To CFRE or not to CFRE – that is the question

Published by Rory Green on

certificationThe CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) is a professional certification for fundraisers, which is quite well known in North America. To qualify to write the CFRE exam – professional fundraisers must have a minimum of five years’ experience (among other requirements).

Over the last six months, an internal debate has been raging: should I get a CFRE? Do I need a CFRE? Do I want a CFRE?

I’ve asked and interviewed hundreds of fundraisers from around the world and heard a range of responses on the topic, including:

  • It wasn’t life changing”
  • “There are other, better, professional development programs out there”
  • “I wouldn’t have gotten my current Director role without it. It shows full fundraising competency for fundraisers.”
  • “Have you met some of the CFREs out there? It means nothing”
  • “The CFRE indicates a dedication to the profession and the advancement of skills, standards and practices.”
  • “I felt that at as a young professional early in my career it was definitely worth it…an achievement I can carry forward.”
  • “Ha! Don’t waste your time.”
  • “I got my CFRE and was immediately given a raise”
  • “It only matters to a small group of people”

These are broad and diverse answers ranging from positive, to apathetic, to negative. Everyone seems to have a unique view on the designation – let’s explore the arguments…

The Good

  1. Increased credibility: I’m 25. I chose fundraising as my profession when I was 17. Unlike many fundraisers, I didn’t have a career as a banker or real estate agent or journalist before finding fund development as my profession. That means that I have the same level of experience as many of my peers – but with far fewer grey hairs. While I have never faced outright discrimination, there have been times when my age has been a disadvantage. The promise of “increased credibility” and being taken seriously as a fundraising professional is the most compelling and appealing reason why I would pursue a CFRE.
  2. Studying and learning: One of the most valuable parts of having a CFRE is studying for the test. I like the idea of forcing myself to spend time on learning and professional development. It can be an easy thing to put off – especially in the hectic world of fundraising. One of the benefits of having a CFRE is going through the process of getting a CFRE: reading amazing books by smart fundraisers and discussing them with my peers who are also studying.
  3. Commitment to the profession: This is a theme that came up time and time again in my discussion with fundraisers. Having a professional designation for fundraising legitimizes our profession. Pursuing and maintaining a CFRE demonstrates your commitment to fundraising, the body of knowledge around fund development and to industry best practices.
  4. Continued professional development: Learning is lifelong. A CFRE is a way to make sure you continue developing and growing as a fund development professional. Maintaining a CFRE certification requires training, study and keeping up with changes and trends.
  5. Expanded career opportunities: A number of fundraisers I talked to reported making more money, or getting new jobs because of their CFRE.
  6. Confidence and pride: One fundraiser told me “I feel a great deal of pride in having those four little letters after my name.” In a profession that is constantly misunderstood and undervalued, having the confidence to stand up for yourself and for fundraising best practice is a huge advantage.

The Bad

  1. Not all CFREs are good fundraisers. Not all good fundraisers are CFREs. This is a theme I heard over and over again. There are many, many excellent fundraisers who are raising tremendous amounts of money and who don’t have a CFRE. A number of people I spoke with expressed their disappointment with CFREs they had hired and worked with. It certainly isn’t regarded as a seal of quality. While a CFRE won’t hurt your reputation as a fundraiser, there are many more factors considered when hiring. It’s no magic bullet.
  2. It doesn’t mean anything to donors. A CFRE doesn’t make more donations magically fly in through your window. If you are expecting it to be like a fairy godmother you’ll be disappointed.
  3. The test is flawed. Someone remarked to me that the better you are at fundraising, the harder the test. It is multiple choice – which rewards memorization. In real life, fundraising is so much more than choosing one of four choices. It requires critical thinking, intuition and emotional intelligence.
  4. There are other (maybe better) options out there: There are now a multitude of fundraising education programs on the market. The CFRE is not your only option for professional development and credentials.

The Ugly

These aren’t arguments against getting a CFRE but rather things about the designation that are a bit troubling and I think need to be discussed.

My main problem with the designation is that the CFRE isn’t an inclusive and accessible designation for a number of reasons. It largely legitimizes people who I would classify as belonging to advantaged groups, reinforcing dominant culture power dynamics that exist in our sector. Some of these issues include:

  • Language: The CFRE is only offered in English. There is some amazing fundraising happening around the world, and an English-only designation is extremely limited.
  • Parents: many parents I spoke to express their frustration with the 5 year credit system. If you’ve taken a year off for parental leave, it can be almost impossible to keep up with the professional development and volunteering needed for the application.
  • Country: Canadian fundraisers expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of Canadian content on the exam. Overwhelmingly, I heard that it is a more valuable designation in America than anywhere else.
  • Size: many small shop fundraisers face barriers pursuing a CFRE when the professional development budget at their organizations simply isn’t enough to cover the AFP sessions needed for the application.

So what to do?

Quite honestly, I go back-and-forth every day between wanting to get a CFRE and not. At this moment, I am building my credits to apply. But every time I ask a new fundraiser, I get a new piece of information that changes my mind.

So, what do you think? Do you have a CFRE? Why or why not? Would you recommend it? Are there other professional development programs or credentials you recommend in its place?

Let’s keep the debate going…

Rory Green

Rory Green has been fundraising since the age of 10, when she volunteered to help run her school’s annual Bike-A-Thon for juvenile cancer research. Fundraising became her vocation at 14, when she lost a friend to Leukemia. Rory Green has been in the philanthropic sector for over eight years and is currently the Associate Director, Advancement for the Faculty of Applied Science at Simon Fraser University. Rory has also worked in major and corporate giving at BCIT and the Canadian Cancer Society. Her passion is donors. How to listen to them. How to talk to them. How to help them feel better about themselves through philanthropy than they ever thought possible. In her spare time Rory is the founder and editor of Fundraiser Grrl, the fundraising community’s go-to source for comic relief.


Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme · August 11, 2014 at 15:11

The way I look at is individual giving hasn’t grown in decades (since before many of were even born!) The ‘best’ practises being passed down deliver the worst results, but because that’s all we’ve ever got it’s all we ever expect. Net result is nothing changes. I don’t know any of the specifics of this course but if it’s perpetuating the status quo, if it’s teaching how to do what we’ve always done, then while it may be helpful to our careers it’s harmful for our beneficiaries.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 17:29

    Charlie, big thanks for breaking out of the gate with such a strong opinion. I have heard from a number of fundraisers that the test has not kept up to date with new trends on online giving. I have yet to take it, so perhaps that isn’t the case anymore.

Tom Ahern · August 11, 2014 at 15:17

I had the same mixed feelings about going for my credential (ABC from IABC), Rory. But I saw it as a challenge that moved me higher in my profession. Credentials are all about self-selection. Some of us are built that way: you’ve just got to see if you can climb the cliff, whatever the cliff is. Two decades later, I’ve moved so far beyond my credential that I no longer even use it (the ABC is not especially appropriate to fundraising work) … but I’m permanently glad I made the effort at the time. It was a milestone. It forced me to think about things I didn’t normally think about. It felt good having it, it gave me a sense of progress and completion when I was still very uncertain.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 17:31

    Anything that helps fundraisers feel more proud, certain or gives them the confidence to stand up for the body of knowledge is a good thing in my books. Thanks for weighing in Tom!

    Beth Ann Locke · August 11, 2014 at 18:42

    That’s an interesting way to look at it, Tom. Like climbing a mountain simply because it is there. I also find it interesting that you don’t use your credential any longer… more food for thought for me.

Sandra Baker · August 11, 2014 at 15:34

I do not have a CFRE, and along with the reasons noted above, I have found the cost to take the exam prohibitive. I also have heard that there is little Canadian content, which makes me question the value of the investment.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 17:31

    Sandra, out of curiosity – are you at a small shop? That is a reoccurring theme I am hearing among small shop fundraisers.

Michelle Brinson · August 11, 2014 at 15:39

I’ve been thinking long and hard about whether or not a CFRE would benefit me. I have over 20 years of experience in marketing. Almost half of that has been working in the nonprofit sector. The last 6 have specifically been in the area of fundraising through writing. I’m curious as to whether or not a distinction like that would benefit me professionally. I’m confident it would personally, because I love to learn and I’m obsessed with reading. Thoughts?

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 17:33


    I personally would encourage you to start the process, especially for the reasons started by Tom Ahern above.

    That said, if you are someone who is always looking to learn and improve, people will notice that about you – CFRE or not.


Mary Cahalane · August 11, 2014 at 15:41

Well, for one reason or another – including time and money – it’s not something I’ve ever felt the need to do. Perhaps because I’ve worked in the same community for nearly 30 years. Perhaps because I’m an eager learner without the need for an external stamp of approval, but just for its own sake.

Like you, I’ve known great fundraisers without any letters following their name, and great ones with the credentials. But for me, learning and doing have just been part of my daily life.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 17:34

    You are definitely on my list of amazing fundraisers I respect who do not have a CFRE. Beyond the financial barriers, I think time playsa big factor too. Professionals with children (especially single parents) may not have the luxury of attending breakfast sessions or conferences – even if the money is there.

Laura · August 11, 2014 at 15:48

I face the same dilemma here in the UK.

I’m currently weighing up whether to go self fund a Certificate In Fundraising, through the IoF, and then the courses that follow after. Rory, you nailed it when you said, the words; learning, Professional Development and that learning is life long.

I fear in the UK, fundraising will be made into a academic profession and though we are mostly clever people, I believe a love of people, thoughtfulness and having the naturalskills to be a great fundraiser are far more important.

With major donors the money often comes from the detail they give ( if you let them- that is! ) . A donors only wish is that you remember them, thank them and listen to their needs……

If we can do all if that do we need a verticals or qualification? No.

I personally like to study to keep learning and challenge myself.

And, after all there’s no such thing as cost or expense in fundraising, it’s investment.

I believe if we invest in listening, courses and people- we will make great change in this world as fundraisers.

Twitter @alwayscolour

Simone Joyaux · August 11, 2014 at 15:58

Hi Rory. Simone here. I am a past chair of CFRE International. I got my CFRE when I was a few years into the profession. I was a member of AFP (then NSFRE). I committed to certification because that was part of a profession. CFRE is not an educational program. The test is intended to show that you know the body of knowledge. The certification is not a testament that one is a good fundraiser. CPAs are certified – and there are lousy CPAs. CFRE is a practice credential – and it has to be renewed. That’s the point – remaining contemporary.

Translate into other languages. Yes, that would be marvelous. While I cannot speak for CFRE International today, in my years on the board, we were unable to secure money to pay for translation. So ask Eva Aldrich about the progress in that arena.

Previously CFRE was prohibited from raising charitable gifts for scholarships or translations. That may have changed now.

I want voluntary certification, not government certification. There shouldn’t be any particular country’s “content.” If fundraising works across the globe – with a common body of knowledge – then country-specific content shouldn’t be part of the test.

Myself, I prefer essay tests. I’m an essay person. But essay testing is difficult. That’s why many certifications (if not most?) are multiple choice. And I don’t think it’s about memorizing. If there’s a body of knowledge, then we professionals should know it without memorizing.

Those are my thoughts. I’m going to forward this to Eva Aldrich, CEO of CFRE International so she can respond, too.

Happy week.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 16:19

    Simone, thank you for weighing in – you offer a great perspective and insight on the credential! I look forward to seeing what Eva has to say.

