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How to spot fundraising potential in leadership candidates

Even without direct experience, some people have what it takes.
University Business, April 2018

Search committees and institutions recruiting academic leaders are often met with a major sticking point: the most appealing candidates often don’t have much fundraising experience. Yet in today’s climate, non-tuition sources of revenue are increasingly important and fundraising provides resources that can truly advance a university’s agenda. Leaders across campus—deans, program directors, functional administrators, research heads, and so on—must be capable of building donor relationships, “making the ask” and securing gifts. This expectation has led some colleges and universities—recognizing this issue with their own academic leaders—to offer training in key academic fundraising skills.

But what to do during the hiring process?How can a search committee, president or other hiring authority recognize a candidate who might lack fundraising experience yet turn out to be a stellar fundraiser? I recently encountered this issue during a dean recruitment in which the leading candidate had little development experience. In watching her closely in her interactions, and in asking pointed questions, the search committee grew confident that she had the requisite ability to raise funds. In fact, the development executive serving on the committee gave her the strongest endorsement among finalist candidates.

The lesson is to look for qualities in leadership candidates that do not necessarily appear on the CV. As they recruit, institutions can look for potential and aptitude related to the following key attributes of a successful fundraiser:

Vision: Successful fundraisers have vision. If they’ve done their homework, candidates should be able to describe ideas about what’s possible for your institution’s future and do so in a way that excites you and compels you to want to learn more. Ask individuals who interview for top positions about their vision. In responding do they draw you in? Do they leave you wanting more? How would you rate them in making a compelling case?

Connection: Fundraising is about building relationships over time. To do that, your future leader must be able to connect with people. This means being fully present, listening well, asking thoughtful questions to understand what is important to others. This is not about being an extrovert; it’s about being a fully engaged human being. How you experience the candidate in an interview will not be unlike how donors will experience them. Take note of how well they connect, listen and engage with you.

Teamwork: Fundraising is a team endeavor. University leadership, deans, faculty, development staff and other key partners must work together over time to secure a new gift. Thus, your candidate must be a good team player. Ask them to share a story of how they partnered with others to achieve a common goal. How do they talk about their role and that of others on the team? Are they respectful? Did they acknowledge that others provided valuable expertise they didn’t have? Did they acknowledge learning anything from the process? If you were on the team the candidate is describing, how would you feel about the way they portrayed the effort?

Willingness: A desire to engage in fundraising is essential. A candidate might feel reluctant or anxious about their ability in this area. That’s normal. But they must be genuinely willing and open to do the work. Pay attention and check in with your instincts: is this candidate being sincere about the time and effort they are willing to commit or are they just telling you what you want to hear?

A new leader can build upon these attributes to ready themselves for their fundraising role and learn the specific skills and tactics. Demonstrating these qualities when they are in front of a search committee is a first step. Pay close attention and take note of your experience of this person – it’s likely you will be on the mark with your assessment.

Many academic leaders share their reluctance about fundraising and their eventual surprise at how much they enjoy it. Often they remark, “It’s exciting to learn about what is important to our donors and inspiring to see how their interests match with what we are doing at our institution.” If they have a vision, can connect with others, are a good team player and are willing to learn and do the work, they will likely be successful at it, too. Once they join your institution, then it’s time to support them and make sure they can be successful in their new fundraising role.

Suzanne Teer is an executive search consultant in Witt/Kieffer’s Education practice.