“That was one of the most painful interviews I have ever participated in.”
That’s what our CEO said after the candidate left our building.
We had really wanted to like her. She came from the search firm and looked great on paper. But it truly was bad.
And our frustration was mounting. A key major gift officer position had been open for about six months at that point and there were no prospects on the horizon.
The story ends well, thankfully. But it took a while to find the right person—10 months in total.
As I’m writing this, the U.S. economy has been quite strong, and for a long time. It’s a great time for fundraising. But it’s a hard time for hiring. All the best talent has already made a move. Maybe two!
I’ve filled four vacancies over the past year which, naturally, has me thinking about hiring—interviewing in particular.
So, let’s talk about interviewing.
I’m going to generalize. I know not everyone reading this is going to interview with me, or for a major gift officer role. Nonetheless, I want to make some small, easy suggestions that can have a big impact on your interviewing skills.
Psychology of Interviewing
As we often do here at Fearless Fundraising, we’re going to start with psychology—the inner game of interviewing. I want us to get inside the mind of the interviewer. Why? Because it will put your prep work into context.
See, your interviewer has a problem.
And she needs to solve it. Her open position means there’s unrealized fundraising potential at her organization. And with every passing day, they’re leaving money on the table—maybe not immediately, but certainly in the future.
Your interviewer’s task is to find the right person for the opening so her org can capture as much of that unrealized potential as possible. And, she’d like to do this ASAP.
The good news is: you can help.
Make sure you approach your interview like you’re trying to help your interviewer solve a problem. Treat it like a mini consulting assignment. Your interviewer is your client. Try to understand the challenges and opportunities her organization is facing, and then help her identify solutions.
This reframe will take you out of some unhelpful mindset “traps” that are easy to fall into, namely: 1) focusing on yourself, 2) worrying about being liked, and 3) just responding and reacting to the questions you’re asked. It will make you far more proactive, curious, and thoughtful, all qualities that are important to both interviewing AND fundraising.
Altogether, understanding the inner game of interviewing will help you prepare in the right way. Instead of focusing on “having the right answers,” you’re now getting ready to work collaboratively with your interviewer to solve challenges and maximize opportunities she might be facing.
So, let’s talk about how you prepare for an interview.
Interviewing is like a solicitation meeting—80% of the work happens before you even get into the room.
Now, there’s a lot you could (and probably should) prepare for, and we’ll cover plenty of ground. But I’m going to start off with one recommendation that will instantly put you in the top 25% of all candidates. Ready for it?
Prepare in advance to NOT ramble.
I’m not kidding. If you can figure out how to speak clearly and concisely, you will stand out from other candidates interviewing for the job.
Most people get nervous during interviews—it’s completely understandable. And what do we do when we get nervous? We talk. And talk. And talk.
With preparation (and practice, as we’ll talk about later), you can replace rambling with self-awareness and conversational fluency. Do this and you’ll rise to the top.
So, the first step in preparing for success is to anticipate some of the questions your interviewer will ask.
The questions you’ll get in the non-profit world are largely predictable. We haven’t quite caught onto the weird interview question fad that you see in the tech sector (Intel: “Design a spice rack for the blind.” Facebook: “How much would you charge to wash every window in Seattle?”).
Typically, you won’t see this kind of stuff. If you have though, I want to hear about it. Leave a comment below.
The questions you’ll get in fundraising are more straightforward. Here’s a list of the basics that you should be prepared to answer:
- Tell me about yourself.
- What interests you about this position?
- What interests you about our organization?
- Tell me about your experience in major gifts fundraising.
- What type of goals have you been responsible for?
- What metrics do you use to evaluate your work currently?
- What experience do you have with grant-writing?
- What is the largest gift you ever raised?
- Tell me about your best donor relationship.
- Tell me about your most challenging donor relationship.
- Tell me about the gift you’re most proud of?
- Tell me about your management experience and philosophy.
Again, don’t memorize your answers to these questions. But do make sure you have a point of view and can share it with without rambling.
Now let’s dig in a little more on the “Tell me about yourself” question.
(I know, it’s not technically a question.)
Interviewers ask this (I always do) because it helps them understand how a candidate thinks. How does she synthesize information? What does she choose to highlight? Does she consider her audience (me) and his needs?
Here’s my recommendation on this one.
Do not talk for more than 3-4 minutes. And prepare to cover the following in that time:
- Your background—you don’t need to go back to high school, but do summarize your relevant experience and accomplishments. Stick to the highlights. If the person interviewing you wants more detail she’ll ask.
- Your current role—summarize what you’re doing right now (or have done most recently if not currently employed). What have you learned? What skill sets have you developed?
- Your next role—What are you seeking in your next role? “I’m looking for new opportunities where I will be able to leverage my strengths/experience in…”
- The job you’re interviewing for—How does what you’re looking for relate to the job you’re interviewing for? What interests you about the role and the organization?