    Re: Country specific content, I agree that body of knowledge questions should trump government regulations. However, a few of the fundraisers I surveyed mentioned American content about tax regulations and tax receipts. I wonder if that is still the case for the test, or if it has changed?

    Mercedes Geimer, CFRE · August 13, 2014 at 18:04


    As a newly minted CFRE, I value the thoughts you have shared here. It’s hard to explain the work that I put into my certification to someone who dismisses it out of hand. It was very important to me to achieve the CFRE credential and hearing you validate it makes me feel like I made the right decision.
    Thank you so much!

    R Jordan · August 14, 2014 at 16:59

    Hi Simone, I’m a big fan of your (and Tom’s) work, they’ve been an enormous help to me during my fundraising career. One very important point that Rory mentioned in her article is that the requirements to obtain the designation unfairly punish parents (and let’s be honest, by “parents”– it’s mostly women).

    During the deepest point of the recession in 2010 I, along with two other people in my department, lost our jobs. In the middle of my job search I found out I was pregnant (an unexpected, miraculous event after years of infertility). When I tried to re-enter the job market after the birth of my daughter in 2011 it took me nearly 8 months to find full-time employment.

    So here I am in 2014 and, although I’d like to take the test, I have to wait another two years so I can gain “more professional experience” even though I’ve worked in fundraising since 2004.

    I find it discouraging that while I work in a profession where women outnumber men AND women hold leadership positions in our professional credentialing association, the five-year rule is allowed to remain in force even as it disadvantages those of us who may have to leave the workforce for a year or two to take care of a child or elderly parents. I hope Ms. Aldrich is attempting to address this–I know I can’t be the only fundraiser who finds herself in this situation.

Sarah · August 11, 2014 at 16:02

I decided to pursue my CFRE because there are few in my region, so I hope it will help with future job prospects.

That being said, I agree to the bad and ugly you have written Rory. There is cost barriers for small shops, but also access to professional development opportunities. I have had to travel for my professional development. As well, the CFRE reading list is not only outdated, but with a non-active AFP chapter, I only have access to a handful of books in my region.

I would add to the good list: even if donors, supporters don’t know what CFRE stands for, it gives us the opportunity to talk about the designation and profession; a chance to combat the negative words too many donors hear in the media and online about fundraisers.

Bottom line, true,anyone can study for an exam and pass – and still not be better fundraisers. Even in Med School, someone may lack bedside manner but receives their M.D. We don’t judge/question that.

But I would say that the ones that hold the CFRE (and then the ACFRE after that) and are good fundraisers, generally outweigh the bad ones.

And I want to be a part of that.

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:51

    Sarah, that was a beautiful articulated reason to go for a CFRE. Here’s hoping a new generation of fundraisers can help work to create awards and bursaries to help small shop fundraisers get access to more P.D.

Miss Lovable Lita · August 11, 2014 at 16:13

To be a fundraiser or not to be a fundraiser, that’s the question. What difference would a CFRE make? You will always be a fundraiser and your actions speak more than those four letters. Focus on what matters most, not on what other people think.

Miss Lovable Lita

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:53

    Hi Lita, thank you for your comment. It sounds like you have a great deal of confidence in yourself – which I applaud – especially in fundraisers. However, often what matters most is how you see yourself. For some fundraisers the CFRE helps them find confidence in themselves, their profession and their abilities.

      Miss Lovable Lita · August 15, 2014 at 09:17

      Hi Rory,
      I’m not that confident all the time, I also wonder if it would help me to get the CFRE. But what I find is that the criteria for becoming a CFRE doesn’t always apply for European/Asian/Latin American fundraisers, so I don’t know what to decide. Fact is that in my country, there is not one CFRE. Does that mean us fundraisers over here are not professionals? Or that we do not approach our work in a professional way?

      I’ve asked my Pakistani and Indonesian co-workers what they think of the CFRE. For them the problem is the fee and the lack of possibilities for attending continuing education due to the high costs. And the fact that the educational offerings are all very USA and Canada orientated makes them wonder how can fundraisers throughout the world obtain the right education. The most surprising thing (or maybe not) was that they’ve asked me to explain to them how the needed experience could be translated into their culture, their way of working and the way their donors work. It looks like the cultural sensitivity is lacking at the moment. Translating an existing program does not mean it’s suitable for every country. Donors (people) are different in every country and so is fundraising. And with that, the professionalism is different.

      So is it a good idea to pursue a CFRE if culturally speaking it doesn’t say anything about my professionalism in my country? I still haven’t made up my mind.

      Stay awesome,
      Miss Lovable Lita

Barbara Talisman, CFRE · August 11, 2014 at 16:36

I too wrote a post on this 4 years ago after I got my CFRE. Cost cannot be a factor as this is an investment in your professional development, like joining IOF, AFP, attending continuing education or a conference. For me, AFTER, was personal satisfaction – because it does NOT translate into more money, CFRE members like any profession have the good, bad and ugly. It is a personal decision everyone makes on their own. And ultimately, that is the right decision for them.

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 16:48

    Hi Barbara,
    Thank you for weighing in! I want to challenge your assertion that cost cannot be a factor. Yes I absolutely agree that education and professional development is an investment that pays off. That said, many fundraisers I spoke to when researching this article talked about working for small non-profits with no PD funding – and no allowance to take time off to attend conferences and educational sessions. Many were single parents or low income households that just could not afford to front the cost of that themselves. For those fundraisers, cost absolutely is a factor.

Sheena Greer · August 11, 2014 at 16:45

I began pursuing my CFRE within weeks of my first fundraising job. Why? Because I have a decade in communications, but the job I was hired for required me to have fundraising experience. They told me they would pay for me to work towards my designation.

As I began working as a fundraiser and as a student of fundraising I noticed a couple things
1) options for credits were often more expensive that my PD budget
2) many of these courses felt like either common sense or too “best practice” for me to really utilize them in the shop I was working for at the time
3) my BEST learning came from reading blogs, interacting with fundraisers via Twitter, or phone/email/skype conversations with different nonprofit professionals.

I have since gone out on my own, and while I have not completely disregarded the idea of continuing work towards my CFRE, I have put it on pause and am very unsure if I will ever continue.

This debate feels somewhat like any debate about education. If I was sitting around the table with my two brothers (an architect and an engineer) they would definitely have a few choice words about my degree in Medieval English. But for me, that education was by far the greatest thing I have given myself.

Do CFREs get better jobs or better pay? I suppose it depends on where you are and what the organisation’s value is on something like that. Do I enjoy the idea of an organisation dictating what education I need in order to be most valuable to them? Certainly not.

But with a Medieval English degree and over a decade of nonprofit communications and business experience, I’m unlikely to be apply for jobs as a mechanical engineer anytime soon.

In the end, I believe in lifelong learning. For some, this will look more like certifications and designations, as this type of pursuit fits with their learning style and needs as a learner. For others, it will be completely on site and or peer enhanced. For others, the combination of both might not ever result in letters behind their name.

Wonderful post, Rory, and important conversation. Thank you for starting it.

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:55

    Sheena, do you feel any pressure to pursue a CFRE as a consultant? Do you think it matters at all to potential clients? Or do your experience, track record and brand matter more?

      Sheena Greer · August 14, 2014 at 16:24

      Good question, Rory. Currently, it does not seem to matter to my clientele. This is likely because the people I work with call on me for my writing and strategic communications, not fundraising strategy, though as we know the two are uniquely intertwined. I will always continue to pursue my professional development, which heavily includes tracking down the best fundraising resources and maintaining membership in local and international fundraising groups (such as AFP.) I suppose I am less of a fundraiser and more of a fundraising conduit, stepping in to help open roadblocks with strong communications and information sharing. Would a CFRE help me with this? Probably, in one way or another, but in terms of it getting me more money or jobs as a consultant, it’s not really a ladder I’m looking at climbing.

      I am also incredibly lucky to have close connections to amazing fundraisers (as I read the comments and see so many familiar and trusted names) – I’ve truly learned more from this online community, CFRE or not, about what is at the core of fundraising: relationships. It’s a pretty sweet spot I find myself in.

Denisa Casement · August 11, 2014 at 17:06

As Simone pointed out, the CFRE is a credential to show you know the body of knowledge. It’s important in any professional field to have a form of credentialing. It does matter. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on it.

I do agree with some of the comments regarding cost and a lack of updated reading recommendations. I think the CFRE process could do with an update and perhaps a bit more structured framework around the knowledge required.

Your experience preparing for the CFRE will vary drastically depending on your local AFP chapter’s level of organisation. Some chapters have an entire framework including mentoring and study groups and others offer nothing. I’d like to see the best programmes formalised and a model created that can be used across all chapters more easily.

I would also love to see more formal education components available in the US such as the Certificate & Diploma in Fundraising available in the UK and Ireland. These type of courses would be very helpful in preparing for the CFRE while building practical skills.

The main strengths of the CFRE are the broad base of knowledge required to pass it and the ongoing education required to maintain it.

I’ve been a CFRE since 2005 and the ongoing education component really got me focused on acquiring new knowledge and skills. Since moving to a country where fundraising is embryonic I’ve come to appreciate the broad knowledge base and framework of fundraising principles required for a CFRE. I certainly don’t take it for granted like I used to.

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:58

    “It is important in any professional field to have a form of credentialing.” Yes, absolutely. I med with a medical lab technician the other day, who was lamenting that no ongoing PD is required to keep up their accreditation. I told him about the CFRE, and the ongoing work needed to maintain it – and I think he had a little more respect for what I do for a living. I think it’s for that reason that we need to work together as a community to keep the designation relevant, instead of dismissing it completely.

Andrew S. Dungan · August 11, 2014 at 17:58

I’ve thought about testing for the CFRE even after receiving my EdD. Is this foolish? I spent two years working on my dissertation, writing about nonprofit sustainability. Would the CFRE actually be of assistance to my career?

    Rory · August 11, 2014 at 18:23

    Hi Andrew,

    When doing research for this blog post, I interviewed one fundraiser who was given a raise after getting her CFRE, and another who credits their current Director role to their CFRE. While others said it made no difference. If it gives you the confidence to apply for a new role, or ask to get a raise – then go for it. Ultimately, it is about the person – not the designation.


Claire Hastings · August 11, 2014 at 18:20

I’ve been in fundraising for two years, having shifted sectors from government and communications.

I’m tracking my credits and volunteer hours, but right now I’m in an extremely small shop with a tiny professional development budget so my opportunities for courses/webinars/events are minimal.

Most of what I’ve learned about best practice and innovation in fundraising has been through reading blogs, following great fundraisers on twitter and subscribing to a bunch of great newsletters.

So, I guess I’m keeping the door open for a CFRE in the future, but right now it’s not my primary avenue for professional development.

Pamela Grow · August 11, 2014 at 18:40

Thank you! You’ve done a real service for your colleagues and the profession by bringing this topic up, Rory.

Here’s my own personal story: I began the process of certification back in 2006 when I was a five years into a fundraising career. Unfortunately I became ill 3/4 of the way in, and was hospitalized. Later, when deciding whether or not to continue the coursework, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do and made the decision not to continue. Denisa noted that “your experience preparing for the CFRE will vary drastically depending on your local AFP,” and I agree. The coursework I had completed to date was sorely lacking in attention to anything remotely resembling donor-centered fundraising.

