What the Hiring Manager Looks for in Fundraising

Hey, everybody. Welcome. This interview is part of a series to help you rise in your fundraising career. 

This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I’m so pleased today to interview Claire Axelrad, JD, CFRE, of You should definitely check out her blog and subscribe. She has just a ton of good material there as well as a major gifts course you should really check out, called Winning Major Gifts.

This is Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising and I’m so pleased today to interview Claire Axelrad, JD, CFRE, of You should definitely check out her blog and subscribe. She has just a ton of good material there as well as a major gifts course you should really check out, called Winning Major Gifts.

Claire Axelrad

Before her career as a consultant, she was the development director for the San Francisco Food Bank. Is that correct, Claire?

Claire Axelrad: Well, I was development director for a number of different nonprofits. The food bank happened to be my last full time position. I worked 30 years in the trenches. But yeah, that’s true.

MT: Where are some other places you were development director?

CA: Oh, I worked at Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco. I worked at the Jewish Community Center. I worked at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and I worked at the California School For Professional Psychology.

MT: And at these jobs, were you in charge of hiring and firing and stuff like that?

CA: I was. Yes. I seemed to specialize in building departments. So for example, at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, when I started, I had a staff of two people. By the time I left I had a staff of 20 people. That was in development and marketing. So you know, as the budget of the organization also builds as well, our fundraising increased from $67,000 my first year to $12 million the year that I left.

MT: How long were you there?

CA: I was there for 22 years. So yeah. I’ve been really fortunate to be able to work at organizations of different sizes. Some of them were different sizes in the time I was there, and different causes; Social services, arts, education, community center, and while fundraising is a little bit different, the basics are fundamentally the same. What you look for in a fundraiser is fundamentally the same.

So I do have a pretty good sense of what it takes to be successful in the field and I’ve done a lot of hiring and unfortunately a bit of firing as well.  I usually try to work with people and kind of counsel them out of the job so that they see it’s not really a good fit for them.

MT: Right. But when you hired fundraising staff, what qualities have you looked for?

CA: Well, there’s two things that I look at. One is what I would call their performance habits, and the other is the innate qualities and strengths that they bring to the job. So I’ll often ask people what they consider to be the top three to five traits of an effective fundraiser. This kind of helps me see if they get it. If they understand what they need to do to be successful.

If they come up with the ubiquitous I’m a great people person, for me that’s like a big red flag. Because well, everybody says that. The fact that they’re not a reclusive person is really lovely. But it’s kind of the same for almost any job that you would be in. Anybody who thinks that all they need to succeed as a development officer is to be friendly and chatty are kind of missing the forest for the trees. Because development staff need to act within a context. So I’m kind of probing for the context that people act within, in the interview.

So I want to know, can you be strategic? Do you understand how donors think? Do you know how to find out how they think? Are you able to plan? Are you able to set specific goals and measurable objectives? Can you articulate what success would look like? You’re coming into a new job here. What do you think success would look like at the end of three months, six months, a year? Do you know how to uncover problems? Do you know how to fix them? Do you know how to measure and demonstrate your success? So I’m a people person doesn’t quite get to the heart of what matters in terms of performance habits or innate qualities.

So I guess some of the habits that I look for is that it’s the type of person who picks up the phone. A real sort of doer, can do person. The most effective fundraisers I’ve met are people who pick up the phone to just get something done. They don’t send an email then send a letter then wait by the phone. They love the phone because it puts them in touch really quickly and directly with whoever they need to talk to, be it a potential grantor or a donor. But it helps them build a relationship with the person.

So it shows they’re really not afraid to kind of interact with people, and the other thing I look for is people who also are not just verbally inclined but also a little mathematically inclined so that they can focus on metrics. They know that they have limited resources and they’re not going to be able to get every possible activity done. So they have to spend their time doing what works the best. The only way to know what works the best is to track the metrics. Track the return on investment for all of the strategies that they’re using so that they can then go, huh. This works. I should do more of this.

This doesn’t work so well. I should take this off my plate because it’s getting in the way of me being more effective and doing a better job. The other thing is I like people who ask for referrals, who ask other people for help. Like, who else could I talk to? They don’t just stop with what’s at hand. It’s one of the things that I suggest people do when they do research interviews, when they’re interested in entering the field is that they do research interviews with lots of different folks and that they never leave the room without saying, “Do you know two or three other people I might talk to?”

That’s a really good quality for a development staff or two who’s meeting with a donor and says, “Are there some other people I should talk to?” You should do that when you’re talking to foundations too. You’re interested in this project. What are some other foundations you think we should contact that might be good? So I guess I’m looking for people who demonstrate that they’re both curious and they’re good networkers. I guess that leads to the next quality, is that people who are lifelong learners.

Good fundraisers are constantly working to be better at what they do. They read fundraising books and blogs and they attend conferences. They do training opportunities. I might ask somebody, what fundraising blogs do you read? Because I want to get a sense if they really are into learning about fundraising.  Like this is really a profession that they’re passionate about. I think the other thing that lifelong learners do is they work with mentors and they connect with their peers. They kind of get some practice in with other people who are maybe more skilled. That’s how they learn new skills.

Then I guess the other thing that I’m really looking for is that people prioritize. So I might ask them, “If you were to take this job, what are the top three things that you think you should focus on?” Because the most effective development professionals, like probably the most effective professionals anywhere, follow the Pareto rule, the 80/20 rule, where they spend most of their time focused on the activities that offer the highest return on their investment. They continually are testing new things and they’re keeping what works. They’re cutting out the rest.

