The adage is that you can teach skills but not attitude. When it comes to hiring fundraisers, I’d add a hearty, “Amen.”
To keep up with my own community, I have a LinkedIn alert for major gift jobs. I’m surprised when non-profits with small budgets are offering salaries below the national average, and they list as a requirement that the applicant needs five years’ experience asking for six-figure gifts. If that person exists, they’re not applying to small non-profits to make less than the larger organizations are paying. Wouldn’t it be wiser to look outside of the industry? Or hire someone who has the right attitude and ability to learn the trade?
At the same time, non-profit leaders often ask which industries have workers with skills transferrable to fundraising. There is not a short-and-sweet answer to that. But, I have some thoughts. Before painting certain business sectors with a broad stroke, let’s first look at the aptitudes we believe help make great fundraisers.
You want to hire people who:
Set goals and make asks – Another adage we love is that if you aim for nothing, you get nothing. If someone can exhibit the ability to push themselves to accomplish something, they have set goals. They get what it means to be self-driven and to strive for something that is as-yet unseen.
You also want someone who can ask others for something. It takes experience and opportunity to make a six-figure ask. But in other industries, and even in volunteer opportunities, you can find people who are accustomed to asking others for something. My own experience has not led to me asking for large cash gifts, but I have regularly asked for support. Translating the skills of being considerate, confident, and well-meaning is not hard.
Comfortable with rejection – When interviewing, I often ask if the applicant is willing to share a difficult situation they’ve overcome. Why? Well, there are a few reasons. But for this discussion, it’s so I can assess if they have lived life and can relate to others. If the most difficult thing they’ve experienced is being left on the waitlist for concert tickets, I have trouble thinking they can relate to donors’ struggles in life. While not directly about rejection, by looking at work history and listening, I can usually assess if a person is always driving for a win, or if they can understand setbacks that may occur for donors, and the occasional “no” from a donor who may hate saying it.
Comfort with mistakes – No one is perfect. If someone has been in an industry that requires absolute perfection, or seems to have that ethos, fundraising may not be for them. This industry calls for intimate involvement in people’s lives. People are human. We’re all prone to an off day, to doing too much, to misreading a cue. You want someone who understands that.
Working more than a set schedule – A board consultant I talked to recently said he loves hiring leaders who were high school or college athletes. He says they understand work outside of the normal construct of a 9-5 day. As a mom whose kids played sports and participated in the arts, that resonated with me. Fundraising happens when the donors are available, and that may not be during strict working hours. You want to look for someone who understands that.
Not knowing all the answers – The perfectionist, know-it-all personality may not be the best fundraiser. It’s okay to admit authentically to not knowing everything. And not knowing may open the door not only to increased trust with a donor, but also another opportunity to connect. Said another way, you want someone who can curiously seek information.
Not comfortable with status-quo – To the last point, and perhaps combining several points above, you want someone who is curious, has good emotional intelligence, is well-balanced, and who is willing to think creatively.
The question then arises: where do you find these types of hires? There are certain industries that lend themselves to the aptitudes listed above.
- Sales – Sales seems like a natural fit, but there is one caveat. My husband was in sales for 25 years and we can “talk shop” with ease because he is the kind of person who understands not only the product(s), but how to read and respond well to people, and how to hold fidelity when following up with them. The key for anyone coming from sales is that they must be a relational salesperson who wants to make a greater impact in the world. They do this by learning about people’s passions and helping connect them to the needs your organization is addressing. The caveat to a sales background is that if their motivation is just to “close” the sale, or their focus is always on the bottom line and the money, that’s the wrong kind of attitude to have with donors.
- Real estate – For some of the same reasons that salespeople make good fundraisers, real estate can lend itself well to fundraising because it is a relational business. This job also takes consistency, follow-up, the ability to be told “no,” and finding answers for both buyers and sellers.
- Journalism – As we partner with public media stations across the country, we continue to work with journalists-turned-fundraisers. This can be a good fit if they are good at asking open-ended questions, and are curious, which is typical. They also understand deadlines and are used to being “edited,” meaning they are used to making “mistakes.” As a former journalist, one thing I appreciated about those good at the trade was their ability to remember details and how they relate to create a great story and connect facts or people.
- Player/coach roles – If there is someone who has been in another industry but has experience in a player/coach role, they may be a good fit for fundraising. In athletics, there’s a major time commitment and drive to build relationships. This can lend itself to fundraising. In other words, if there is an applicant who has had to wear many hats, led, and followed, they have probably developed skill sets as well as a strong emotional intelligence. At least give them an interview!
The average tenure for a fundraiser is 18-24 months. This creates a lot of turnover in our field, as well as opportunities. My hope is that, as positions open and applications come in, we’ll consider all the transferrable skills from outside our sector. I listed a few here, and would love to hear others!
Lisa Robertson is Director of Client Services at Veritus Group. She has over 25 years of experience in non-profit leadership, serving as an executive, program director, and special event coordinator. Lisa has been responsible for fundraising, donor/constituent relations, marketing, and internal communications. She has a dual degree in Communications and Political Science from the University of Washington. Lisa worked as a sports reporter and editor before entering the non-profit sector.