I’ve never really been a ‘membership’ kind of gal. No cliques or sororities for me. And most of the personal mentors I’ve learned the most from over the years, are not necessarily CFRE’s. That said, I”m a huge believer in self-education. The Grow Report evolved out of a need to give fundraisers a tool to separate the online clickbait fundraising stuff, with what is real, and focused on long-term fundraising success. And my own membership program, Simple Development Systems, was created, in part, so there would be no cost barrier to effective training.

Do your donors care whether or not you’re certified? Probably not. But clearly the decision to obtain certification is a very personal one. If you feel it will benefit you, it most likely will.

    Sheena Greer · August 11, 2014 at 19:27

    “If you feel it will benefit you, it most likely will” perfectly encapsulates it, I think!

Jenny Mitchell · August 11, 2014 at 20:11

Rory – I am going for it! Starting the study buddy program with AFPOttawa in September. My decision was also around the opportunity to network with local members who also want to do the CFRE – a chance to create a “community of knowledge” as we all work towards the CFRE together.
Wish me luck!

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:36

    Jenny – GOOD LUCK! It sounds like you are pursuing a CFRE for all the right reasons. I hope it is a good experience for you, and deepens your connection to the profession. Do keep up updated on how the process is for you!

Jon Nelson · August 11, 2014 at 21:29

My organization, ALDE, does a biannual Compensation Survey, and we found some pretty interesting results about certified members. We asked about professional certification in general – but for our members that’s probably 90% CFRE – and found that certified senior-level members earned an average of 46% MORE than those who weren’t certified. It was around $91K vs. $62K. The difference wasn’t as great for those with leadership and executive roles, but still pretty sizable – 26% and 29%, respectively. This email we sent has a nice shot of a chart showing the differences for compensation based on certification: http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs169/1101635437045/archive/1118068669651.html (sorry, can’t release the entire report as it’s a member benefit, but this shows all the pertinent certification results).

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 21:35

    Hi Jon,

    That is really interesting. Again, while it may not be the CFRE itself that gets the higher wages, ig having a CFRE empowers fundraisers to stand up for their own value – I think that is a really positive thing.


Lisa Chmiola, CFRE (@houdatlisa) · August 11, 2014 at 23:06

I will offer another perspective on Bad #2. It actually did mean something to some of my donors…the ones who also have a professional certification in their field (e.g. LEED in Construction, CPA for accounting). They would see the CFRE on my card and ask what it was. When I explained it was certification for our industry, they got it immediately and totally respected that I cared enough about what I did to go through a certification like they had.

It may not have made donations “fly through the door”…but thought I would offer yet another viewpoint on the matter :)

    Rory Green · August 11, 2014 at 23:15

    Lisa, I have to imagine it has the same effects with boards, mission staff and leadership too! it shows fundraising is a serious profession with a body of knowledge – not just people running a charity bake sale.

Nancy Wood · August 11, 2014 at 23:21

My personal experience is that the only people who really cared about the CFRE were other CFREs. I worked hard to get it, paid for it all myself (my employer at the time couldn’t have been less interested), and took a test that had next to NO similarity to the CFRE prep course that I had just completed and, as you mention, was flawed at times.(Too many instances my answer would have really been, “It depends; I need more information.”) Subsequently, I was thrilled to pass with a pretty high score. Afterwards, I encountered a lot of ambivalence or even dismissals from fundraising colleagues–unless they, too, had either gotten their CFRE or were working towards it.

I never saw any sort of professional or financial benefit from it, myself. My experience and track record held much more weight. It was often a conversation starter when someone saw it on my business card, but only briefly.

As a result, the requirements to keep it up (and the associated expenses), were a drawback for me. I will always be proud that I did it, but haven’t been to compelled to re-certify. This is not to say I wouldn’t reconsider, but at this time it just hasn’t seemed worth it…

Liz Rejman · August 11, 2014 at 23:27

I debated about getting my CFRE for about 10 years. Some days I wanted it, others I could care less. I eventually ended the debate and went for it. I initially thought that I would see external benefits, but over time, the benefit has been more internal – it’s an opportunity to demonstrate my dedication to the profession.

Am I glad I went through the process to obtain it? Yes.
Can CFRE be improved? Yes.

I truly think it is a personal decision each fundraiser needs to make for themselves. There will always be pros and cons – you have to decide which have greater influence over your decision.

Leah Eustace, CFRE, ACFRE · August 12, 2014 at 00:25

How can I not jump into this conversation? I’ve never regretted for a moment getting my CFRE (and, in fact, have renewed it despite having received my ACFRE earlier this year). It forced me to read a lot of great books and, having attended a university that taught me the value of questioning what you read, it didn’t really matter that some of the books were out-of-date…I knew to question and debate them.
The study buddies program I was part of led to lifelong friends (and clients…and my current job). And, no matter whether I’m a good fundraiser or not, renewing the CFRE forces me to keep up with volunteer work and professional development (that can’t be a bad thing).
At the same time, I understand the ‘bad’ and ‘ugly.’ But at this moment in time, it’s the only certification opportunity we have in North America at the level it’s designed for.
Finally, I’m chair-elect of the AFP Foundation for Philanthropy – Canada. We’ve successfully raised lots of money for translation. Perhaps a French version of the test should be on the agenda?

Lani Naihe · August 12, 2014 at 00:38

Hi Rory ,

As I mentioned on my Twitter response, I have met l of the required benchmarks except the continuing ed. My organization doesn’t always have funding for professional development, but I have taken advantage of it when possible. I have also paid for education myself when possible. But it’s still a challenge to be able to afford the conferences and seminars because so few are offered in the state I live.

I know many successful fundraisers but none of them have their CFRE. I look at it as more of a personal achievement than a professional requirement. And I agree with some of the others who have commented here; I’ve learned the most from listening to my donors and mentors and reading blogs and newsletters. I’ve learned the most from Tom Ahern and Simone Joyeaux!

Peter Kazarian · August 12, 2014 at 00:51

Hi all!
I JUST got my CFRE (tested last month).
The three biggest reasons I went for it, in order of most important to least (to me):

1) Like Rory here, I’ve been nonprofit-focused from the start. That means I’ve accumulated ONLY fundraising years of service, and the 5 year req is one of the biggest hurdles for some folks. At the same time, my employers (been a consultant/hired agency gun the whole time) are/were pushy about joining webinars, conferences, and other opportunities for growth, to where I could just export 5 years of an Outlook calendar and find 80 hours worth of relevant credit. Basically, it made sense to do it and other than the application and not-tiny fee, it didn’t really take me too far out of my way. This may be the case for you, and it may not. Either way, classes are self-reported now and MUCH easier to slot in than in the past.
2) I’m a baby-faced 28-year-old, and even though I’ve dealt with my fair share of marquee-level orgs and 30-40 different development departments (plenty of them big), I’d say age plays a factor even if you work hard to be taken seriously as a peer. I noticed a change in treatment from some folks once I mentioned I was THINKING about applying. I’ve also already been able to open some doors in the (VERY) short time I’ve had it. :)
3) From the world of agencies and consultancies (anything OUTSIDE an org), having a CFRE can be very helpful (and I’ve seen that well before obtaining mine.) If you’re in a large practice, having experience AND a CFRE is going to at least slightly raise your profile above those who just have the experience. The quality of your work/knowledge still has to stand out but it’s like a graduate degree in some ways; it gives an excuse for a boss who likes you(/or is able) to promote you/give you a raise. Conversely, NOT having one can be a reason why a boss who doesn’t like you (or an org who can’t) can justify holding back. Aside from self-promotion within a bigger consulting firm, it can be a real door opener for new consulting clients, either your own if independent or for “the man” (as a rep of a large firm). Some boards and directors of development (especially the larger organizations) are looking at 6-10 proposals and trying to find the one they like the most, or at least trying to knock others off the ledge by finding excuses. From what I’ve been told and what I’ve seen, having a CFRE adds to the reasons why the nonprofit should pick YOU, especially if you’re talking about a big, traditional nonprofit org like a Sal Army or Catholic Charities chapter. And I don’t think it hurts to have it otherwise.

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton to adapt into it as far as new curricula or subject matter goes. Some aspects of the test were a little frustrating in terms of key terms and CFRE specific definitions. I mean, yes, you study for those but still. I would also have liked to see more online knowledge on display.
The one other issue is if you’re trying to brand yourself as “not-fundraising specific” so much as a comms or marketing professional. If you’re trying to prove that your domain should expand beyond development or annual giving, a CFRE can make you look more fundraise-y. But even having one in your back pocket and going to conferences/webinars enough to recertify (with a much smaller fee) seems like it’s well worth it.

Tl;dr version:
1) It may be something you’re very nearly qualified for without much additional effort. Experience and continuing ed credits are the highest bar for many.
2) It can be a great way to raise your profile when you’re young, smart, or ignored a little too much (IF it’s an issue of noticing your otherwise great work)
3) If you’re an external consultant who works with orgs, it can make you legitimately favored over others in a “new business” sense.

Just my 2¢ (USD)

    Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 01:28

    Hi Peter, Thank you for that incredible comment – and sharing your experience. You lay out an amazing case for getting a CFRE. I don’t suffer from “baby face” but I often get confused for a student at the university I work at. I once had a boss suggest I pretend to have a baby, cut my hair short and wear fake glasses to look older. Compared to all that, getting a CFRE sounds much easier…

Siobhan · August 12, 2014 at 01:59

I agree with the comments about it being expensive (cost of test and the pro-d spending required to get your points). I did a college program in fundraising, but a few years later decided it was time to CFRE.

The test was nuts – the studying I did made almost no difference – and seemed to be very focused on capital campaigns and planned giving. But I’ll keep up the certification for sure, mainly because I like that we’re adding to the professionalism of fundraising by getting a designation.

Holly Wagg · August 12, 2014 at 02:01

So I have a CFRE and have held that designation for about 5 years.

As a fundraiser, I cut my teeth working for small grassroots organizations. I would build fundraising programs from scratch for newly founded/transitioning charities. As a small shop fundraiser, I found it incredibly frustrating how looked down upon or judged or misunderstood fundraising in our shops was.

We are bonafide generalists. We know how to fix the toilet in our office when it breaks AND raise 40K through a new special event AND how to build a digital donor file from scratch AND how to process a bajillion pieces of mail. We’re multi-tasker extraordinaires.

As someone who is young, looks young and talks young, I opted to obtain my CFRE to advance my career. And yes, it was driven by money as a motivator. While I love small shops, I was tired of being underpaid. And have any of you Canadians noticed how many jobs now have a CFRE as a requirement or as preference? Adding a CFRE to my list of credentials, in addition to a BA & MA gave me that leverage in negotiations. For small shops, it was a stamp of approval that I was proficient and knew what I was doing. In large shops with a bonafide HR department, it’s a credential that can move you up a pay band.

Now, from doing the CFRE, I learned a lot. It’s a major gifts fundraising world and the test is written from that perspective. And, how you do things in a small shop world and a major gift world are often light years apart.

I’m concerned that CFRE positions itself as setting the standards in philanthropy. We need standards, we need best practices, but frankly, we may need to have a professional certification program that actually now takes us beyond self-regulation.

For fundraisers to be on par with other professions like lawyers, engineers, accountants (and it’s the way human resources professionals have gone in Ontario at least) we may need to have the dialogue about becoming a regulated profession.

