Want to get that Next Fundraising Job? Learn from this Claire Axelrad Interview

MT:Hey, everybody. Welcome. This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising, and I am very pleased today to be interviewing Claire Axelrad of Clairification. Claire Axelrad has a JD and a CFRE, and has over 30 years of experience in the trenches leading fundraising, major gifts, and nonprofit marketing initiatives. On April 13, 2015 at 1:00 PM PT and 4:00 PM ET, she’ll be speaking on how to interview strong for a fundraising role, and I’m really excited about that. If you’d like to learn more information, check out And if you need help with board coaching or major gifts development or donor retention or annual campaigns, or just a good hard look at how to integrate your overall development and marketing program to figure out what you can streamline and do more effectively, check out Claire’s website, There will be a link here in the interview today. Claire, thank you so much for being here today. I wanted to ask you, what drew you to fundraising as a career?

CA:What drew me to fundraising as a career? Well, I kind of fell into it. I was a lawyer and I didn’t like it, and I was complaining to everybody I knew. Somebody at one point said, ‘Claire, you need to do what I did.’ She had gone to some career change workshop, and I went to it. And it was just a weekend, but it was really, really helpful because you had to go in with a pseudonym. Nobody knew who you were or what you did. And we did sort of a What Color is my Parachute skills analysis where we talked about things that felt successful to us, and it didn’t matter what it was. It could be passing the Bar exam. It could be getting a divorce. Anything. And so I talked about my key successes, and in the end, nobody thought I should be a lawyer.


So I felt really validated, and there was one woman who said, ‘Do I see a very strong parent figure in your background?’ And I was like, yeah, my mom always wanted to be a lawyer. I think I went into it partly because I wanted to help people. I wanted to save the world. But I also went into it because people always told me how good I was at making a persuasive argument. Everybody said, oh, you should be a lawyer. But nobody knew about development then. And it turns out that the ability to make a persuasive case is a great skill to have for a fundraiser. So fast forward a number of years. I was good at that, and so I really enjoyed it. So I stayed in fundraising, and I happen to think that enjoying what you do is one of the most important traits you can have to be a successful fundraiser, or a successful anything. If you don’t love doing it, then you should do something else.

MT: I love that. So what sort of causes have you fundraised for?

CA: Lots of human services, and also schools, universities, art organizations, legal services, community centers, social justice. I kind of think fundraising is pretty much fundraising. As long as it’s a cause that I’m passionate about, I’ll do it. And I’m not passionate about everything. There have been jobs that I didn’t take because I was like, I’m just not that excited about that. But I think passion is really your secret weapon with fundraising. That’s what I always tell solicitors that I work with. I say, ‘How you say something is way more important than what you say.’

MT: I love that. So when you work with solicitors, what do you know about major gifts? I know you’re going to be giving a workshop called Anatomy of a Major Gifts Ask with the Foundation Center later this month. Kudos on that.

CA: Thank you.

MT: Yeah, that’s so exciting. So what do you know about that? When you work with solicitors? What happens?

CA: Well, I do a lot of work with solicitors. Volunteer solicitors, staff solicitors. I’d worked in fundraising in the trenches for more than thirty years. I just went out on my own about three years ago, consulting. So I’ve had large teams of major gift officers that I’ve worked with, and there’s just a whole lot that goes into making a successful case. But I think where I start from is where I started, when I started in law and fell into fundraising. I love making a passionate case for support, and crafting an offer for someone that is so tailored to them that they really can’t refuse it. So it’s kind of uncovering opportunities for people and really caring about your donors a lot. I love everything about the annual campaigns, but I probably especially enjoy major gift fundraising because you get to get out in the field and really develop relationships with folks.