- What you bring—What particular skills or experiences will enable you to be successful? “I’m excited about this conversation today because I know I could bring…”
How do you cover all of this in 3-4 minutes?
You stick to the headlines. And you practice.
We’ll talk more about practice later.
But look at all of that ground you covered! You just did the interviewer’s job for him. Remember, he’s trying to solve a problem. And you just answered all of his fundamental questions:
- Who is this person?
- Why do they want this job?
- Can they do the job?
- What’s it like to work with this person?
- Are they a good fit here?
And you did it on your terms. Sure, your interview will have follow-up questions and may want to explore certain things further. But you got to shape the narrative right out of the gate.
This approach is powerful. Prepare to answer in this way and you’ll hit a homerun on the “tell me about yourself” invitation. And even if you don’t get asked that, you’ll be prepared to answer the things that your interviewer really wants to know.
OK, other things you need to prepare for…
Have a TON a question ready to go.
I’m not kidding. OVER-prepare in this regard.
When I ask if they have questions, I can’t tell you how many times candidates have told me, “Uh, no, I think you already covered everything I wanted to know.”
You’re considering changing jobs, taking on a new set of responsibilities, being accountable to a new supervisor, spending 40+ hours a week (more time than you’ll spend with your family) in a different place with different people, and you don’t have any questions?
Big. Red. Flag.
Nobody wants to hire the candidate who isn’t genuinely trying to assess fit on their end. Be intensely curious about the opportunity. And do everything you can during the interview process to figure out what it would look and feel like to work there. It signals that you’re not just looking for a paycheck.
So, come prepared with way more questions than you’ll ever be able to ask.
Next, not all fundraising jobs are the same. Make sure you figure out what they’re looking for and relate your background and skills accordingly.
Job descriptions are helpful, but be on the lookout for unspoken expectations. And here’s a little secret: not all organizations are great about keeping their job descriptions current. The information posted may not fully align with the hiring manager’s expectations. Hopefully this isn’t the case, but you need to suss it out. Ask:
- What does success look like?
- How do you evaluate performance?
- What has made previous employees in this role successful?
- Is there anything the candidate will be expected to do that isn’t detailed in the job description?
Also, on a broader level, make sure you know that kind of fundraising job this really is and if that’s what you really want to do.
For example, be able to distinguish between relationship-based fundraising jobs and those that are programs-based. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve interviewed candidates for a major gift officer position and they spent the whole time talking about events and programs. Or vice versa!
If it’s a relationship-based job, like a major gift officer role, be ready to talk about high value relationships you’ve built. And have a few ideas for how you would build them in your new role.
Similarly, if it’s a programmatic role (events, clubs, reunions, most annual giving jobs) be prepared to talk about programs you’ve built.
The same goes for generalist vs. specialist jobs. Larger shops will have more specialist roles—positions focused on just one thing. Smaller shops will have more generalist roles—positions with greater breadth of responsibility. As you prepare for your interview, make sure you know what you’re applying for. For annual giving or grant writing roles, plan to bring in a few writing samples. If it’s a major gift officer job, be ready to engage in a role play.
Preparing to role play can be tricky, but it’s worth the effort.
First, keep in mind what your interviewer is looking for. Role plays are a great way to assess the following:
- Does the candidate have a natural conversational style?
- Can she think on her toes?
- Is he warm, approachable, curious, and friendly?
- Does she seem comfortable asking for the gift?
If you’re applying for a major gift officer job, you can (and should) get ready for a role play as part of your interview prep. The scenarios you’ll get won’t be that unusual. Outline a general case for support for the organization you’re interviewing with and be prepared to use it in a role play. You’ll also want to have a standard “transition and ask” ready. And, if you want to be extra prepared, be ready to navigate “skeptical prospect” and “disappointed donor” scenarios.
Strengths and Weaknesses
As part of your interview prep, identify a few strengths that you would bring to the position. This is an important part of your interview game plan. Remember, instead of simply answering questions, you want to proactively highlight your strengths and match them to your interviewer’s needs. You’ll probably touch on this if you’re asked to, “Tell me about yourself.” But be ready to revisit your strengths throughout the conversation.
When researching the organization and the position, identify your 2-3 “most relevant strengths.” The word “relevant” here is key. Yes, these are your strengths, but plan to focus on the strengths that are most important to the position you’re interviewing for. It’s critical that you highlight where their needs and your strengths intersect—this can make or break your candidacy.
Let’s say you’re applying for a dedicated major gift officer position with a larger organization. You have some major gift experience, but you were a generalist in a smaller shop and major gifts work was just one of dozens of responsibilities you had.
So, what do you focus on in the interview?
Your major gifts experience! Of course.
You don’t need to highlight your skill at writing an appeal letter and segmenting your mailing list. You don’t need to highlight the great events you’ve run in the past. Instead, focus on the relationships you’ve built. And the gifts you’ve inspired as a result.
And be prepared to talk about how you would envision doing more of that kind of work given more time to do it and fewer miscellaneous responsibilities. What would your plan and your process be?