But to get there, I think we really need to broaden the body of knowledge a fundraiser requires to demonstrate competence (i.e., I still believe this is no digital fundraising on the CFRE exam) and set more rigorous standards. Because there should be a bar that sets those who are part of a body of self-regulating professionals (be that CFRE or something else) apart from others who are not part of that professional body. And most definitely a bar once a profession becomes regulated.

I’m thinking aloud here, but with all of the talk about public mistrust of charities in Canada, I think we owe it to the public to set those standards where we are all competent and behave in an ethical manner. And CFRE has not achieved this in Canada at this point in time.

Sonya Swiridjuk · August 12, 2014 at 02:59

Hi Rory, and thank you for a fantastic blog that has stimulated such an interesting discussion and brought forth so many perspectives and experiences!

I echo what Simone Joyaux, Barbara Talisman and Leah Eustace have said, and am on the “for” side for getting your CFRE. Before I share my own experience though, I’d like to put forth some clarifications and additional information for consideration (with apologies in advance for being long-winded).

1) Requirements for the initial application process – yes, most categories count points for the last five years. However, the area of Professional Practice counts points within the last eight years to account for leaves, illness, transition time between jobs, etc.

2) The CFRE process and designation – this is not run by AFP. Yes, in “the olden days” it (basically) was; now AFP is one of many participating organizations that support this credential (but granted it’s one of the largest). It was the vision and drive of leaders like Simone Joyaux who recognized the importance of having an autonomous credentialing body for fundraisers which resulted in the independence of CFRE International.

3) The exam questions – Part 1. As with any material that’s adapted, there will always be remnants of the original source. In this case, as the CFRE exam was initially created in the U.S., I agree there’s an American bent to a lot of the “general knowledge” type questions. But at least for Canada, I know first-hand that CFRE International has worked hard to develop country-specific exam questions – e.g., around planned giving, online giving, etc. It remains a work in progress, but each new round of exams are better than the last and more relevant vis-à-vis fundraising best practices in one’s own country.

That leads me to Part 2 about exam questions. Yes, some of the questions are flawed – but those do get weeded out as part of a regular and thorough review process. And yes, it would be “better” (for some people) if the questions were experience-based (vs. best practice) and essay format (vs. multiple choice). But building on what Simone said on this, questions based on best practice and multiple choice helps level the playing field for those taking the exam and makes the marking of same less subjective.

4) The expense – I know it’s hard to come up with the money to pay for all of the costs associated with getting and maintaining your CFRE designation when there’s zero p.d. money available from your workplace. For those in Canada who are looking to acquire education points, especially if you’re from a small shop and/or new(er) to fundraising, I encourage you to apply for a bursary to attend this year’s AFP Greater Toronto Chapter Congress http://afptoronto.org/congress/bursaries/ (and under full disclosure I’m on the Congress Management Team). For those living anywhere, check out the Resource Alliance’s Fundraising Online conference in May http://www.resource-alliance.org/pages/en/about-fundraising-online-.html – which you can do from your desk for FREE and get downloaded recordings if you’re not able to participate live. I don’t think these sessions count for CFRE points “yet”, but the RA’s International Fundraising Congress sessions do, so I suspect it’s just a matter of time for Fundraising Online’s sessions too!

For me, getting my CFRE (in 2003) was a personal goal for a professional purpose. I paid for everything myself, and had to take vacation days to study for and write the exam. (At the time, I could have received financial assistance from my employer, but there were strings attached so I said, “no thanks; I’ll do it on my own”.) To say I was elated when I received my score would be an understatement (I screamed and then burst into tears), but I self-identify through my work so others may not have (had) the same visceral reaction. I’ve never gotten paid any more money because of my CFRE, but I’ll always be glad and proud that I have it!

Scott Fortnum, CFRE, ACFRE · August 12, 2014 at 04:02

Per point 3, while the CFRE does not make more donations magically appear, it is a great conversation starter with prospects. I must be old as I’ve held my CFRE since 1995 and have had many conversations about it with prospects after they saw it on my business card. You don’t need to be CFRE to be a good fundraiser, but it can be another valuable tool in the relationship building arsenal. It provides you with the opportunity to tale about commitment to the profession, ethics, and general competence. These are all things that make prospects more comfortable.

    Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 05:09

    That’s a great point Scott – I love that the CFRE says to a donor how that you take the responsibility and the ethics around fund development seriously.

Sandy Rees · August 12, 2014 at 04:42

I got my CFRE many years ago, and have recertified several times. For me, it’s about showing my commitment to my profession, pure and simple. As a consultant, there’s really no benefit to me – most of my clients don’t know what it means or what it takes to get it. So, it means something to me personally more than anything else.

Paul Delbar · August 12, 2014 at 08:46

You sum it up pretty well with the good/bad/ugly. Comparing this to other fields that have certification (like CPIM) etc. there are a few effects I can see.

Certification is an instrument often used to raise the lower edge of the skills distribution in a field. Let’s face it: we all know people who are in fundraising but lack the skills, sensitivity and commitment for it. Having a baseline, reference-style test/certification/exam tends to set a differential which incites people to reach ‘at least that’.

At the higher end of the experience/skill distribution, it says little. Experience often trumps exam results, and a test can only test so much. This aligns with some of the comments here.

The type of ‘Certified Professional’ exams that work well for Microsoft software, networking skills and programming languages tend to fail rather ungraciously in fields like fundraising, communications and the like. How do you test attitude, common sense, empathy, perseverance, pragmatism — all characteristics of a good fundraiser (at least in my experience) ?

In my ideal world, there is a common vocabulary of terms and processes (RFM, acquisition, lifetime value, retention, storytelling, donor journey, …) which make up the basics of what you really need to know to be a serious fundraiser. Call that fundraising 101 (no pun intended). Entry level, required for entry to the profession. Next is a senior level, which requires experience and practical work, typically applied to a specific subdomain (donor relations, fundraising financials, direct marketing, …). Finally, master classes, which are intended for thoe who specialise in a particular function or field, something which smaller outfits typically cannot afford to have in house, while they can and will contract out for specific guidance and consultancy. A FR consultant would use these master classes-level certificates as a more objective reference of competence.

Margaux Smith · August 12, 2014 at 09:26

Ugh Rory!! Daaaaaamn woman! You are just one slam dunk after another :) I love this post.

I know we already briefly chatted about this when we first e-met, but I’m certainly not one to resist a comment party, so here it goes ;)

I think I will probably eventually get my CFRE, but I will certainly do so for different reasons than it may be designed for. To me, the idea of getting my designation speaks to my competitive nature, and my desire to push myself for my own personal satisfaction. I want to get my CFRE for the same reason I’d like to run a marathon someday – it would be a long, challenging process that would give me an opportunity to prove something to myself, and then be able to proudly proclaim that I’d achieved a goal.

I feel like that’s a pretty silly reason in some ways, and maybe a bit self-centred, but the truth is, I don’t actually feel like I need it professionally. The ‘potential’ of a higher salary does sound enticing, but as someone who has always and will always (probably) work agency/consultant side, I don’t know that it’s as important?

But as I mentioned to you before, I’ve been very much removed from the CFRE bubble (North America) since I left three years ago and moved abroad to being my career as a fundraiser, so it’s been a bit out of sight, out of mind. Maybe I’ll change my tune in a few years when I’m back in Canada :)

When I do return home, I think the biggest barriers slowing down my application will be the cost (I’m still paying off my grad degree in fundraising, and will be for a while!), and personal time. I love fundraising so much, but it’s hard balancing the other parts of your life outside of work too – and I don’t even have kids yet!

Just my experience though. Great topic, and really great comment party :) Thanks for starting it!

    Margaux Smith · August 12, 2014 at 10:16

    Follow up comment – this post motivated me to FINALLY go onto the CFRE website to see about starting to add all the conferences and stuff I’ve attended over the past few years.

    Not only could I not really figure out how to properly add my experience, but everything I did add, didn’t save properly. What a fantastic waste of time! My first suggestion to CFRE would be to improve the user experience of the online application process…

      Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 16:23

      Thanks for your comment, and sharing your perspective. If the CFRE wants to stay relevant, I think there needs to be room for our generation’s opinions to be considered.

      Also – it sucks that you had a bad user experience with the site. I did too, to be honest.

Craig Shelley · August 12, 2014 at 13:45

I did it about a year ago for the reasons below. The bottom line, in my mind, is if you’re doing it, do it for yourself.

1. Similar to Tom above, I climbed the mountain because it was there. I was curious if I could do it and it was important to me to test myself.

2. It was an opportunity to force myself to think and learn about our field. Often we get lost in the day to day – raising that next dollar, prepping that next meeting, planning that next event. Preparing for the CFRE forced me to pick my head up and look around and think about my work and how I could do it better.

3. I wanted to set an example. At the time I was serving in a leadership position at a large national organization I felt would benefit from opening itself to more knowledge and education. CFRE seemed like a good objective to set for our fundraisers but required me to set the example. I am proud of the number of fundraisers in the organization that followed that lead and have achieved the designation.

3. I believe in the professionalization of our field. We do serious and important work. I feel like CFRE, despite it’s flaws, helps foster professionalism and a more accurate view of our field by our peers and donors.

I have not been disappointed. I don’t think it has gotten me a job or a raise or that I even learned anything new in preparing for the test. But I do know I have taken personal satisfaction from the designation and have been proud to encourage others to do the same and am a better fundraiser for having spent the prep time thinking about my work.

Jim Schaffer · August 12, 2014 at 15:13

I have a number of issues with the CFRE designation, but my primary one is that fundraising is a team sport and this credential requires one taking ownership for every dime raised, every hour logged. I’ve been “responsible” for hundreds of millions being raised (AmeriCares, Save the Children, Hole in the Wall Gang, etc.) over 30+ years, but I can’t bring myself to take credit for all those annual and capital campaigns. I THINK the leaders of these orgs (e.g., Paul Newman) and especially the generous donors had a lot more to do with the results than my support and personal solicitations. It’s not my money or causes to claim for my own; I was merely given the privilege of participating in huge stories much greater than myself. Another observation is simply the extremely limited reach of AFP — membership holding steady for many year at about 30k members WORLDWIDE, the last I checked. India has 4 million NGOs and AFP is not even there, not one member, let alone chapter. AFP does not come close to representing the profession, such as it is.

    Leah Eustace · August 12, 2014 at 17:46

    Valid points, Jim. Just wanted to clarify that the CFRE program is a completely independent entity, not a part of AFP.

Ken Burnett · August 12, 2014 at 16:05

Thanks Rory for a great blog raising some really big issues on a genuinely important subject. And what a fascinating discussion! Clearly there’s a lot to be said for and against, though I’m not sure how easy it’ll be for anyone new to our business to get to the right answers to those questions you pose at the end of your piece, ‘Would you recommend CFRE? Are there other professional development programs or credentials you recommend in its place?’

An unbiased analysis of these questions is long overdue and SOFII (www.sofii.org) is I’m sure just one place that would be really eager to publish it.

There’s great material for this feature in the comments thread to your blog. I just wonder if there’s anyone out there who feels up to the journalistic challenge of pulling it all together, into the definitive feature?

You’d be doing the sector a big favour, I think, if all the pros and cons could be catalogued and analysed for all to see, with appropriate conclusions too.

Rory, you’d be perfect for the task I’m sure. But I appreciate such an undertaking would be neither easy, nor quick.

Which, I guess, is why it hasn’t already been done.


