Fundraisers: you need to be one to hire one

Published by Reinier Spruit on

Some months ago someone asked me why I spend so much time preparing the right set of questions for an interview panel. I told him that we only have one chance of doing this right. We can cross our fingers and hope to choose the right fundraiser, but if we don’t take this seriously enough it’s more likely that we hire the wrong candidate.

And the wrong fundraiser will make numerous awful decisions and will waste our time and the donor’s money before (s)he will soon leave again, having added little to no value to the program and leaving a demoralized team in the wake. Even worse is if they are not so awful, but almost average, and they don’t leave. Not for 10 years or so, because their boss thinks that’s the best there is out there, and they are OK. Welcome to the grey zone of uninspired, mediocre fundraising!

Instead, I try to be absolutely sure that the fundraiser we hire is the right one. Only the right fundraiser can actually get you the results you need.

Unfortunately — and you can see it happening around you — the wrong people are being appointed to crucial fundraising positions all the time. And it’s always a crucial position by the way! They are everywhere and on all levels. Also in your team. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the colleagues you are working with were actually the specialists they claim to be on LinkedIn? Wouldn’t it be nice if your boss is the visionary leader you’ve been waiting for all your life?

So, why are we hiring bad fundraisers?

Many things can go wrong. In some cases the wrong people are part of the recruitment panel. They ask the wrong questions. And the answers, whether they are right or wrong, are interpreted the wrong way. Why? Because they simply don’t have a profound understanding of the area they are hiring for.

If you are hiring to recruit specific expertise outside your own specialty, you probably don’t know if and when the right candidate is sitting opposite you. You really don’t. So you should involve other specialists who can help with the assessment.

The cost to the organization can be huge if the wrong person is appointed. You will miss out on future income. At the other end of the spectrum: the right person can transform your fundraising and take your organization to the next level. Both your donors and beneficiaries will be grateful when you hire the best.

Looking back I think I have a pretty good track record. Most of the people I’ve hired in my career have turned out to be valuable colleagues and great fundraisers. Why? I am one of them. I had done the function for which they were applying. And that helps a lot.

Recently I was part of the hiring process for the new Heads of Fundraising for SOS Children's Villages and Save the Children. Bas and Sarah got the roles and I'm 200% convinced they'll do a fantastic job. (don't let me down guys!)

Recently I was part of the hiring process for the new Heads of Fundraising for SOS Children’s Villages and Save the Children. Bas and Sarah got the roles and I’m 200% convinced they’ll do a fantastic job. (Don’t let me down guys ;-) )


Here are some simple do’s and don’ts if you want to hire the best fundraiser:

1) Post a job add (!) instead of the job description as the vacancy. You need to market your vacancy. You want as many great fundraisers as possible to apply. Job descriptions are often not very sexy. Re-write them into something people might be interested in. I consider fundraising as a high demand, low supply profession, so there is a need to go the extra mile.

2) Spread the news as far as possible in relevant target audiences: specific vacancy websites obviously, but don’t forget the networks of your existing fundraisers. If they are a little bit externally focused (as any good fundraiser should be!) they’ve come across many talented fundraisers over the years and have a network of good, competent colleagues.

3) Do the shortlisting based on a scoring on a number of relevant criteria, e.g. ambition, leadership, entrepreneurship, market knowledge, vision on innovation, fit with the organization, understanding of fundraising strategy, data-driven, practical experience with donor acquisition, retention and high value programs, etc.

4) Don’t cut down on first-round interviews because of time restraints. If you want the best fundraiser you need to perhaps talk to 8 people instead of 4… It’s definitely worth 240 minutes more of your time to find the right person.

5) Put together the right interview panel, including experienced fundraisers. Not available within the organization? Hire someone from outside.

6) Do multiple interview rounds to be absolutely sure. It’s only the most important decision you’re making, so don’t take the easy route. An assessment, presentation or assignment in one of the interview rounds can be very helpful for certain positions.

7) Don’t settle for less! If you can’t find what you’re looking for: keep looking! Keep the bar at a certain level where you need it to be. If you’re absolutely convinced that the talent you’re looking for is not available, (and you can’t change the other parameters like salary or required skills) then make a very conscious decision that you need to invest in your new colleague to get them up to speed and to the level you want them to be.

8) Do a reference check at the end. Not just the official one, because that’s a friendly formality. You might also want to find out the true story why your favorite candidate has been job hopping or is looking to leave his or her current position, so reach out to your network and ask around.

I hope this helps. Good luck!

(Please leave your own do’s and don’ts in the comments underneath.)

Reinier Spruit

Reinier Spruit

Reinier is in love with fundraising since 2001. Ever since he's trying to improve his own fundraising skills and those of others. He's one of the original founders of 101fundraising. At the moment working with amazing clients through his one-man fundraising consultancy. Loves running and baseball.


Robert van Boven · June 1, 2015 at 14:37

Check annual reports of the NGO’s the candidate has been working for and check what happened.

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · June 1, 2015 at 20:53

    Yes, that could work to a certain extent, depending on how detailed the annual reports are. You can definitly ask more direct questions if you understand the environment the candidate is coming from.

    Thanks Robert!

Rhyannon · June 1, 2015 at 16:19

Do not be afraid to go out to advert a 2nd or 3rd, better to have a vacancy and then find the right person than fill it will a mediocre or terrible fundraiser. It is a long term investment not a short term filling an empty desk

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · June 1, 2015 at 20:50

    Totally agree. Waiting a few months extra is not an issue if you want the right candidate. Not exactly the same, but I once hired a pregnant fundraiser who was about to go on maternity leave. I was happy to wait 4-5 months, because she was really good and perfect for the job…

Marcelo Iniarra · June 1, 2015 at 17:03

Nice post !

