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Finding Your Unicorn: Tips for Hiring in Donor Relations

By Jan McGuire

If only. If only more candidates in our applicant pool had donor relations experience. Or even some advancement experience. If only these unicorns were abundant, the hiring process would be sunshine and roses.


More often than not, people enter our profession without previous experience in donor relations or any aspect of advancement. It’s up to us to identify work experiences and skill sets that translate into good fits for our hiring needs.


Here a few things to keep in mind as you review resumes and conduct interviews:


Customer service skills are a must-have in Donor Relations, regardless of the specific position vacancy you need to fill. This doesn’t mean they literally need a Customer Service Representative at XX Company on their resume. Look for experience in industries and jobs where customer service is a given. Hospitality, Sales, Retail, Membership Associations (Chamber of Commerce, for example). Without customers or members, these businesses don’t exist, so every employee must do their part.


Another given with nearly every Donor Relations role is to be a self-starter, someone who works independently of direction. Do you want to tell your acknowledgment writer to pull the gift report and write the acknowledgments every time it needs to be done? Nope. You want them to do it because it’s their job responsibility. "Self-starter" is an adjective commonly used on resumes, so direct your interview questions to learn more about the candidate's specific experience and work style.


You’ve got to keep the job's daily functions in mind, beyond just the technical skills needed. This is especially important of work with gift agreements and compliance. You must have staff that is comfortable enforcing policies and rules. They need to be comfortable saying "no" to a gift officer who wants to go off the rails with a scholarship agreement and saying "and here's why" to explain the policies to the gift officer. Experience in industries with regulatory practices in place (banking, finance) can be a good fit for this work.


Flexibility in the workplace. We hire staff to do specific jobs with specific priorities. But in your shop, I doubt a month goes by without you or a member of your team having to veer off-course and handle a sudden, immediate need. Someone at the top of your organization needs a proposal, an agreement, a report, or whatever, and needs it now. Can your staff handle this type of interruption AND handle it with customer-service in mind? Asking situational questions like this in interviews is a must.


Accountability. It’s the name of the game in Donor Relations, so much so we could be called the Office of Accountability. Think about it. On behalf of our organization, we are accountable to our donors. We must provide donors with accurate information, starting with the gift acknowledgment to the report on the use of their gift and every ensuing engagement and stewardship activity. Efficiency is key, but accuracy is vital. And we need staff that put personal credibility, with stakeholder-focus, into their work. If you see “attention to detail” on a resume, ask the candidate to define what that means to them.

Bottom line: keep your interview questions fresh and related to the specific role the candidate will potentially fill. It’s easy to rely on the same old list of questions every time—and some of them have earned their rightful keep. But be sure they are balanced with strategic questions that speak to the specific job's role and your department's role. You may just find some unicorns-in-waiting.


What are some of the qualities you look for in when hiring someone in donor relations? We'd love to hear them in the comments below!


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