Jeff Stanger · August 12, 2014 at 17:56

For all commenters- Please feel free to share with the CFRE staff and board your issues and concerns. 1) That’s how change happens and 2) remember they are fundraisers too! The board is a board of your peers. And there are young members on the board (Heather McGinness) that are giving voice to the concerns of younger (or new to the profession) fundraisers.

If you manage a fundraising staff- Pay for your staff to be certified and require a 12 month commitment to stay after passing the exam or the fee must be reimbursed to the organization. It’s really a no brainer. The cost of turnover (which is unfortunately high in this profession) is way more expensive than the cost of the exam. And if the person leaves, you get your money back. Investing in staff lowers turnover, increases productivity, improves morale, and improves the professionalism of your staff.

    Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 18:22

    Jeff thank you for weighing in, and reminding us that the CFRE is run by real live human beings – fundraisers – who want the credential to be relevant and well respected.

    I also LOVE your challenge to managers to pay for certification. I will remember that for when I have my own staff one day!

      Mark Hindle FAHP, CFRE · August 12, 2014 at 23:38

      Maybe you could try reimbursement as an alternative to paying your staff to work towards attaining CFRE. Then they have skin in the game.
      On a personal note and as a 7 times recertifier, we still have an acceptance issue around CFRE. It needs to be recognised as being valuable by employers, recruiters and fundraisers. My commitment to the credential is unwavering but it does have a perception issue and, BTW, cost is a major consideration to small shops and to fundraisers.
      FWIW. :)

Ephraim · August 12, 2014 at 19:20

First of all, is there anyone out there who does NOT like Rory?! Didn’t think so- she’s the best!

As far as the post- I live in Israel. There’s no professional certification here so CFRE wouldn’t necessarily matter here. It also means that the whole fundraising sector here is different- people work on percentages, potentially have little experience and few opportunities for professional development. There are plenty who are very good at what they do but plenty who aren’t. Mixed bag.

As far as me, I don’t care about initials after someone’s name. I want someone who can do the job. Period. Passing the CFRE is a big thing but it doesn’t tell me about the person’s people skills, ability to fundraise and more.

So just keep bein you, Rory. You have a glorious future ahead of you as Queen of Tumblr! And a fundraiser too :)

Kirk Schmidt · August 12, 2014 at 19:23

I met a CFRE who had a Masters degree who was absolutely clueless. I have met fundraisers without who understand their craft without it.

Certifications are tools. If you have the base concepts, they provide new tools to use, new ideas, etc. If you don’t understand, or cannot understand how to expand the knowledge to use for non-standard situations, they will be a waste.

This goes for MCSEs for IT, MBAs for business, etc.

I can tell you how a hammer works. That a hammer uses its weight and momentum to put nails into wood. But if you cannot possibly understand how to physically wield it, that theory does nothing for you. You might be able to regurgitate what I have told you on a test, but you cannot build a house.

Nishen Naicker · August 12, 2014 at 21:07

I believe the best fundraisers are the ones who have the strongest desires for change, who are passionate about their causes , who are activist and innovators . No qualification can teach empathy , will power , grit and off course most importantly character.

Another issue with these courses and accreditation’s , is that its doing social change a serious disservice, simply because it teaching us fundraisers to be excellent administrators , to write beautiful proposals , and fill out logic frameworks just how donors want it to be- Donor Compliance , our donors become our clients.

However we missing a point , social change is complex and not that logical . Lets do a course that teaches us to have an uncomfortable conversation with a donor , to easy up on the compliance and speak the truth , to tell the world that we don’t have guaranteed solutions to social change , but we have ideas that we believe could work and in need of support , in the pursuit for real change.

I would not hire a perfect fundraiser , i would hire a great troublemaker , because i know my investment is greater with that troublemaker , because real change is desired in a way that helps to reach the vision of the organisation.

Fundraisers are the catalyze for change , compliance is the opposite.

Christina Hemens · August 12, 2014 at 21:25

Thank you for writing this Rory. As a fundraiser who only has a few years experience I have been weighing the options about going forward with the certification.

I have heard all of the above arguments; for and against, and challenges in the past. The comments below would solidify my feeling that it proves there is a body of knowledge. I struggle with if everyone with a CFRE practices this body of knowledge.

Looking forward to further discussion!

    Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 21:31

    I’m curious Christina – after reading all the comments – do you think you’ll go for it? Or not worth the investment?

      Christina Hemens · August 12, 2014 at 21:49

      I think, like you, I will continue to build up my credits and maybe make a decision closer to the 3/4 year mark. I am currently persuing a Master’s in Philanthropy and feel that I am already gaining a significant amount of knowledge there. Like you, I completed the Humber program which provided me with a lot of hands on knowledge. I guess you could say I am still undecided.

      With all of these comments, which way are you leaning?

        Rory Green · August 12, 2014 at 22:11

        I am going to do it. Not for what is in it for me, but because of what it means to the profession – as many referenced above. In the kind of fudnraising I want to do (major gifts) – my track record and reputation will be what gets me jobs/raises etc.

        I also have the PD funds to do conferences and seminars to build credits. So there is less investment needed on my end.

Adrian Salmon · August 13, 2014 at 09:19

Wow — I’m definitely late to the party on this one!
I’m one of those fundraisers who doesn’t have a formal qualification – I learnt on the job in a highly demanding agency environment. Like other commentators above, I have mixed feelings about the ‘professionalisation’ of a job like ours.

On the one side, yes we should absolutely be encouraging professionalism. Especially in direct marketing there’s a body of knowledge and research that we all need to know and I am often shocked at how few direct marketing fundraisers know it. So many fundraisers around the world are reinventing the wheel over and over again at great cost to their charities.

However before I became a fundraiser I initially started training as a psychotherapist/counsellor and what has happened in that field saddens me – MAs and MPhils in psychotherapy now seem to be base-level requirements for a job where, as Carl Rogers demonstrated in the 1940s – 1960s, the therapist’s personal qualities, rather than acquired body of knowledge, are actually the motivating factors for promoting therapeutic change.

I would not like to see fundraising go the same way, and Masters degrees become base-level requirements for first fundraising jobs.

As Morpheus says to Neo in The Matrix – it’s one thing to know the path, but another thing altogether to walk it. Even if you understand theoretically that a certain approach may work better than another, it takes an experiential leap to be brave and put that theoretical knowledge into practice. I was lucky to have a very fine mentor as my first boss, and I still think that the mentor/apprentice model is one of the best ways to really learn fundraising.

Matthew Sherrington · August 13, 2014 at 14:35

What a great debate.
To my mind, certification satisfies one or several of these needs: knowledge, confidence, challenge and recognition. Whether someone has those needs, and whether certification is the way to satisfy them will be quite a personal thing. I wouldn’t want to see certification become a requirement. Experience wins over qualifications any day.

Perhaps there’s stage in career where it can be useful – the early days when experience is still short, and when it does signal commitment and passion to a chosen fundraising direction.

Personally, I fell into fundraising.and after over 20 years I’m a bit past the need for it on any score. I’ve never been particularly bothered about recognition. I once did a certificate course in direct marketing for the structured learning but didn’t feel compelled to take the exams. Professional insecurity seems endemic in our sector, not just in fundraising, ( which I wrote about here http://bit.ly/1pZao6y). Improving base knowledge and having a structure to that is a good thing. If a certified course helps someone do that, for the discipline, the challenge and so on, that’s great. Personally, I favour and encourage networking and seeking mentors, however informal. Fundraising is a generous world, and I’ve never experienced a refusal to share when asked. Don’t ask, don’t get!

Fraser Green · August 13, 2014 at 15:55

I did my CFRE about 17 years ago. At the time, I’d just made the transfer from the political world to the charitable sector – and my business partner thought it was essential that i establish my credibility by getting my CFRE as early as possible. As I did the reading and preparation classes, I was kind of resentful – and thought a good deal of the study material was irrelevant. Once I’d finished the process, I realized that much of what I’d learned was in fact very helpful. I’m glad I did it. My take on the designation itself? I think it’s valuable for a more junior fundraiser to reach a more middle position. At the more senior level, I don’t think it matters much.

Simon Burne · August 13, 2014 at 16:02

The biggest test always has to be results. Any exams/tests will give you knowledge and, perthaps confidence. But fundraising is 50% art – and that’s the 50% that is about knowing, loving and wowing your donors. That doesn’t come in a package – it’s part learnt, part innate, but all about commitment and passion.

Ligia · August 13, 2014 at 17:33


I agree 100% with your analysis. I initially got my CFRE in 2010. My main motivators were (1) I’m a nerd and love to continue learning, (2) I had recently started my consulting business, with my baby face, I felt I needed the letters for credibility reasons.

Having gone through the process, I think “in principle” it is a worthwhile certification to have in your arsenal. Whether it makes you a better or more dedicated fundraiser….I don’t think the CFRE can assure that. Like you said, there are many great fundraisers without the letters and many with the letters that I would never hire!

The issues I have with the certification are exactly what you pointed out: it’s only in English (seriously? let’s get with the times!); it isn’t country specific enough and the my absolute BIGGEST issue with the exam is that it’s a multiple choice exam. Not only that, it’s based on a bunch of books that were written over 10 years ago. While the fundamentals of fundraising have not changed dramatically, using old textbooks is simply ridiculous. In addition, the exam tests only theory and we all know that theory is never the same as reality. It’s very counter-intuitive!

In the end, I’m proud of having those letters after my name and I’m happy to recertify every 3 years but I’m sceptical of the whole system.

Chris Miller · August 13, 2014 at 20:57

I think that there is value in getting your CFRE, if it is right for you where you are in your career. After spending 10 yrs in higher education fundraising, I moved to the for profit consulting world. I realized that my work and life experience as a fundraiser was only reinforced with clients, after getting my CFRE. Being the only consultant with a CFRE helped our company attract new business. I felt that the process of studying for the exam was good for me because there were areas that I did not oversee in higher education (grants and volunteers), that I needed to know for the test. Overall, it is a choice fundraisers have to make based on where they have been, what they have done, and where they want to go.

Allison Bough · August 13, 2014 at 22:58

I earned the CFRE in 2000 & have maintained it since, without regret. It does come at a high cost for both the exam and the ongoing continuing education. However, the continuing ed allows me to remain current in the field, and there are other positive benefits as well. For me, the CFRE demonstrates my commitment to the profession and to excellence in the field. As the article states, CFRE is not the only option for those who want to pursue professional education. Many universities offer masters programs in nonprofit management, and local colleges often have non-degree certificate programs. These are not the same as the CFRE although they do have merit.

J P North · August 14, 2014 at 00:47

I loved this topic! I applied for the CFRE three times and missed the mark by a few points each time. Strange, I had considered myself a great generalist and a good fund raiser, after all, I had successfully grown four annual fund programs in the first eight years of my philanthropic career. Since then, I enrolled at Bay Path College (now University) and obtained my Master’s in Non Profit Management and Philanthropy – rebuilding my confidence as a professional fund raiser.

Megan · August 14, 2014 at 01:57

I certified in March of this year, and am so happy I went for it. My initial motivation was to keep myself competitive in the field. I’m working on my bachelor’s degree through independent study, which will take me a LONG time. Without a university degree, I felt it would be beneficial to have the certification.

It’s true that a CFRE doesn’t necessarily signify a top-notch fundraiser, but I really don’t think one could pass it without being committed to best practices. The questions were really “stop and think”. One would have to, on some level, know the best practices. I suppose whether or not they actually practice them is another story.

