According to dozens of development leaders who have hired hundreds of frontline fundraisers, the in-person interview is the most important step in the hiring of major gift officers. Although individuals on both sides of the table relate that this high-pressure experience can be a less-than-ideal environment in which to get to know someone, it is also an opportunity for candidates to utilize the very skills and talents required for success in the position of major gift officer. This article seeks to guide interviewers in making the most of the limited time offered by the face-to-face interview.
First, the interview should be carefully planned, from those who take part to the settings involved. The role of major gift officer demands that the individual interact with multiple personalities in various venues with ease and grace. In addition to one-on-one interviews, hiring managers should put candidates in front of at least one small group of two or three people—even including people from outside the development shop—and spend time with candidates outside of the conference room in a social setting, such as over a meal, to see them perform under different conditions. Interviewers should consult before the interview process begins to ensure that all topics are covered while avoiding asking the same questions repeatedly.
Second, the interviewers should agree on what most needs to be learned in the limited time available. Every institution has priorities that affect the type of information that is necessary to glean during an interview and the type of candidate that is sought. Development divisions use a wide variety of metrics, some are engaged or are soon to be engaged in a campaign, some have critical short-term needs, and others have a more long-range focus. Nonetheless, input from a number of development leaders with diverse backgrounds resulted in a set of consistently used questions that we offer here, grouped into five areas.
Dedication to Mission
Do candidates have unquestionable, clearly demonstrated passion for the mission, and will they be able to communicate that passion in a way that inspires donors and colleagues? Have they done their homework? Do they understand the nuances and complexities of the institution? Do they understand their role in helping the institution fulfill its mission? Do they come to the interview with related ideas? Note the conclusion of candidates’ gift stories: Do they convey simply that “we secured a seven-figure gift,” or do they go further to convey that “we secured a seven-figure gift that allowed us to fulfill our mission in a significant way?” Don’t be afraid to ask candidates to cite ways in which they personally relate to the mission of your institution.
Are candidates strategic problem-solvers? Ask questions that reveal candidates’ thought processes. Many astute hiring managers will ask not only about strategies that resulted in successful gifts but will present candidates with a new challenge during the interview. This challenge need not be about securing a gift at all; it could be as simple as a question about how the candidate prepared for the day or, as one development leader suggested, a question about how they secured parking. Consider open-ended questions aimed at uncovering information about candidates’ resourcefulness, intellectual inquiry, persistence, curiosity, and creativity. How did candidates overcome roadblocks and how do they deal with disappointment? Be attuned to candidates’ resilience and how they handle challenges.
The ability to build and maintain strong relationships, internally and externally, may be the most important quality that successful major gifts officers possess. Assessing this ability in an interview is challenging and demands keen observational skills. Do candidates refer to donors as partners? How and in what context do they refer to their colleagues—and how often? Several development leaders that were interviewed noted the importance of maintaining relationships during leadership changes and evolving institutional priorities. Ask how candidates maintained key donor relationships during difficult times or institutional transitions. Do they utilize moves management approaches in a generic way, or in a manner tailored to the individual or family? Do they build relationships that depend on them as individuals, or do they bring multiple colleagues into relationships, ensuring sustainability over time?
Skilled relationship managers maintain relationships with colleagues and donors throughout their careers. Determine how candidates preserve relationships with current and past colleagues. Do they cite examples of lessons learned from past mentors and donors? How have they retained relationships with past donors while maintaining ethical boundaries?
Self-Awareness and Self-Confidence
Development leaders consistently cite self-awareness and self-confidence as qualities that are intrinsically tied to success in major giving. Honesty and integrity are closely related qualities. Ask candidates to talk about what their colleagues might say about them, positive and negative, and watch for hesitation. Ask about gift strategies that have worked, and listen to whether they take credit for themselves or give credit freely to others. Are they generous in their praise of past colleagues?
Philanthropy is centered in generosity, gratitude, and the ability of institutions and philanthropists to work in partnership to achieve common goals. Nearly every development leader interviewed for this article cited with disdain an interview in which a candidate took credit for securing a gift without acknowledging his colleagues or the generosity of the donor who made the institutional investment. Strong candidates will have the confidence to be humble.
Virtually every development leader interviewed for this piece advised that making the résumé the focus of the interview is a misstep. The hiring manager’s relationship with prospective gift officers is about the future more than the past. Past performance metrics are important, but the number of zeros that appear on a résumé give very little insight into candidates’ creativity, drive, and ability to build and nurture meaningful, productive relationships with colleagues and prospective donors. Many factors, including the efforts of other individuals, play a role in gift outcomes, so past performance is not necessarily an indication of future success.
Much more important is how the candidate will perform in your institution, with your donors, your staff, and your particular challenges and opportunities. Think carefully about the qualities that have allowed others to succeed in your institution, and qualities that have not worked so well. Will this candidate complement existing team members, in talent, skill, experience, and temperament? Involve interviewers who have a track record not only of identifying talent, but identifying and grooming talent in your institution.
All of the above qualities rely on the ability to listen and process information. Are candidates listening during their interviews? Have they reflected upon what others discussed with them during earlier interviews? Have they learned anything during the current interview? Has their sense of the position and their role evolved? Do they think strategically, or only tactically? The strongest candidates will not view an interview as a test but rather as the first step in establishing a relationship—whether they get the position or not.
Finally, one of the most intimate relationships a gift officer will have is with his or her supervisor and immediate colleagues. Interviewers should ask themselves, “Is this candidate someone that excites, stimulates, and even challenges me? Would I feel comfortable talking with them about personal, confidential matters?” Whatever the answers, it is very likely that donors will feel the same way.
Thank you to the following individuals who were interviewed in connection with this article:
Ahmad Boura, Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Morningside College
Deborah Breen, President, Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation
Sarah Brooks, Associate Director, Methow Conservancy
John Carter, President & COO, Georgia Tech Foundation
Ed Davis. President, Texas A&M Foundation
Jon Kevin Gossett, Chief Development Officer, San Francisco Opera
Patricia P. Jackson, Chief of Staff, Advancement Division, Dartmouth College
Michael A. Leto, Vice Chancellor for Development and Alumni Relations &
Executive Director, UMass Amherst Foundation
Scott A. McQuilkin, PhD, Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Whitworth University
Melanie Norton, Vice President for Development and Alumni Engagement, DePauw University
Brian J. Reddington, Executive Director, PBS Foundation
Angela Seaworth, Director, Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership
Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, Rice University
Laura C. Simic, Vice President for University Advancement, Boise State University
Eugene R. Tempel, Founding Dean, School of Philanthropy, Indiana University