I always tell people that you have to love your donors. That’s the only way that you can really build a sustained relationship, and it’s kind of like getting to know somebody and then becoming a friend. And you do all the sorts of things that you do with good friends. You don’t just see them once and then not talk to them again until you want them to come to your birthday party and bring you a present. And yet, that’s kind of how we treat donors a lot. That’s why I really like the whole process of donor retention and stewardship as well, because that again is about keeping the donors that you already have. Keeping the friends that you have is a lot more cost effective than trying to get new ones, and it’s just smart. Plus I think that saying thank you to people and showing them how grateful you are, and making people feel good is fun. Because when you make people feel good, then they kind of reflect it back to you. It makes your job, like, this is fun.

You can get really creative with that kind of stuff. In fact, the whole gratitude process, I’ve spent a lot of time on that because I think that we’re too perfunctory about it. You know, we send out a form thank you and then we think, oh, I checked that off my list. I’m done. But your donors want to know that you’re thankful specifically for the impact that they’re making possible. And they need to know this more than once, because they need to kind of revisit how good they felt when they first made the decision to give. So I have a whole e-book on it. I think it’s got 37 ways to be creative about thank yous by now because I keep adding to it whenever I see another cool idea. So donor retention and stewardship and major gifts are really both about building relationships, and that’s the part that I think is fun.

MT: So what are you doing now? You touched a little bit on this, that you work with clients a little. But what are you doing now?

CA: Well, sometimes I say I blog, therefore I am. I love to write, and one of the reasons that I went into my business is that when I left my fulltime fundraising in the trenches job, I missed being able to share stuff with people. Because I used to – any great new idea that I would get, either on the internet or at a conference. I would share it with everybody and say, oh, this is so cool. We should do this. And I realized, I don’t have anybody to share this with. So I started doing that, and then I started consulting, and that’s mostly what I do now is I coach and I consult. And in the coaching part, I work with development directors, executive directors, board presidents, and people also who are looking to develop their careers in nonprofits. Either they’re in the field and they want to move to another area, or they just want to advance. Or they’re in for profit and they want to transition into nonprofit, and I think I’m good at helping people hone in on what their best skills are and then figuring out where they can best apply those skills.

I always tell people, I don’t want to hear the word but ever come out of your mouth. Because people always say, well, I am applying for this job but I don’t have that experience. Or I have these skills but I’ve never worked in nonprofit. And I always say that anything that comes after the word but is baloney. It’s just some kind of excuse that you have for either you’re a little lazy. You don’t want to go get the skills. Or you have low self-esteem, or you’re just negative or you’re pessimistic. It means you don’t think something’s going to work. I say, ‘Why don’t you turn that but into how?’ How can I make this work?

So I enjoy doing that, and then my other big area in consultation is assessment, and I do both development and marketing audits. I help people figure out how to build on their areas of strength and downplay their areas of weakness. Then I try to help them get the resources that they need to take their efforts up a notch. I always encourage people to think big. I think sometimes we think too small in nonprofit, and if you don’t grow then you die.

MT: I agree. I totally agree with you. No, you’re right. We have to grow. We have to keep learning. So on that note, how long have you been looking at resumes and interviewing people? And what do you find interesting about it?

CA: Well, I’ve been doing this for 34 years, and what really keeps it interesting is that people are all different, and I like to hear peoples’ stories and how they got into this work and what they hope to get out of it. I guess I really like to see how people think, their thought processes, and get a sense of what makes them tick. I’m getting better at it than I used to be. Because I think I’m just a little bit – after you do it a lot, you get more relaxed, and it’s just like major donor work, really. You kind of learn to read between the lines and kind of see what peoples’ hot buttons are. It’s interesting. People have such interesting and diverse backgrounds and have done such amazing and unexpected things.

MT: Yeah, and I think for a lot of us in fundraising, we really come to it from so many different directions, that there’s no one place we mostly come from. So on that note, what session will you be teaching at the Virtual Fundraising Career Conference?