I don’t recall any question being biased toward, or even mentioning, specific countries. I wrote in Canada, and there was no mention of American tax laws, or anything American for that matter.

After writing and passing, I felt humbled. I felt that earning the credential was the first step in the next phase of my career, not a stamp announcing that I know it all or that I’m “one of the best”. I’ve been motivated to keep on top of my continuing education in order to do right by my CFRE. It’s given me a lot of confidence, but has also made me aware of what I still have to learn.

Tamara Fox · August 14, 2014 at 15:06

I think your point about being in the early stages of your career is very much to the point. If I were in your position, I would go for it for all the reasons you’ve articulated. If you want at some time to work for or advance in, a large nonprofit, it may be critical. For those of us well into our careers and who are working in small to medium organizations I’m not convinced it really pays off. And some of the most highly regarded development professionals in our area do not have a CFRE.

Susan Daily CFRE · August 14, 2014 at 16:29

I received my CFRE in 1995, I was forty-five years old and had five years under my belt as a Director of Development – and the only professional fundraiser on staff – in a $5M organization that provided a continuum of care (shelter, transitional housing, support services) to homeless women and children. I paid for it myself, though my agency did pay for my AFP membership (back in those days, AFP was still NSFRE!) Why did I do it?

1) To gain credibility in the eyes of my peers, potential employers, and Board members. No, people do not know what is required to obtain this certification, but I do. I especially appreciated that (unlike some of the academic programs – not all) the application process included REAL WORLD achievements in FUNDRAISING. I agree that there are other sources of education and information today – including excellent consulting and webinars, etc. – they good supplements – but the real gems are interactions with your peers, someone you can speak honestly with, using the same frame of reference. And that you take control of your own career.

2) To promote the professionalism of the field. Most people do appreciate that you have devoted at least five years of effort to your career, that there is a body of knowledge, and that you need to stay up on the field to recertify. With tele-evangelists, political strong armers, scam artists and unsavory sorts grabbing the headlines as “fundraisers” we simply need an antidote to the bad actors. By obtaining the designation, which I worked hard to do, I endorsed a more ethical and professional model. I also felt good about the balance between theory and documented achievement that was integral to the application process. I still do appreciate that. I track my own success, don’t rely on others to tell me what I am worth or how much I deserve to be credited for my work. Someone once said, “Oh, so you are a professional beggar?” The CFRE is an antidote to that.

3) To encourage others to enter the field. As a result of obtaining a CFRE, I feel I have something to say to new fundraisers – especially those who are diverse, “different”, or represent minority or disenfranchised groups. Our fundraising challenges are different than those of the person working in an already well known and well funded charity that can rely on an endowment, name recognition, a huge pool of alumni or grateful patients or devoted art lovers. We need both the traditional and non-traditional tools to do our work. In addition, we need that credibility and confidence that a CFRE provides.

I agree with some of the caveats listed here – it is not only parents who are stretched to the max and have difficulty finding the time or money to do the process – I have this problem myself – after years of professional achievement, I found myself unemployed during the great recession of 2008 – something that had never happened to me before. Money was tight. I still made it a priority to recertify.

The CFRE does not automatically equate to more money. It very much depends on what sector you work in. Personally, I have not experienced gains in salary as a result of my certification. But I understand that that is the case for many people with graduate degrees as well – very few fields have built in rewards in this economy.

The CFRE process is not perfect, and improvements in both the website and the content of the test could and should be made.

I’ll echo others – whether this is of value to you or not depends very much on your own circumstances, what it means to you, and what your professional and personal objectives are. I can tell you that I respect people who have done the work to obtain a CFRE or ACFRE. They are unlikely to promote technique over strategic focus, to fall for the latest “shiny object” in fundraising, or to be self promoting actors. Yes, there are folk who do just fine without it. For me, there were many good reasons to obtain it, and I am proud that I did.

Thanks, Rory, for this discussion.

Jeremy Hatch · August 14, 2014 at 17:24

I’ve had a CFRE for about 10 years now and have recertified twice. Beyond the time consuming (and largely symbolic) exercise of filling out a web form and sending in a very expensive check every few years this organization does nothing to support the fundraising profession. The newsletter is banal and short. CFRE international needs some visioning.

Melody Song · August 14, 2014 at 19:14

As a Chinese working in Canada with a CFRE designation, I feel that it is OK to have CFRE in English and not country-specific for now because the best practices and the body of knowledge are originated in English. I think there are a lot the Asian countries are learning from the UK and North America simply because the fundraising practices are just starting there. I don’t see why we would test someone on the application in specific countries because they are so different and difficult to standardize for testing. But translation would be good in future years. I also think we need more diversity in the fundraiser workforce so that we can actually promote and share best practices in other countries.

Eva E. Aldrich · August 14, 2014 at 19:49


I was glad to see your recent post on the CFRE credential. The number and breadth of the responses received clearly show the importance of the discussion, and I’m happy to have this opportunity to share my perspective.

As you note, there are many reasons to pursue the CFRE credential, with enhanced credibility, career advancement, and professional pride being right up there. I’ve experienced all these things myself as someone who has held the credential since 2001. It was because of my strong belief in the value of the credential and its importance to the fundraising profession that I accepted the position of President and CEO of CFRE International in 2012.

Fundraisers today have a lot of different opportunities for profession growth, including academic coursework, professional development at conferences, and learning on-the-job. I think that while most fundraisers may prefer one sort of learning or experience, we can probably all agree that those who are dedicated to the profession will benefit most from exposure to multiple avenues of learning. For me, the strength of the CFRE credential rests in the fact that the two-part application and examination process links the learning that happens on-the-job (which is documented in the application through meeting requirements for time employed, results achieved, professional development, and volunteer service) with the learning that happens through study of fundraising best practices (as validated by the CFRE exam).

No credential is perfect, but fundraisers who pursue the CFRE credential can be confident of its quality. The CFRE credential is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). As they note on their website, this requires “demonstration of a valid and reliable process for development, implementation, maintenance, and governance of certification programs. NCCA uses a rigorous peer review process to establish accreditation standards; evaluate compliance with the standards; recognize organizations/programs which demonstrate compliance; and serve as a resource on quality certification.” CFRE’s Exam Committee (who are senior-level professionals with CFREs) work closely with the professional testing agency ProExam to make sure that the CFRE exam is psychometrically valid—so while folks will always debate the merits of multiple choice exams, you can rest assured that our exam is thoroughly reviewed, tested, and meets established reliability standands. And our Resource Reading Advisory Group (also composed of senior-level professionals with CFREs) is currently in the process of updating our Resource Reading List.

In addition, on a schedule recommended by our professional testing agency, CFRE International undertakes a periodic Job Analysis of the fundraising profession under ProExam’s guidance. In fact, we are in the middle of completing the most recent Job Analysis right now. The Job Analysis survey asks thousands of fundraising professionals around the globe what tasks they perform, how often they perform the tasks, how critical the tasks are to fundraising success, and what knowledge is used to perform the tasks. The results of this survey provide the foundation for the CFRE Test Content Outline and guarantee that the credential is solidly based in practice and not simply an “ivory tower” exercise.

In short, even as the fundraising profession is evolving, the CFRE credential is evolving with it. So if I may, I’d like to take some space to answer some of the questions that you and your readers have brought up about the CFRE credential and also provide some information that may clear up a few misconceptions that may be out there.

1. The CFRE is a global credential with international portability. In June 2013, the CFRE credential switched to a single global form of the exam. (Formerly, there were four different exam forms—one each for Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.) This means that all fundraisers—whether in Canada, the United States, or anywhere else in the world—take exactly the same exam. Our Job Analysis has consistently shown that 85-90% of what fundraisers do is the same wherever their geographic area of practice, and the global exam focuses on this shared knowledge. This means that the CFRE exam is now accessible to fundraisers in 80 countries and provides the opportunity for fundraisers to achieve a credential that represents an international standard. Currently, the CFRE exam is offered only in English, but we are always open to the possibility of adding other languages as demand and funding allow.

2. The CFRE credential is an assessment process that lets fundraisers choose educational opportunities that fit their professional needs and professional development budgets. While there are minimum requirements for continuing education points on the CFRE application, we do not require that applicants take specific courses or programs offered by AFP or any other organization to achieve those points. We also do not offer any educational programs ourselves—
as part of NCCA accreditation, CFRE International does not offer educational programs because that could be construed as “teaching to the test” and a conflict of interest. We encourage applicants to seek the fundraising education that’s right for them and their budgets—whether that means attending a major conference or taking advantage of free webinars. The CFRE exam tests your knowledge of best practices in ethical fundraising—how and where you learn that knowledge is up to you.

3. Achieving the CFRE credential is possible even if you’ve taken a brief hiatus from the fundraising profession. The CFRE office receives many successful applications from individuals who have taken a hiatus from fundraising careers, whether to start a family or for other reasons. While clearly it can be a challenge to keep up with continuing education and volunteer service in such circumstances, having a plan helps a lot. With a plan in mind, arranging to get some extra points each year in professional education and volunteer service during active years compensates for a hiatus of a year or two from the fundraising profession.

Thanks so much, Rory—and thanks too to all of your readers—for this opportunity to share some additional information about the CFRE credential. I invite everyone to visit the CFRE website at http://www.cfre.org. If you have any questions about CFRE International or the CFRE credential, we’re happy to answer them.

    Jeremy Hatch · August 31, 2014 at 16:41

    Eva: It would be a pleasure to see the CFRE organization as active in our work and community beyond the certification process. I see no value whatsoever in the recertification beyond having to send a sizable check every few years to you guys. You don’t seem to be active at all promoting the sector, supporting professional development, or developing best practices. Your email newsletter is lacking.

Jon Dize · August 15, 2014 at 22:22

… I do not like the application process. Having to go back and remember everything I did to get the required points. That has kept me from completing the application and taking the exam for nearly 7 years. I guess I could have started then and now would have the data I needed without any effort… I guess I will get back to the application this weekend…

Andrew Olsen · August 16, 2014 at 03:05

I got my CFRE when I worked at a nonprofit children’s hospital. At the time it was, for me, outward validation of my level of knowledge and industry experience. Didn’t result in any tangible benefit (ie, raise) from my employer. But it did get me noticed by a lot more nonprofit headhunters.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think many nonprofit CEO’s aren’t willing to invest in education and credentialing because they don’t understand the business of philanthropy, many are afraid of fundraising, and see it as a “necessary evil.” So why would investment in this ever be an organizational priority?

Working on the consulting/agency side now, I find that the credential is valuable in several ways. I look pretty young still (not unlike Peter who responded earlier — hey Peter, you should come back to RR!), so the credential helps add credibility in initial meetings with new nonprofit partners and board members. I also find that it helps open doors because other fundraisers are always asking about the process.

I don’t think credentialing is necessary for success as a fundraiser, but it does have value. I encourage everyone on my team to at least seriously consider obtaining the certification (and my firm pays for successful completion of the exam).

Josh Lai · August 16, 2014 at 18:46

Thanks so much for your thought-provoking post, Rory, and for the opportunity to share our thoughts. It’s great to see multiple sides of the issue being presented and discussed, and a healthy (and positive) debate ensuing. I’ve really enjoyed reading all of these posts.

