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10 fundraising interview questions to help you succeed in your career

4 August 2011


 August 4, 2011

Entrance to your new job

Nonprofit fundraisers often have a hard time saying No. Perhaps it’s because we are so good at creating community and relationships. We are trained to say yes, to do sales, marketing, customer service to make everyone happy. Today I want to teach you about some ways to vet a nonprofit before you work there, in your job interview, so that you can learn whether or not to say no to a job when it’s offered to you. This can save you a lot of time and trouble in the long run.

Since the average tenure of a fundraiser in a nonprofit organization in America is 18-24 months, then chances are you’re going to be looking for a job soon, if you’re not already. Have you been burned out by a job? Would you like to learn how to make the best of a nervewracking situation?

Here are some questions that you can ask in your interview, and why you should be asking these questions.

First and most important question.

1. How much was raised last year and How much would I be expected to raise in the first year?

The reason you want to ask this question is you want to know right away if they have realistic or unrealistic goals for your position. Chances are, you are the sole fundraiser in the organization, and if they expect you to raise $1,000,000 after raising only $450,000 the year before, with a staff of one, that is setting you up for failure. You can choose to stay in the interview or go based on how they answer this question.


2. What is the focus of the strategic plan right now?

This will help you see if they are an expansion phase, a contraction phase, or a stasis phase with the organization. If they are in an expansion phase, such as building a new building, you might ask, “Has a feasibility study been done?” or if they’re in stasis until the economy gets better, you might ask, “Have donations fallen from two years ago?”


3. What is the focus of the development plan?

If they say, “What development plan?” or “You’ll have to make it” you can be certain that they need your help, but also you might want to query them further on if they’ve ever made a development plan, if the previous development person made a plan, or if everyone just makes it up as they go along. Remember, the more systems you have in place, the more you will be able to raise money.


4. How many times has this position been filled in the last four years?

If they say, “You will be the fifth person in as many years” then you know that you have some serious questions about whether or not you want to get involved with this organization. High turnover means something is up. Remember when you’re dating and people say, “It’s not you, it’s me?” In this case, that would be spot on. It really is them. Ideally you want to find a nonprofit where the previous person is available to train you. If they are not available, that’s another red flag.


5. What sort of qualities would you like to see in the person who fills this position?

This will help you watch them think about the previous person in the position, and you might be able to glean something from their answers about what they liked or didn’t like about this person.

This will lead you to the next question:


6. For your boss: What is your management style, and how often are there supervisions and staff meetings?

This requires you to know yourself enough to know how often you like to meet. So ask yourself this before you go into the interview. Generally, I like to have quick, once-weekly meetings with my boss to keep communications smooth and flowing. This redirects me when I’m going off course. Some of the worst organizational communication I’ve ever seen is in organizations that are smaller than 20 people. It’s incredible how people will simply not communicate with each other. Your office will break down if communications are not kept open, and this can lead to new levels of tension and hostility, so do try to get as many meetings as you need with the people you need to be in close contact with.

If you get to talk to the Executive Director or CEO during your interview, here are some questions I would ask.


7. How much of your job is currently major gifts, and how much would you like it to be?

8. What are your priorities right now? Advocacy? Allocation of state funds? Collaboration? Maintaining the level of service, but not expanding?

9. What are some difficult decisions that need to be made? Staff cuts? Budgets? Funding cuts?

You need to know answers to these questions. If your executive officer is not comfortable making major gift requests, but prefers all fundraising be foisted onto you, then they are not taking responsibility for the fiscal health of the organization. And this can tell you whether or not you want this job. When and if you meet with the Executive Director, you want to know if the organization is in trouble, or if it’s in stasis, or thriving. Usually, by this point in the interview, if they tell you how much turnover there’s been, how much they’ve made in the last year and how much you would be expected to raise, and what the focus of the strategic plan is, you should have a pretty good idea of how they are going to answer these questions, but it doesn’t hurt to ask, to show that you care about the pressures they are facing, and that you want to help by being the best fundraising professional that you can be.

Last questions:

10. What is the range of compensation for this position? Is it salaried or hourly? What other benefits are involved in this position? When would this position be expected to start? When can I expect to hear from you?

Depending on how well they answer the previous questions, you may decide that you want to skip these questions. Believe it or not, in the last fundraising job interview I had, the interviewer wanted me to work on salary, with no benefits, as many days per week as they wanted, as many hours as they wanted, for no extra compensation if I did a good job. This is actually illegal to ask someone to work full-time with no benefits. I doubt whether they could get anyone but the most desperate person to fill that position, and I walked out of the interview at that point.

You need to know your bottom line too. What is your bottom line salary requirement? What is your bottom line hourly requirement? Do you only work hourly? What benefits can you not live without? Is it a unionized shop? If not, why not?

I hope these questions help you in your quest for your next position. Whether you’re happy with where you’re at or whether you’re itching for new challenges, I’m sure that you will do well no matter where you land. Just remember you’ve got to see what you’re getting into before you say yes!

Updated 08/13/16:

If you’re really interested in Nonprofit Leadership, check out the Nonprofit Leadership Summit, September 27-29th, where some of the top nonprofit leaders in the country will be speaking. YOU can attend from your desk!

At the summit, you’ll learn more about fundraising to make yourself even more valuable to a potential employer, everything from Major Gifts, Capital Campaigns, Monthly Giving, How to Get that CRUCIAL second gift, how to create better partnerships (and get more sponsors) AND MORE! (PLUS we’ll have 19 CFRE credits available!)



Updated August 2016: If you liked this post, you might like these other posts on how to be a good nonprofit leader:

So You Want to Lead a
Nonprofit Part 1
So You Want to Lead a Nonprofit Part 2
Managing and Motivating Others, Part 1
Managing and Motivating Others, Part 2
Managing and Motivating Others, Part 3
How to be an executive director
How to be Chief Development Officer

4 responses on “10 fundraising interview questions to help you succeed in your career

  1. Worker Advocate says:

    I think almost every suggestion you made is excellent, and you are absolutely right to encourage fundraisers to assess the environment and expectations of a potential new job. I do want to correct you, however, on one statement of fact you made. You wrote “This is actually illegal to ask someone to work full-time with no benefits.”

    In fact, everywhere in the United States it is entirely legal to hire employees full-time with no benefits. It is not legal to employ someone full-time without paying FICA and unemployment insurance, but these are not what people generally mean by “benefits.” It is very wrong that people can work full-time without having access to health insurance, vacation, sick leave, etc., but it is not illegal. That’s why unions and other worker advocacy are so important.

  2. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    Hi Sandra and Corinne,

    Thanks for commenting! If you do your research before the interview, you can see how much the executive director or CEO makes, and then you can probably see from there how much they’d like you to make. But it’s surprising, even EDs who make $120K a year think it’s perfectly okay for everyone else in the agency to make $27K or $35K a year.

    So, it helps to ask the question up front in the first interview. Just get it out of the way.



  3. Sandra Sims says:

    It is incredible how many nonprofits want people to work full time for next to nothing in compensation. Furthermore the number of organizations who do not discuss salary until the interview, or even the final interview. That information should be published in the job ad.

    To be fair many small companies also hold back on the compensation. But most larger companies post the salary range in the job ad, upfront and without reservation.

  4. Corinne says:

    This is very helpful. My contract at a social services non-profit is over at the end of August/sometime in September so if I manage to land an interview, I’ll have this list with me!