The single biggest mistake I see from those recruiting for high value roles is the mistake of choosing the best person of those who came for interview rather than holding out for the person with the right skills, attributes and experience.

This might be okay if it is done knowingly and the recruiter is knowledgeable enough to address all of the areas where development will be needed to turn this best-of-the-candidates into a stand-along great fundraiser. Where I have seen this mistake has been where the panel isn’t knowledgeable enough in what it takes to be a great major donor/corporate/trust/capital appeal manager.

everyone was very pleased with him, and had said so to him, because he kept producing papers, reports and other written materials for them to read. They all could see that he was very busy

For instance, I met a Major Donor Manager who, I had been told both by his Director and by the Chief Executive, was very impressive and knew his stuff. He was great with donors and was going to transform this charity’s fortunes in the major donor stakes. He was new in post but about to have his position confirmed at the end of a six-month probation period.

He asked me about my preferred major donor management model: was I a fan of the “moves management model” or did I adopt a different approach?

I was really interested in this text-book, almost academic application of a specific structure, not the approach I have ever taken and so started to pick his brains:

  • What the “moves management model” looked like in practical terms for him?
  • What were his KPIs?
  • How did he align his financial targets and KPIs?
  • How could he use this model to predict the speed of a cultivation programme with a cold donor?
  • Did the appeal board understand this and use it or was it internal?

Geeky, yes. Cruel, unintentional!

This person was lost – he physically floundered – I watched him squirm, sweat and turn red. I hadn’t been trying to catch him out, I was interested by his very text-book approach to this type of fundraising – I was less practiced in specific models at that point in my career, having taken a more pragmatic “doing” approach, and thought I could learn from him.

he was the best of the candidates that they had interviewed

In the six months he had been employed, this person had met just three potential donors, all members of a Board set up before he arrived, one already a donor prior to his arrival. There were other members of the Board not yet met. I asked him about the barriers to access these people and their diaries: he confidently told me all about the planning, strategy, systemising and research he had been undertaking thus far. He showed me an A4 folder full of research done on many donors. It was unquestionable that he had been busy. Everyone was very pleased with him, and had said so to him, because he kept producing papers, reports and other written materials for them to read. They all could see that he was very busy.

I asked him about his financial target and he explained that this had already been set when he joined and that he had had no hand in agreeing it, setting it, reviewing it, judging it to be realistic or otherwise based on anything more than his gut feeling. He was confident that he had managed expectations of the time it takes to build a major donor programme well: he had been clear that 90% of the entire annual target would arrive in March (the latest he could phase the income and still count it as the same financial year). He had at no point given any indication that the target was unrealistic.

I went back to the Director and Chief Executive. What was it about this person that they saw that I could not? One of them admitted that he was the best of the candidates that they had interviewed. I asked them what they thought made a successful major donor fundraiser? This was when the penny dropped: they had no idea and had been blinded by this man’s technical knowledge of processes and systems. The one nagging doubt they confessed to was the amount of time he spent at his desk… he appeared very busy so they didn’t want to challenge this. But they were both sure that he was meant to be out more than he had been so far, meeting donors. But this was the planning stage, right?

Even after all of this, this pair of senior staff decided they ought to confirm him in post rather than extend his probation. Come the end of that first financial year he did not hit his target. Worse, they listened to him as he set his next year’s financial target (larger than the year he had failed to hit) – all still parked safely in March so that he could claim to be on track for a full 11 months. They resisted any form of competence or performance management and when he still didn’t hit his target a full 18 months after I’d first met him they STILL defended him and their decision to hire and to keep him.

This situation is a catalogue of errors, easily made by those of us who are hiring staff in fields where we ourselves we are not experienced. Questions we should be asking ourselves include:

  • What does it take to be a brilliant major donor fundraiser?
  • How do I find out what it takes to be a brilliant major donor fundraiser?
  • How do I benchmark brilliance in an interview?
  • Are the targets I’m setting realistic?
  • What is a fair period for settling in and planning before the day-to-day activity of meeting donors will start?
  • How do I monitor progress in a meaningful way?
  • When is the right time to intervene if it isn’t working?
  • How do I intervene?

they were both sure that he was meant to be out more, meeting donors

It all starts with the right job description and advert. If you have never recruited this position successfully before, how do you know what is a reasonable expectation? You need someone who has an excellent track record in major donor fundraising, preferably with experience at the same stage of the fundraising cycle that you are at, to give you guidance.

A good recruitment consultant will then give you guidance as to the salary you ought to be offering for the role level that you have created. Please consider if this role can be done part-time or in a flexible way? Not only might you risk a small sum on this new type of fundraising but you will open the market to a wider selection of candidates.

Then you need to get your shortlisting criteria right. What are the essential things that you expect a candidate to demonstrate in their application? This is usually from the person specification that forms part of the job description – but think about which aspects you’ll shortlist against.

Then you need to get your interview questions right. Here are a couple of my favourite questions, with their indicators. They can be adapted to different levels of seniority (your indicators get harder or more comprehensive) or different roles. You need to ask a lot more questions than this of course!


What do you think are the most important factors in ensuring successful relationships?

+ve: good communication; honesty; responsive; caring; regular contact and updates; responding in professional manner; managing and resolving conflict; having clearly defined expectations; respect; manners

-ve: unable to identify any of above or similar


What has been your most challenging financial target to-date? Was it achieved? Within that, what is the biggest gift you have solicited?

 +ve: six-fig gifts; hit or exceeded target; not a one-off can demonstrate ongoing success

-ve: didn’t hit target, not been in post long enough to demonstrate success, no ongoing track record, never asked for a big gift, low success rate


What do you think are the factors that will motivate prospective supporters to commit financially to our organisation?

+ve: these will vary according to the cause – but candidate is able to list several

ve: unable to identify several of the list above or similar; myopic view of motivations


Give your major donor programme a health check now