I know many brilliant fundraisers who do not have their CFRE (and some who expressly chose not to certify). It is definitely not a requirement for professional aptitude or practice, nor is it a measure of one’s talent or ability to succeed in a real world setting. In fact, as many who have taken the test may tell you, the “right” answers are not really based in the real world – they’re based in an idealized world, where knowledge and application of road-tested fundraising principles will always lead to success, independent of context. So, you need to “forget” much of the insight and wisdom you may have gleamed from your professional practice when you write the examination. (But as we all recognize and appreciate, context makes a great deal of difference in the real world!)

That being said, I’ve noticed that many of the fundraisers I’ve met who chose not to pursue certification are quite seasoned, and are either mid- or late-career. When I asked why they didn’t certify, they’ve often told me that it was not attractive to them simply because they’d already built up a track record, and had risen to senior/senior executive roles. They felt that certification didn’t offer them any benefit at that point in their career. They had already proven their skill, value and dedication to their practice.

As a fundraiser in my late 20’s, I chose to pursue certification because it represents my long-term commitment to my profession. I think many younger fundraisers perceive certification as an outward expression of their passion for the sector, and of their pride in their career choice. This has paralleled the rise of formal post-secondary programs in fundraising, and of an enhanced societal profile of fundraising as a profession and as a career. As Peter noted earlier, when you’re younger, you often have to prove your worth before you’re taken seriously – and the designation can be helpful to counteract any ageism you might encounter. Those four letters after your name can engender respect.

So, I got my CFRE for personal reasons – as a badge of pride for my choice to dedicate myself to the profession, and for the challenge – and I have absolutely no regrets. Despite working at a large shop for the past five years, I had to pay for it myself and I considered it an investment in my future. And I really enjoyed the experience of coming together with other fundraisers in a study group. The process of preparing for the exam is also an incredible opportunity to grow through self-education and learn from your peers – if you opt to certify, take advantage of it and dive in headfirst!

(A personal pet peeve: it’s my firm belief that career advancement should be based on genuine practice and results, and not on certification. Just because you obtain your designation does not mean you gain five or ten years worth of experience overnight – achieving certification alone is not a valid reason to request or expect a promotion or a raise!)

Beth Ann Locke · August 16, 2014 at 21:49

Rory, So late in joining in the conversation, in part because I enjoy reading the comments of those who have taken the time before me. This is a conversation I had with you several times, Rory, and other colleagues. Some of my reaction centers on my own experiences and that I believe this exam favors “dominant culture” in many ways (big shops, big budget, more support from family and workplace).

I believe I am a person who is a “lifelong learner” even if I don’t have that outward badge of CFRE. I believe it is an unfair assumption to if you hold that those without a CFRE or who are not pursuing it are also not keeping up with trends, research, fundraising tactics or understanding philanthropy and donor motivations.

I agree with Adrian and Kirk that having the knowledge is nice, but having the experience is more important. And like Nancy, I do get the feeling that everyone with a CFRE feels that having a CFRE is “all that”.

Not unlike Jordan, I had quite a few interruptions in my career due to family (moving, spouse job transfer, child raising issues) which sometimes coincided with economic downturns or being unable to work due to my own immigration status.

Barbara mentioned that “cost cannot be a factor as this is an investment.” Investments still have real-world dollars and choices that go with them and implying that isn’t true reminds me that this whole debate is very “first world problem” oriented. Having been a single parent while working in a small shop, I can guarantee you that there were times when a $40 tab for a breakfast was really not in the cards for me, never mind a conference fee. This is what I mean by saying there are “dominant culture” issues around obtaining a CFRE. More recently I have “invested” the nearly $1,500 it costs to attend a conference or two, but these are choices (investment choices!) that impact my family and have to be weighed against undergraduate education I believe is much more important for daughter.

Another point I would like to make is that I do not belie that the CFRE has international portability. I do believe that philanthropy – that thing that motivates humans to volunteer, donate, change the world for the better – is consistent globally but the *cultural context* is extremely important. We know this because, for instance, as fundraisers we seek to discover what resonates with different cultures within Canada – what motivates first generation immigrants from China, say, versus those from France. And what motivates their children who are raised here is different again. The cultural overlay is very important. Having worked in the US and Canada, and having colleagues on my current team now from the US, UK, Kenya and Pakistan, I see it reflected in the work we do and assumptions I’ve had based on my early career as a fundraiser in the US. Direct mail in the Seattle vs Karachi? Not sure they are even the same animal (starting only with the issues around names and addresses). (and a little wave to Lita!)

Some months back, someone at one of the fundraising certificate programs included my name in their “fav CFREs” which just underscores the assumptions around who is “in” and who is “out.”
I’m finally in a position – more than 20 years into my career! – where my boss is supportive of me (and others on the team) seeking and securing a CFRE. But I have gone a long time without it, and maybe it has harmed me, maybe not.

Like Matthew, I did not intent to be a fundraiser as a child but am so glad the profession found me! I cannot stop being curious about what we do, how we do it and welcoming new fundraisers to this profession that I love and respect.

Like a couple who choose not to marry but have the fidelity, love and responsibility to each other without the marriage license, I don’t feel the paper certification makes me less passionate, less intelligent or less committed to my chosen profession.

    Beth Ann Locke · August 16, 2014 at 22:31

    I will add that some of the fundraisers I admire most are CFRE or ACFRE holders and that it certainly is an accomplishment to attain the certification.

Shannon Anglero · August 16, 2014 at 23:25

I’ve been in the fundraising profession for 8 years. I was looking for a way to professionalize myself and my work, while expanding my knowledge base. And of course, I was looking for a professional development opportunity that would help advance my career. I chose to start my MPA instead of the CFRE.

I feel like while a CFRE is a known credential, it hasn’t kept pace with trends and doesn’t differentiate a professional the way it should. Plus, to advance in a career, it’s necessary to show a broad scope of understanding in management and leadership, which I feel an MPA does a much better job of. At least in my area, nonprofit leaders “need” a Masters degree, but I’ve yet to see a CFRE as a requirement.

I will still consider getting the CFRE after I finish my MPA if I feel like it’s something that can expand my knowledge or network. But right now, it doesn’t feel current or relevant enough for our profession.

Ann Rosenfield · August 17, 2014 at 02:31

One of the reasons I am glad I have my CFRE is because it provided some much needed discipline for me when I midst the diaper years when my kids were young.

I was so busy, the CFRE reminded me to stay active professionally.

Now that I’ve been a fundraiser for a long time, the CFRE fulfills this same benefit for a different reason. It’s easy to get lazy about staying current professionally when you are an expert – but it’s crucial so you don’t become stale.

Good luck in your decision.

Monica · August 17, 2014 at 02:36

Hi Rory.
I wrote (and passed) my CFRE exam this past July 5th. I’m just awaiting final notification from CFRE International before I use the credential (I’m looking forward to having new business cards printed!).
For background, I have worked in the NFP sector for my entire career (nearly 25 years) – the last 10 in a fundraising capacity. CFRE certification simply had not been a priority for me until recently. Like many, I too was raising children while building a successful career. Time and money were in short supply and I had to make personal choices.
I have had the privilege to work with and be mentored by some of the best fundraisers around. Leaders who did not possess the CFRE designation and colleagues who did. I think it is useful to consider whether CFRE designation is worthwhile in the context of the changing industry landscape, not just age and stage.
Being in my mid-40s (although I continue to celebrate my 29th birthday every year), I have been able to observe both the leadership cohort (who are generally at least 10-15 years my senior), my colleagues and professionals new to the field.
When this leadership cohort came up through the ranks, there weren’t postgraduate certificates in fundraising or Masters programs in non-profit leadership. CFRE may have started to be available, but it certainly didn’t have the profile it now has. They learned on the front lines, dedicated themselves to continuous learning, created the best practices for our profession and became extremely successful. Great fundraisers without a CFRE designation without a doubt.
But that is no longer the landscape we are operating in. Fundraising as a profession has been recognized as a defined area of expertise and knowledge. And that is a good thing. I have noticed, in the past 10 years in particular, from the conversations I have had with recruiters that they have more clients interested in candidates with the CFRE designation than before. While it is widely accepted that this doesn’t guarantee a great fundraiser, coupled with a solid history of achievement in fundraising, it brings you to the top of the pile. That said, there are still come recruiters/organizations who don’t put any extra value on certification.
A good friend of mine (a CFRE) asked me not too long ago if I had considered getting my credential. I had a list of reasons why it hadn’t been a priority for me (all legitimate). She simply suggested I start filling out the application and I might be closer that I realized. She was right. I needed more points in a few areas, but I was able to make a plan to close the gap as quickly as possible. I self-funded the process. Yes, it hurt at bit, but I believe all people need to take responsibility for their professional development, regardless of their profession. It is nice if your employer will contribute, but ultimately it is on the individual if they wish to continue to grow. I found many low-cost or free opportunities that helped me round out my application.
My decision was simple. From an employability standpoint, being a CFRE would help me in cases with employers who cared and would be neutral with those who didn’t. Not being a CFRE was potentially a liability. I have a solid track record in fundraising that speaks for itself, and that is important too. Certification is not a magic bullet. However, the industry is far more competitive than it was even 10-15 years ago. Historically, the “big shops” were where best practice was expected, but that too is changing. There is a movement (however slow it may be) to recruit and retain accomplished professionals to the smaller shops to elevate their causes and operations.
In a period of time where the operations of NFPs and the professionalism of fundraisers is under great scrutiny, I think it is incumbent on all fundraising professionals do everything they can to support the profession and its reputation. However an individual chooses to achieve that, through CFRE or other avenues, isn’t all that important.


Nora Ortiz Fredrick, CFRE · August 17, 2014 at 02:46

Rory, I got my CFRE primarily because it was important to my boss and my organization was willing to fund the professional development and credential-ing expenses – plus the time. While the origin was externally motivated and I was already committed to the profession, I am so grateful for a mentor and organization that was willing to invest in me. I know I’m one of the lucky ones!

Jim Weber · August 18, 2014 at 03:20

Hi Rory, well done on raising this and the great conversations so far. I’m going to take another tack and say it would be great to have an internationally designated Fundraising “degree” . My opinion will sound of sour grapes as I’ve written the test twice and just missed both times, to the point I felt the test was so poorly written and only American in focus that I felt no confidence whatsoever in bothering to do a third attempt. I think the CFRE could develop to become a great international benchmark but with my Canadian and now Australian fundraising background I found the test difficult and definitely not international. I’m fine without it, respect those that have it and fortunately have not noticed any impact on my consultancy either way. I hope it does develop but right now it isn’t an international benchmark

Janna Holm · August 18, 2014 at 16:30

This is an interesting debate, and it’s been fascinating to see the variety of responses that have come in thus far.

I’ve heard the question raised a lot lately in the Prospect Research and Relationship Management world about whether having a certification for our field would make sense. (Jen Filla’s blog post on the topic is at http://www.jenniferfilla.com/certify-certify-question/)

While I do see the benefits in legitimizing fundraising and highlighting professional development, I personally believe the cons outweigh the pros at this point in time. I think that certifications most often hurt great fundraisers in small shops that can’t afford official certification or formal professional development. And I would hate to see hiring decisions being made based on certification when there are weak fundraisers out there who are certified and strong fundraisers who wouldn’t be able to get the certification. I would hate to see fundraisers from smaller shops or international fundraisers put at a disadvantage because of a lack of certification.