Daryl Upsall · June 1, 2015 at 17:25

Hi Reinier


I could not agree more with the comments you make in the article.

Here are the mistakes so many INPOs and NPOs make in the hiring process.

1. Go cheap and nasty and try to do a recruitment of a critical senior post on a shoestring such one advert on an obscure non-profit website and their own website and wonder why no one applied. Th fact they also only offered “$20,000 USD per annum and absolutely no relocation costs also clearly was not a disincentive to apply

2. Choose a job title that is totally meaningless outside of that organization or has another meaning to others. Who knew that the “Head of Campaigns” for a major INPO was their HNWI, Leadership Giving post?

3. Write job descriptions in acronym soup which no outside the that UN body has any clue what it means

4. Write job descriptions that ask for the 5 legged sheep…OK that easy for Reinier but it means in short you need 20 years of international senior fundraising director experience only in major INPOs, a Doctorate in INPO marketing and an MA from Harvard, speak 8 languages including Mandarin and Arabic…get the idea?

5. The organization spends one year after 50 meetings agreeing to the post, the next 6 months crafting the above mentioned job description, spends two months with and RFP process to choose a recruitment agency…then tells appointed agency that they have two weeks to advertise the post and the person should be in post in 6 weeks in time for the AGM

5. INPO is provided with spectacular long-list of highly qualified, motivated and experienced candidates. The INPO then takes 6 months to even communicate with them and then asks the agency “why did the candidates drop out the process”.

6. As Reinier mentions above the INPO, NPO takes the precess in house once an agency, if they are lucky, has provided a great long-list but has no idea what the role of the telephone interview is to screen candidates, has no consistent scoring method or reporting of such telephone interview. The same goes for the in person interviews as minimal preparation is done with no prepared questions; no briefing of panel; no scoring, no testing , no psychometric tests, no tests whatsoever, no reference checking.

But hey they like that person so hire them ….even if they are unqualified, inexperienced and have no clue …by at least they are cheap.

If on the other hand you really want a professional headhunting service you know where to come….if in doubt ask the various senior INPO leaders we have hired over the years eh Reinier?

Good luck and happy headhunting y’all!!

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · June 1, 2015 at 20:45

    Thanks Daryl, your experience in this area is much greater than all of us together probably. I expect a couple of blog post on this topic from you!

    I recognize a few of your points I’m afraid…

    Thanks for your comment, really great insights! Keep’m coming!

Rachel Beer · June 2, 2015 at 14:24

Love this post, Reinier. Good hiring is absolutely key; you can only get the results if you have the right ingredients and the right people must be top of that list of ingredients. Even if your budgets are severely restricted, the right people will make the most of them.

What do you think about my discomfort with people in this post I wrote on here a couple of years’ ago?

Do you agree it can be a bad steer when it comes to finding the best people? What advice would you give people about how to separate this from the qualities you really need – described in your point three?

    Reinier Spruit

    Reinier Spruit · June 2, 2015 at 20:02

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for your comment, I’ve just re-read your post and I totally agree with your discomfort.

    Yes, fundraisers need to raise funds, but I think it’s pretty hard to say how much you have personally raised. Even in a Major Donor Fundraiser position you are heavily depending on others to deliver, in order for you to get the funds in.

    In a mass fundraising program I don’t think it’s even possible to claim parts of the program/relationship/income. In most cases fundraising is a team effort. It’s about how everyone within the team contributes to the program that makes you a great fundraiser.

    But if the team doesn’t deliver, we can’t say you as individual fundraiser are bad. So the $, £ or € is mostly irrelevant I think. In your interviews you need to find the skills and character that is needed to raise as much funds as needed in your particular situation. Of course examples of past successes help, but it’s about what his or her contribution was to the greater scheme of things, how someone has influenced the outcome, what really matters.

    What do you think?

      Rachel · June 4, 2015 at 16:30

      Thanks for the reply, Reinier.

      I think this comes back to your point about the interview panel needing to understand fundraising and, therefore, being able to ask the right questions and interrogate the answers properly.

      Because many non-fundraisers don’t seem to understand, for example, that investment in donor acquisition generally takes a while to break even, or that income will be influenced by the level of investment, they tend only to see the zeros and not understand that they don’t necessarily equate to a good fundraiser (singular) and are influenced by all sorts of other factors.

      I do think that identifying someone’s individual contribution and talent in the mix is a difficult thing to do and also that interviewers don’t often needle away at the kind of detail that stands a chance at unearthing that. Asking people to talk about strategy, why they did what they di, what challenges they faced and how they overcame them, what they learned and what they would do differently – those sorts of conversations, I think, have more potential to illustrate the contribution someone made to the results and what they are actually capable of.

      What do you think? I reckon that would also help to tell you something about a candidate’s character and contribution.

coreball · July 26, 2023 at 11:00

It is preferable to have an open position and then fill it with the ideal fundraiser than to fill it with a mediocre or bad one, therefore don’t be afraid to advertise for a second or third fundraiser. This is not a quick fix to an empty desk, but rather an investment for the future.

Only A Fundraiser Should Hire Another Fundraiser | Living For Purpose™ · August 4, 2015 at 15:03

[…] too long ago, I came across this headline: “Fundraisers: you need to be one to hire one.” I did not have time to read the article, but saved it and came back to it. As a professional […]

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