Hire for competencies, train for skills

Published by Karen Osborne on

I’m asked all the time, “What should I look for in a great gift officer?”  “How many years of experience should I require?”  “What size gifts should the candidates have closed?”

My response, “Experience is important but competencies are critical.”

With the right competencies, one can teach fundraising and leadership skills.  Without the competencies, all the training in the world, no matter how good, will have a limited affect.

Research tells us (as reported in ‘Harvard Business Review’) that the top qualities for outstanding high-end salespeople are empathy (the ability to understand and connect with others) and will (determination, perseverance, grit)!  Jim Collins, in ‘Good to Great’, agrees.  His research found that great NGO leaders have humility, will and legislative skill (ability to get others to follow when you have no authority over them).

A book that just came out, ‘How Children Succeed’by Paul Tough, suggests optimism, perseverance (there it is again) and grit are essential for childhood and adult success.  They sound like the perfect competencies for gift officers.  Add intelligence, strategic agility (the ability to think strategically on ones feet) and a passion for both the cause and philanthropy and you have a pretty good list of competencies for gift officers.

So, how do we find out, in an interview or reference check, if a candidate possesses these traits?  Here are some questions that have worked for me.

  1. Tell me about a time in either your personal or professional life when you’ve had to persuade someone you had a poor relationship with to take an action you wanted.  Please, spare no details. (With this question I’m testing for empathy, will, strategic thinking).
  2. Share with me at least two examples of times you had to overcome daunting obstacles in order to achieve your goals (Testing for will, strategic agility, grit, perseverance, optimism).
  3. Follow-up questions – What did you learn from that experience?  Share with me an example of how you used what you learned in subsequent situations.
  • I’m trying to find out if the candidate “fails forward” as David Bornstein calls learning from one’s mistakes; also willingness to take risks.  Interestingly, within the Google culture, they talk about “failing forward fast!” These questions also test for humility.
  • I want to share a scenario with you, a difficult visit we had recently with a potential donor. (I make sure at least five things go wrong as I tell the story of the tough donor visit).  Tell me how you would have addressed each one.  Again, please be concrete.  What would you do; what words would you use and so forth?
  • I love this one.  It tests for listening skills which are so important and part of empathy; it uncovers strategic agility, intelligence, resourcefulness, will, and legislative skills.

The cost of hiring the ‘wrong gift officer’is high.  Perhaps you used a search firm, so there is a hefty fee.  The time it took to interview and vet all of the candidates, orientation, teaching.  Opportunity costs – what didn’t get accomplished while you focused on hiring. All the money not raised.  Relationships might be damaged and need repairing.

A few strategic questions with a focus on competencies could be the answer.  What questions and scenarios do you use?

Karen Osborne

Internationally recognized as an expert consultant and excellent presenter, Karen receives invitations from all over the United States and the world to make presentations and consult with NGOs, universities, justice, social service, and health organizations. The Council for Support and Advancement of Education (CASE) awarded Karen the Crystal Apple for outstanding teaching and Ashmore Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession. Published and often quoted in industry books, newspapers and magazines, Karen serves on the board of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and teaches a graduate course on philanthropy for Johns Hopkins University.


From the ‘Right People on the Bus’ to the Cash Cows – some thoughts on developing a fundraising strategy | Purplegrass Consulting · June 7, 2013 at 16:47

[…] the US fundraising expert, who advised charities to hire for competencies and train for skills (https://101fundraising.org/2012/11/hire-for-competencies-train-for-skills/ ).   Experience is important but qualities such as empathy, and grit and determination have been […]

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