Overall, I think it comes down to how you assess that passion, that professional development, and that knowledge of the field, and I think there are numerous (and better) ways to do it than to rely on a certification.

    Jennifer Filla · August 18, 2014 at 18:57

    Yikes Janna! My goal has actually been to create a certification for the prospect research field, but quite different from the CFRE approach. I’d like to offer courses that teach demonstrated skills + knowledge and add up to certify *beginners*. I’ve thought about having it so that people could test out of the different pieces at a much lower cost. This way people could enter the field with bravado and those in the field could say “Hey! I’ve demonstrated my skill and knowledge”. But demonstrating skill is time intensive and expensive. As Simone said, essays are great but someone has to read and grade them. THAT’s what I want most to achieve in my online courses (one day leading to certification): tested knowledge, demonstrated skill development and high-level discussions amongst participants.

      Janna Holm · August 18, 2014 at 19:06

      Jen, I hope this wasn’t seen as disparaging towards your goal of having a certification for researchers. I just wanted to point out that the debate had been occurring in our world as well – not just front-line fundraising.

      I completely agree that teaching skills and knowledge are extremely important, and I personally try to take as much advantage of that as I can, both through formal and informal learning opportunities. I also think you’re doing a great job of providing more transparency and more collaboration within our field.

      I came from a very small organization though, where I had to fight tooth and nail to get even $50 to go to a local conference, and I can imagine how hard it would have been to get into a position like I am now when others may have had a certification. I think that hiring issue could become especially prevalent in organizations like my current one that rely on HR staff who may not have much familiarity with the development research and relationship management world and the skillsets required.

        Jennifer Filla · August 18, 2014 at 22:26

        I understand the HR issue for hiring niche occupations. Hopefully a prospect researcher would find a way to reach the hiring supervisor! (half kidding!)

        Maybe the fundamental debate is over creating a set of letters that provides respect to a profession that might otherwise be snubbed as “begging” or “clerical”. We fundraisers and fundraising researchers work hard, learn hard and want the resulting intelligent professionalism to be respected. But how best can people outside (and even inside) fundraising quickly discern quality in our profession?

        A fun discussion and thank you, Janna, for for roping in prospect research! We are fundraisers too and I’ve hear rumors some of us have a CFRE designations too.

Juliana Rodger · August 21, 2014 at 17:55

I say, at least study for the CFRE, especially if you’re new to the sector. Learn best practices from the beginning!

Lynne Wester · August 25, 2014 at 03:54

I purposely don’t have a CFRE. I instead chose a Master’s degree in strategic Fundraising and philanthropy. I work in higher education and the CFRE is not something people seek on a resume, but advanced degrees are. For my time it is not worth the money and effort. I have met many CFRE holders who would not be able to obtain entry level positions in certain organizations… My two cents

Mercedes Geimer, CFRE · August 27, 2014 at 16:59

I’m really excited to have completed my CFRE. It has been a goal of mine for about 4 years. Luckily, in that time, they changed the ’60 points/60 months’ rule that excluded a lot of people who took time off for family or in between jobs. I was able to include experience from the past 8 years, which makes a huge difference!

I really enjoyed the process for several reasons:

1. As a fairly new fundraiser (My work experience was just a few months more that the qualifying amount) it really made me realize how much I have accomplished in the last few years. I don’t think this would be as important for someone who had been in the field for a long time. Quantifying your progress is really motivating!

2. I got to meet new people through the AFP study groups, which was positive and helpful. I love talking to fundraisers and bonding over shared experiences. One of the main reasons I love FundraiserGrrl is how accessible it is and how it bonds fundraisers together, good and bad.

3. The CFRE aims to be a general exam, so it was a great opportunity to poke holes in my experiential learning and make sure I had a really great base of knowledge to inform my decisions going forward. Taking extra time to understand the differences between American and Canadian funding issues was actually a great learning experience for me. Our charity has both a Canadian and American arm, so knowing those details was especially helpful.

I’m really proud to have CFRE on my business card and LinkedIn. Even if people don’t know what it means, I know that I made a commitment to this profession to stay up to date and informed, and I feel great about that.

The test was easier than I thought, but I think that it really is the cherry on the sundae. It’s the years of work, education, service, funds raised, and dedication that matter. That all comes before.

Thanks for opening the discussion Rory! You are a gem.

Carlos A. Trejo · August 29, 2014 at 19:43

I relish any opportunity to learn more about our profession, but I too question whether obtaining a CFRE is worthwhile in the long run. I’m sure I would benefit personally, but the professional benefit doesn’t appear to be quantifiable. I’ve come across it a couple times in job listings as a requirement, however it was for positions that didn’t make sense. That leads me to believe that the people who are asking for it don’t really understand it either.

Fundraising Yoda · August 30, 2014 at 14:29

Blessings, Yoda gives, to Master Rory for starting this discussion. Wise beyond her years, she is, CFRE or not.

Yoda received CFRJ, Certified Fundraising Jedi, after hundreds of years of service, to differentiate as galaxy’s only one.

About balance, it is. Strong, certifications can be, when put into context. Look, we must, at big picture of accomplishments, experience, education and credentials.

Believes Yoda, that true self eventually is found, and surpass first impressions created by existence or lack of letters after name. Dark Side fundraisers who have CFRE will be discovered eventually. Jedi fundraisers without CFRE will also be discovered, yes.

Pamela Grow · August 31, 2014 at 19:50

Such an interesting debate!

I popped back in to direct you to another post on this topic for some additional perspectives. The comments here, are fascinating as well, particularly the last http://veritusgroup.com/is-cfre-certification-worth-it/.

George H. Hamilton · September 5, 2014 at 18:29

Hi Rory,

I just want to say Thank You Very Much to you and all your commenters for this blog post and lively comments discussion!

As the newly minted Marketing & Membership Manager at CFRE International, my work will be centered on raising the profile of the CFRE credential both publicly and within the fundraising community, drawing more fundraising executives to CFRE certification, and providing value added benefits and services to CFRE certificants and applicants to enhance their engagement with CFRE International.

I couldn’t have dreamed of finding a better microcosm of the opportunities and challenges to be overcome as I move forward in this role than I have found here. I know that I will refer back to this blog and its comments often. Thank you all for sharing your ideas, experiences, endorsements, disappointments, and thoughts so freely!

In closing, I’d like to add that I believe that CFRE International’s creation of this new position shows their organizational commitment to providing a strong, independently accredited, and widely respected professional certification credential for fundraisers and the fundraising profession. As Jeff Stanger pointed out earlier in the comments, the CFRE International leadership is made up by fundraisers like you, who volunteer their time and energy to making the CFRE credential a mark of true professional distinction.

I hope you will all feel free to continue to share thoughts, experiences, and ideas with me going forward. I can be reached by e-mail at share@cfre.org.

George H. Hamilton
Marketing & Membership Manager

    Bruce Hill, CFRE (until June) · January 9, 2015 at 01:12


    I reached out to you (but never heard back) suggesting a CFRE Lite – I would consider keeping mine and paying the annual fee but if I didn’t have to take 40 hours of course work I’d be a lot happier (since my foundation can’t afford to pay for education points, I do). I have talked to many other CFREs of my vintage and they too will be dropping theirs.

Lisa Davies · October 2, 2014 at 10:54

I’m a bit late on this. I obtained a CFRE qualification while still quite a new fundraising, and I kept it renewed until I took a career break and moved to the UK. I’ve not pursued any other fundraising qualification since. I think it has to be a personal choice–I don’t think I knew any more about fundraising after I had a CFRE than I did before. I do probably lean towards the position of some of the other comments in that I do think it takes the focus off the donor and puts it on the fundraiser. I have found that training I’ve done since which helps me to build better relationships with supporters has been far more useful in helping me be effective in my role.

Adam · October 11, 2014 at 00:03

Very well written and transparent. Thank you Rory for such a great blog.

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Michael J. Rosen, CFRE · October 27, 2014 at 00:31

Rory, while I’m late in responding to your post, I nevertheless applaud your thorough exploration of the issue. Despite the fact that I’ve held the CFRE designation longer than 90 percent of other CFREs, I have serious concerns about the value of the credential. My issues with CFRE may even lead me to drop the designation when I’m up for renewal this Spring.

In recent years, I’ve explored my concerns about CFRE in two blog posts:

Is CFRE Spinning Its Wheels?

Does CFRE Have a Future?

Perhaps my biggest problem with the CFRE is that it is largely irrelevant. The anemic growth in the number of CFREs has not even kept pace with the growth in the number of nonprofit organizations. In other words, CFRE is experiencing diminishing market share. Sadly, CFRE International does not seem to have a strategy for significantly reversing this trend.

While I very much like the “idea” of CFRE, I’m afraid I’m very disappointed in the “reality.”

Yoav Kaufman · November 14, 2014 at 19:17

I’m DCMP certified through the DMA USA. Ialso enjoyed the learning process. I’m slso youngish at 40 and think the cert. ads a bit of validation to my name. Downside is the course and the modules neefed to re-certify are spendy.

Bruce Hill, CFRE (until June) · January 9, 2015 at 01:03

I have had my CFRE for 20 years (in Canada) and will not be re-certifying this year. It has done little to advance my career and I find that most of the courses I’ve taken are taught by people with less experience than me. I continue to read on my own and network with others which has done more for my career than the CFRE.

Elizabeth · November 11, 2015 at 21:30

I love that this tweet just popped up again today. I am taking the CFRE exam for the first time this week.

I came into fundraising as a second career – was a VP in the for profit world but found almost nothing but suspicion upon my switching careers (even though it was a long wanted and planned move for me).

In my early 40’s I find myself somewhat underemployed and am taking the CFRE solely for the hope of career advancement and legitimacy of my commitment to the profession. I didn’t choose this career like so many who move over form the for profit world do because they “want to give back”. I knew what i was coming in to and am thrilled with my choice. But am ready for more professional challenges.

As I have studied for the exam I find the prep materials – beyond things like the code of ethics – bear little to no reality to my daily working life so I don’t think getting the CFRE as it is designed today means I am a good fundraiser, My results for my organization and relationships with my donors mean I am a good fundraiser.

Assuming I pass (fingers crossed) will see what the next 5 years bring with the CFRE credential and if it proves worthy of maintaining.

Stephen · September 23, 2017 at 17:03

I’ve been a professional fundraiser in the field of planned giving for the last ten plus years, since July 2007. I have a Juris Doctor degree and I’m a licensed attorney. It’s my law degree that was the single most important credential and catalyst that launched me into the field of planned giving fundraising. I have worked for three different organizations in planned giving, so far: two universities (one public and one private) and now a large, prominent, national non-profit. I was also offered a position with a large hospital in which I turned down in 2014 in order to remain with my current organization. Currently (as of this posting), I’m involved in an interview process with one of the largest public universities in the United States with an endowment in the billions. None of these organizations (including the big University in which I’m currently interviewing) mentioned the CFRE in their job postings. The CFRE has never come up in my interviews; instead, the employers want to discuss my experience and the fact that I have a law degree and probably how engaging they find my personality which is critical in finding the best fundraisers. None of my current colleagues has the CFRE credential. (Only one former colleague of mine was CFRE certified.) Having the CFRE credential would not provide me with a raise with my current position; only my work performance can lead to a raise. So, as far as I’m concerned, the CFRE would not provide any tangible benefit to me. My law degree and my ten plus years of experience in working for a variety of organizations is what’s most important from a career growth standpoint.

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