CA: I’m going to be talking about how to interview strong. And I have to say, when I started out, I was a terrible interview. My first boss, I swear to you this is true. She told me after she hired me, you know, maybe it was about three months after she hired me. We had an executive management retreat, and we’re all hanging out in our jeans and having fun, and she’s having a beer and she says, ‘You know, Claire, you’re a terrible interview. I hired you despite your interview.’ So what I’ve learned over the years is that in order to interview strong, you need to know going in what points you want to make. Then you have to make those points no matter what questions are asked of you. So in other words, you have to craft your own case for support.

MT: Wow. I’ve never heard that before. That’s so interesting. So why should people come to your session? I mean, I’m already intrigued. But what will they take away from it?

CA: Well, I think you’ll definitely get two things. You’ll learn how to interview better yourself. You’ll learn how to create what I call your unique selling proposition. Everybody’s unique, and you need to learn how to sort of put that uniqueness that you have out there, so that you stand out. And you’ll learn what to look for in fundraisers that you hire, which I think is a really important sort of thing, which is sort of looking at yourself from the perspective of the employer, and thinking like, well what are the traits that somebody in this job should have? What’s the employer going to be looking at?

Then I guess a third thing that you’ll get is how to be a better public speaker. Because some of the same rules apply. Have a few points to make. Sell your interview. What points you’re going to make. Make your points. Remind the interviewer what you told them. Keep it simple. Keep it pointed. That’s what you do when you make a public presentation. You don’t give a laundry list of absolutely everything your nonprofit does. You don’t give the interviewer a laundry list of absolutely everything you’ve ever done. But you want to make this – here’s how I can solve your problems for you kind of conversation. And that’s how you’re going to be remembered, and that’s how you’re going to stand out.

MT: I love that. I love that. I’ve never heard anyone talk about interviewing that way before, and I think people are really going to get a lot out of your session. I’m so psyched. So, so psyched to be hosting you doing that. Thank you so much, Claire, for agreeing to present at this virtual fundraising career conference. I think that when people hear what you have to say, it’s going to change a lot about how they interview and how successful they are getting jobs.

CA: Well, I hope so. I look forward to it.

MT: Well, if people want to learn more about you and your services, where should they go?

CA: They should go to my website, which is, and Claire is spelled with an I and an E. And when they listen to my presentation and they hear when I’m going to reveal my E, I, E, I, O attributes of a successful fundraiser. They’ll understand even better why to never leave out the I or the E. So they can find me there. They can email me at And they can look for me on Twitter and on Pinterest, at CharityClairity. And that has an I also, in the clarity.

MT: Wonderful. I think there’s one more thing we wanted to mention today, about another presentation you’re doing before the conference, called Anatomy of a Major Gift Ask: The Art in the Heart.

CA: Oh, right, thank you. I’m doing a master class with the Foundation Center. It’s on March 24th. So you can go to the Foundation Center website and sign up for it. When you think about it, there are some similarities between The Anatomy of a Major Gift Ask and the interview process. First you’ve got to get the visit. Then you’ve got to prepare your case. You’ve got to practice so that you prepare yourself. Then you have to be a good conversationalist, which includes being a really good listener and observing and watching for cues. Then you have to do a good follow-up. So it won’t be wasted on the interview process either.

MT: Wow, I love that. That’s so interesting. I’ve never heard the interview process really be compared to the major gifts process before. But that’s fascinating. And I know a lot of people out there are really interested in getting more major gifts experience, as well as learning how to do better with major gifts. So that’s also why I’m happy that we’re going to be having Phil Gerard, who is an HR talent scout just for fundraising. We talked about how to move on up into your first major gifts role, as well as how you do career pathing. So I think your session and his session, Claire, will really dovetail nicely together.

CA: That’s perfect. I’ll have to listen to him, too.

MT: Yeah, I think so. I’m going to be interested to hear this as well. I didn’t know people could be that specific about what they did. So thank you so much again, Claire. And if anybody has any other questions for you, we’ll have all the links that you mentioned at the bottom of the interview page today, and looking forward to seeing you at the conference.

CA: Me too. Thank you. It’s been my pleasure, Mazarine.

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