objectives of the job.
  4. Have the right attitude about your work, your colleagues and the organization.
  5. Be able to persevere through difficult situations.

So the reason I vacillate on this subject is because there is more to it than just getting a certificate. CFRE certification will help you on the path to achieve the first point above (have relevant knowledge) because it will “certify” that you have a certain level of knowledge about fundraising. But it will not help you with the other four. Those other four will come through being in the trenches, honing your skills, and doing all of that with the right attitude.