Recruiting Fundraisers: Bridging the Human Resources Gap

by Bill Weber

Posted June 21, 2017

Unfortunately, HR professionals and fundraisers are not sure what to expect from each other, thereby limiting their ability to successfully partner. Here’s a scenario that I often hear about:

A Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) director at a nonprofit hospital is asked by the Chief Development Officer (CDO) to recruit two front line fundraisers with 7-15 years’ experience for new positions. The HR professional knows how to create all kinds of systems, from benefits to job classification, but doesn’t know much about fundraisers or fundraising so is depending upon the CDO to assess fundraiser’s skills and experience. While the HR officer often screens inbound applications, she is not prepared to reach out and recruit candidates and would depend on postings and third-party vendors to generate resumes. Moreover, her hiring process, which works well for most open positions, is too slow and inflexible to catch experienced fundraisers who are interviewing elsewhere. She senses there is a lot of competition for “good fundraisers” and is fearful about disappointing the CDO.

Intense competition for a limited pool, complex decision making, and slow hiring processes make this scenario all too familiar to most HR professionals hiring experienced fundraisers, regardless of the size or type of nonprofit. Many of these concerns are found in for-profit recruitment, too (“Slow Motion Hiring.” HR Magazine, June 2016, pp. 84-89).

And from the candidates’ perspective, HR can often be a barrier to connecting with the hiring manager. While HR is concerned with organizational issues such as salary equity, diversity policies, and staff morale, candidates will focus on their own needs, including the best offer for them.

No wonder there is an ongoing tension between HR directors hiring fundraisers and the candidates who want to be hired!

Advice for HR professionals:

Bill Weber

Bill Weber is President of Development Guild DDI. Read his bio here.

Clarifying the criteria:
There are some tricky issues to take into account when you and the hiring manager come to agreement concerning the “must have” versus “preferred” qualifications. Unlike some other professions, fundraising certificates and degrees are not good predictors of success, nor are there any widely used and helpful personality tests.

Also, fundraisers can be delightfully creative in their conversations, so I really stay away from hypothetical questions and simulated “work assignments.” Instead, I strongly prefer behavioral interviewing so that candidates provide you with relevant examples of what they have done (as related to the “must have” and “preferred” qualifications). As a result, you will be indirectly giving the hiring manager the granular information they need to assess the candidates’ relevant skills and experience.

Creating the fundraiser candidate pool:
If you rely on ads, even in targeted local professional outlets, your qualified pool is likely to be relatively weak. Your competitors are already encouraging their fundraising staff to “network even when they don’t have to,” so there’s no time like the present to begin. Employee referral bonuses are becoming more popular and effective as are referrals from volunteers and board members. As with all other outreach, aggressive use of LinkedIn in-mails can be a game changer. And when it’s a major hire, consider the use of a search firm that is set up to find the best talent, who are often not actively looking, and to ensure a fair and credible process.

Move fast:
There’s a lot of competition for the best fundraisers, so administrative application processes that may be effective for other jobs may be too slow. Don’t expect to have a deep pool of candidates trotting along at the same stage during the interview process. Instead, manage the hiring manager’s expectations so they can get the input they need and can make decisions with an accurate picture of the pool. But while you move fast, don’t skip key steps—from referencing to interviews.

Welcome negotiations:
Prepare to negotiate. If fundraisers are any good at their job, they can articulate what it will take for them to be successful and to engage with others to make that happen. This means you will need an informed, trusted relationship with the hiring manager to know where you can concede, offer and adapt. Don’t be surprised if your first salary offer is rejected. Expect questions about work-life balance, performance bonuses, titles, and where they fit in the organization chart. Finally, candidates may save their most important questions for the hiring manager and not you.

Advice for Fundraisers:

Working with HR is not the same every time.

HR professionals may have many different roles. In large institutions, HR generally relies on benefit and job classification specialists and will mandate that HR makes the offer, not the hiring manager. In addition, talent managers are increasingly hired in development shops in recognition that fundraising recruitment requires a special approach. In smaller nonprofits, the HR professional may be responsible for everything from facilities oversight to financial operations. And in both large and small shops, HR may have a key role in retention and liasing with search firms. As a result, expect good faith while testing your assumptions each step of the way.

Follow the volunteer chain of command. If, as a fundraiser, you expect to work closely with volunteers and board members, then it is reasonable to ask if you will meet some during the interview process. Realize that HR professionals rarely involve volunteers in the hiring process, so you may get initial resistance. Usually, the hiring manager and HR professional can find a way to orchestrate volunteer involvement. This usually happens in the finalist round, with everyone acknowledging that the staff are making the hiring decision.

But never lobby volunteers to get hired! The reason is simple: fundraisers need to be trusted, and if you go around the staff chain of command in the hiring process, that suggests you may not follow the chain of command if hired. Fundraisers may be the only staff with access to their bosses on the board. But there is still an opportunity to take advantage of this relationship. If you do contact volunteers early on, that demonstrates good research and relationship building—simply let HR know whom you talked to and when.

Make it easy. Remember, HR professionals are swamped with too much work and need to rely on the hiring manager to dig deep about relevant skills and experience. As a result, HR may revert to the standard hiring procedures which they know best. Consequently, all the job seeking advice you heard elsewhere applies doubly here: write a well-crafted cover letter; arrive on time for the interview; dress appropriately; rehearse good eye contact, etc. And most importantly, don’t surprise HR with last minute disclosure of information or introduce requests that could have been made earlier. Under pressure, HR may use any of these demerits to not advance you to the hiring manager.

A Final Comment:

Despite their role conflict, I truly believe that HR professional and fundraisers share a lot in common.

Sometimes I have mused that an experienced fundraiser I have met could have been a great HR professional if they had pursued that field earlier in their career. And I had the same thought for HR professionals becoming fundraisers. After all, they both need great relationships skills, can navigate complex environments and systems, and are mission driven. But tension between their roles grows by the time they have advanced in their careers – so try to relax, folks! You’re natural partners in the process!

Bill Weber is President of Development Guild DDI, a fundraising and executive search consulting firm that has placed hundreds of fundraisers and nonprofit leaders.  Development Guild DDI has been named to Forbes inaugural “America’s Best Executive Search Firms 2017”.


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