I get it. You need to start or expand your mid, major of planned giving team. And there is pressure to “get going” and get the program ramped up, so you need to hire ASAP. 

With this pressure on you, you have a high potential for failure in hiring the right person.

So, I’m going to ask you to step back for a minute. Reflect on what you really need in the right person(s), and give yourself the opportunity to hire the person who is right for the job.

As you all know, our industry has done a terrible job of retaining talent. Part of the reason is that you don’t take the proper time to bring in the right person in the first place. And, in top-of-the-pyramid fundraising, that can be devastating to your program.

Now, let’s say you’ve decided to hire someone who seemed to have great experience; they’ve asked for some pretty significant gifts. There were a few concerns in the interview (overly confident, interrupted, couldn’t provide specifics on donor relationships). But, they had all of this great experience, so you went with it and hired them. The person was great for the first few months. But then things started to go downhill. After six months, you let this person go.

Now, you have to go through the entire hiring process again and get them onboarded. That could take up to 6-9 months total. You now have a caseload of donors that has had no proper management for almost a year, not to mention any damage by the fundraiser you let go.

The result is higher donor and donor value attrition, possible broken trust from the donors, and then an uphill climb for the next fundraiser to re-establish those relationships.

Okay, so you agree that this is NOT what you want to happen anymore. How do you make sure you stop hiring the wrong person? Well… let’s start with the job description.

First, make the job description as simple and clear as possible.

Richard and I have no idea why so many job descriptions are so complicated, and it’s very annoying to job applicants. You can download an example of a good one here.

Don’t include anything outside of the specific work. No events, admin work, picking up the CEO at the airport… that doesn’t belong in a frontline fundraiser’s job description. And then be clear about your expectations for metrics and what success looks like.

That’s it. Keep it specific to the work (5 or 6 points), and be very clear on expectations.

Next, once you have the right job description, you need to create a screening and interview process that will help you stay clear and focused on who you want to bring in.

So, ask yourself this: What kind of person would fit our culture? What are some attributes or personalities that won’t?

You need to figure out the attitude vs. aptitude thing. Who are you and what can you do? You want to design questions that help you assess someone’s core values, beliefs, and style. Is the person donor-centered? Are they sales oriented? What’s their operating style? And always ask for proof with a clear example of how someone has done what they are saying they do philosophically. We often fail to do this and, if the applicant can’t give a great example, then they’ve likely shown you who they really are.

And, be sure to include questions that will tell you their key skills and qualities. You’re looking for high verbal and written communication skills, good organization, and an openness to accountability and coaching.

Finally, the last thing to think about in the process of hiring the right person is to craft open-ended questions to help you learn more about the applicant.

You need to dig deep to get beyond what someone says to truly understand who they are. Use phrases like, “tell me more…” and change “why” questions to “how” or “what.” (e.g. change “Why did you respond that way?” to “How did you respond?” or “What led you to that response?”)

Remember, experience is fine, but many things can be taught. And who someone is at their core cannot. If you can get to who someone really is in your hiring process, you’ll have greater success in hiring the right person, and it will lead to longer employment – which ultimately means better relationships with your donors.


This post originally appeared on the Passionate Giving Blog on June 11, 2021.

PS — If you’re looking for your next fundraising position, check out our recent podcast episode, “Finding the Right Job: Tips from a Non-Profit Recruitment Expert,” featuring special guest Paul Towne, VP of Executive Search with Cooper Coleman. Listen in to learn how to interview for the right roles and identify which opportunities will be the best fit for you.