When I on staff as a development director, I truly hated all the consultants, presenters at conferences, fundraising article authors who all hinted at great wisdom and a way to reach your fundraising goal, which they would tell you once you hired them. When I became a consultant, I swore I wouldn’t be that way.
But years of being asked specific questions and watching the askers frantically writing down my every word, showed me there was a reason for this vagueness. Either I would not get hired—they had the information after all, why pay anything extra—or upon being hired, there would be an expectation that I would stick doggedly to what I told them, even after I discovered important factors that were (somehow) left out of the original statements.
I now try to stick to evidence-based information. That is, I talk a lot about work I’ve done for other organizations with similar situations. I do this for two reasons:
- To show that I am familiar with their issue/problem/type of initiative and have been successful dealing with something like it in the past
- Not to locked into a pre-determined way of doing things before I have had a chance to really learn the landscape.
So, yes—I have a five-point program. But sometimes, it’s 7 or 12 or even three points, depending on the situation.
This “here is a situation, how will you handle it,” isn’t , alas, only presented to consultants. More and more applicants for senior development positions are being asked to do this kind of dance. “Our organization is here—write a 2-5 page plan on how you will move us to there.”
It was bad enough when I interviewing to be asked to write a sample direct mail appeal, thank you letter, beginning paragraphs of a case statement. This, however, completely misses the point of the interview—and of how you can chose the right development director for you.
That last is hard enough. Most fundraising professionals stay in a job a little under two years. There are lots of reasons for that—and some it starts at the interview. Too many nonprofit organizations do not understand what a development officer does—or should do. Job descriptions are ridiculously long, with too many responsibilities and too few resources. Instead of learning what it takes to effectively raise charitable gifts and grants, they are putting the onus on the candidate to tell them what they need to do.
Which as a candidate would make me wonder: Are they just picking my brain (as too many organizations try to do with consultants), and then give that friend of the board chair my answers so s/he can take it and run (or, more likely stumble) with it? Okay, that’s harsh, but it is also reality.
By asking a candidate to write out a plan or an essay on what they would do to solve your stated problem, you are also judging a candidate on only a piece of the skill set you need.
Yes, most development professionals are at least decent writers. But it is their ability to engage in conversation, to ferret out information, to match their knowledge and understanding of your organization to the donors’ dreams and aspirations that is really important. It is their skill in bringing people closer to your organization and their proficiency at managing the myriad pieces of the development process that signify a really good development director from one who can write about it but may not be able to produce.
While you can’t really know until someone is in your shop whether they will be effective, at least during an interview you can see them in action. You can, if you ask the right questions (and listen carefully to the answers—both verbal and non-verbal ones) get a clear picture whether they have the ability to (to paraphrase a story Steve Sample told his 2002 book, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership”) do development or if they just want to be the development director. That is, is the candidate someone with the talents to do what the position requires, or is it simply someone who wants the title and doesn’t really want to (or isn’t able to) do the job.
Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations, helping them to increase their fundraising capacity and build stronger boards and staff. Learn more at http://janetlevineconsulting.com. While there, sign up for her free monthly newsletter