Relevance. It sounds obvious. But I’m shocked at the number of candidates I’ve interviewed who aren’t prepared to make these connections.
Now, the flip side of this equation is equally important! You need to understand the job you’re applying for so you can know what elements of your experience to highlight.
Now let’s talk about weaknesses. How do you respond to “tell me about your weaknesses?”
Typically, this is not intended to be a “gotcha!” question. I use it to get a feel for a candidate’s level of self-awareness. Everybody has real weaknesses. Everybody. So, is she going to be real or is she just going tell me that she works too hard? (a lot of candidates say that)
In addition to demonstrating self-awareness, you want to do two things when sharing a weakness: 1) position it relative to your strengths, and 2) talk about how you are working to overcome that weakness and minimize its impact.
Here’s what I say:
“Boy, everyone brings both strengths and weaknesses, don’t they? My weakness is administrative detail. I’m good at hitting fundraising goals. But I’m not always good at getting my expense reports in on time. The HR Office usually has to remind me to complete my training. And, I hate to say it, I have forgotten to sign off on an employee’s timesheet more than once.
I’m in process on this. A former boss’ words still stick with me: She said, ‘I appreciate that you’re focused on your goals. But when you don’t complete your administrative tasks on time you create a lot of extra work for other people. Is that the type of colleague you want to be?’”
Other Odds and Ends
And, finally, make sure you know the names of the people you’ll be interviewing with. It’s okay to ask this ahead of time. MEMORIZE these names. Thanking people by name as you shake hands at the end of an interview always makes a good impression.
So, we’ve covered preparation. You know what you’re going to say. Now let’s talk about practice—it’s just as important.
Why? Well, as we’ve mentioned before, most candidates ramble. You can immediately set yourself apart by being prepared to answer questions in a clear and concise way.
And again, practice is not memorization. Your goal is to become conversant.
Preparation will help you identify the points you really want to bring home during the interview. Practice will help you get comfortable making them, and then then closing your mouth.
What else should you practice?
Smiling! Yes, smiling.
Not a plastic, forced smile. Try smiling a little more with your eyes. It will make you more likable and engaging.
Now, how do you actually practice that? Talk to yourself in a mirror. I’m not kidding.
You could video yourself, but the feedback in the mirror is more immediate. And the discomfort of it is closer to what you’ll experience in an interview setting anyway.
It’s as simple as that. You’ve already identified a list of questions to be prepared for. Practice answering them in the mirror.
I promise that if you do this you will learn something about yourself, you will become more self-aware, and you will interview better.
The Big Day
Let’s talk about the interview itself. We’re not going to go crazy here because, remember, 80% of the work is done before you even get into the room.
Nonetheless, here are a few tips:
Make sure you have some extra resumes ready.
Make it your goal to arrive at the office where you’re interviewing exactly five minutes early.
Please, please, please do not show up 20 minutes early. Nobody will be ready for you. You’ll just end up sitting in a waiting area taking up the receptionist’s time. Plus, it doesn’t earn you any extra brownie points that you aren’t already getting by showing up five minutes early.
Now, in order to get to the right office five minutes early, you’re going to have to plan to arrive and get parked at least 10-15 minutes early, perhaps more. There’s nothing wrong with sitting in your car.
The best approach is to build in tons of buffer time. I often aim to arrive at a nearby coffee shop one hour before my interview starts. That gives me time to decompress, use the restroom, look at myself in the mirror, review a few notes, hydrate, caffinate, whatever… It’s like a personal staging area.
And then I go over to the organization with plenty of time to get parked and get to the right office five minutes early.
Firm on the initial handshake. Eye contact. Smile.
Wait for your interviewer to show you where to sit.
Remember to slow down. And to smile.
Again, 80% of the work is done. It’s just about finding the right opportunities to highlight your 2-3 “most relevant strengths.”
And breathe. Short gaps or pauses in the conversation are OK. You don’t have to bear the responsibility of filling all silence with noise, you’ll just end up rambling.
You might get one or two questions that you didn’t prepare for, that’s OK. Slow down, breathe, smile, answer the question as best you can, but stick to the headlines. If your interviewer wants the details, she’ll ask.
If your interviewer doesn’t tell you their decision timeline, go ahead and ask before the conversation ends.
When saying farewells, thank people by name—it makes an impression. Again, be sure to memorize the names of the people you’ll meet during your preparation.
After the interview, send “thank you” notes. Email is fine. If your gut tells you that a particular interviewer would be moved by a hand-written note, go for it. Email, however, is more immediate. And you can add brief points of emphasis or clarification that would just seem weird in a hand-written note.
Following up after an interview to check on the status of your candidacy is OK too. Just keep in mind what you were told about the decision timeline in their interview. Obviously, you don’t want to check in after two days if they tell you they plan to make their decision in two weeks.
So, that’s that. Leave a comment and let me know if I’ve left out anything critical. I’d also love to hear any interviewing tips or hot takes you might have.