When they have too much work on their plate, what do they do? Sometimes I ask people how you handle stress, which is one way to get at this. But rather than just going crazy when they have too much work on their plate, they figure out a way to get some of it off their plate by prioritizing, by delegating, or just figuring out what makes sense to be really working on and what is getting in the way.

MT: You’re reminding me of what we talked about at the Nonprofit Leadership Summit last year with the book, Fundraising the Smart Way by Ellen Bristol. What she talked about in that book is she applied lean principles to fundraising specifically. She said one of the biggest problems that we have with fundraising is that we don’t do clear, concrete metrics and expectations for people. We don’t hold them accountable week after week. We just sort of pile up at the end and say, “What happened?” a lot of the time.

Or we don’t give them enough guidance during the time where they’re supposed to be proving themselves that they can do this work. So I love that you’re trying to show that people should be resourceful, is what I’m hearing, as well as asking for referrals, which is part of being resourceful.

CA: Right. Right. And I really like to probe people’s thinking processes. So if I say, what are the top three to five things that you would focus on? They might list them for me. But then I’m going to say, why? Why would you pick those things? Because I want to understand how they think. Not just, um, I don’t know. I read that somewhere.

MT: Right. You want to understand that there are actually some theoretical underpinnings to this idea that things they need to focus on. Maybe they took a Strength Finder test or maybe they just know the best ways to fundraise. Or they look at your 990 and they said, huh.

CA: Right. Not just because, oh, those are the things in the job description. I want somebody who can help me. I want to be able to say, well, do you think those are the things that should be in the job description? You know. That sort of thing. I want somebody who thinks.

MT: Not just somebody who does what they were told. Yeah.

CA: Right. Because a lot of the reason that people leave development jobs, I think, is because they do what they’re told and it’s not the right thing to be doing. Then they don’t succeed. Then they get blamed for not succeeding. Nobody is happy. It’s a vicious circle.

MT: Yeah. It’s funny, I was interviewing a guy named David Rubin who’s the director of major gifts at Mercy Corps earlier today, Claire. One of the things he was talking about is that he definitely likes people that are trainable. But he also likes people that really do want to grow in their career. Like you said, be a lifelong learner. Not just be someone who follows orders.

So how can someone show you they really want the job, before you interview them?

CA: Well, one way is to write a really thoughtful cover letter that shows that they’ve read the job description. They’ve done a little bit of research on the website and they’ve got some specific reasons why this would be a really good job for them at this point in their journey. Not just a boilerplate cover letter that I can tell that they sent to ten or 100 different organizations, but something that’s really thoughtful.

Then coming into the interview prepared. Again, having shown that they’ve done their research. Certainly having thought a little bit about how they can be helpful. Most people who are doing hiring are looking for someone that’s going to help them. So looking at the job description and actually saying to me, you know, I read this in the job description and between the lines I read you may have a problem with donor retention. Or you may have a problem with not having enough donors, or whatever it is. Then they say, I’ve given some thought to how I might be able to help you.

Of course, I have a few questions to make sure that this would be the most helpful way that I could address this problem. But let me tell you a little bit about how I think I could help. So that shows me, you know, yeah. They want this job. They want to help me. Then I guess, finally leaving, I think sending a thoughtful thank you letter and saying, I really want this job. That tells me that they do.

MT: So what would make you choose one candidate over another, assuming they were both equally qualified?

CA: Well, it depends on what you mean by equally qualified. But I would tend to pick the person who seems like a happy person. The person who would be fun to have around the office and would contribute to the décor or the culture of philanthropy, if you will. Someone who smiles. Someone who makes eye contact. Someone who has can do attitude. Someone who doesn’t seem like they’re afraid of hard work, and someone who has a connection to the mission who seems really passionate about the work.

MT: I like that.

CA: Then I guess I said before that I’m looking for both performance habits but also innate qualities and strengths. One of the innate qualities that I look at is somebody who seems to me exuberant. When I say exuberant, I mean that in the sense of an optimist. A future oriented person. Somebody who sees potential, that doesn’t rest on their laurels, that isn’t satisfied with the status quo. That goes back to being a thinking person.

But also, the exuberant quality is a really good fundraiser has to also be a really good coach and cheerleader who leads other people. Board members, volunteers, their executive director, other staff. A lot of times, people don’t understand what development is all about. They think it’s just money grubbing. So they have to be helped to see that this is a positive thing. So you’re looking for somebody who takes initiative. It kind of aligns with one of me favorite books, Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human.

He talks about how we’re all in sales. Every day we’re all trying to persuade somebody to do something we want them to do, and one of the qualities of effective salespeople he calls buoyancy, which is a combination of a sunny outlook and a gritty kind of spirit. A quality that enables people to just be very positive and withstand repeated rejections. Understanding that those rebuffs are temporary and they’re due to external factors.

Somebody says no, I don’t want to give. It’s not a reflection on you. It just means your cause is not resonating with them right now or something else. But you’re like okay with that and you move on. So I like to look for that kind of quality. Then finally, I have to confess, I have a bias towards intelligence. Because I feel like, if this person seems really smart, I can teach them. I can teach them how to be effective and focused as a fundraiser. No amount of experience can really substitute for that because effective fundraisers do a lot more than ask for money.

They’re gathering intelligence all the time. They’re planning. They’re measuring with their intelligence. They’re evaluating with their intelligence. They’re emotionally intelligent. They become attuned to the perspective of their constituents and try to focus on what is meaningful to them. Attunement is actually one of Daniel Pink’s other qualities for effective salespeople. So I kind of look for that intelligence. Not just book learning, but emotional intelligence as well.

Read part two of this interview on March 14th, tomorrow!

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