Friday, 17 June 2016

Ways to succeed at a Fundraising Interview

You're nervous. Hell, I'm nervous and I'm sitting on the other side of the table. The recruiting side.

Yes, my friend, this is an interview.

Image by Dani Lurie via Flickr (CC)

First things first, you need to know that I'm rooting for you. You've put in a lot of effort to get this far - you've polished your CV, crafted your personal statement, got advice from your partner, your mum, the bloke next door. It's a few hours of your time - if you're dedicated, maybe even a whole weekend.

I know it's taken time and I appreciate.

It's taken me time too. It's taken a while to craft that job description and recruitment pack, to diarise interviews and craft questions which match up to the job specification and competencies. Then there's the sifting and shortlisting. That takes a while.

All in all it's taken us both a good deal of effort to get to this point, so I'm rooting for you. I want you to do your best because this is my one shot at finding the right person. If you've got the skills I need I want to know about them.

I need you to tell me about them. Because I can only go by what you say and do on the day.

On exercises...

As part of a selection process you might need to do a written exercise of some sort. Three top tips:

1) Pay careful attention to the time available to you. You don't want to run out of time before you've finished.

2) Read the brief. Read it twice. Make sure you answer the question set for you. If need be sketch out the structure. Know how you're going to finish.

3) Check it over.  Leave time for checking. Read the brief again. Make sure you've answered it. Check for spelling and grammar.


First impressions count. 

That doesn't mean you need to stride into a room with a mega-watt smile and a cast-iron handshake but it does help if you enter the room disposed to like the people who are sitting on the other side of the table. They want to know if they can work with you - and it helps if you like each other.

Give yourself a moment to get into that place. Remind yourself that these are people you want to work with, people that you want to like. Then walk into that room, smile and shake hands. Mega-watt is entirely optional.


If you're presenting at an interview chances are you won't have long to present - probably 5 or 10 minutes (and you can expect to be cut off if you run out time). Chances are you'll also be presenting to a small group of people: two, maybe three... the chances are it will be less than five. Think about what that means for your presentation style: you're not going to be standing up in front of an auditorium. Also, you usually know exactly who you're going to be presenting to - that gives you a major advantage.

This ain't your audience - think interaction and discussion, not grand performance

There are loads of great resources around with great advice for this type of presentation. For what it's worth, here are my top tips:

  • Recap the brief. Outline what you've been asked to do and how you've approached it. That gives the interviewer a useful insight into how you think and what they're going to hear.
  • Keep it simple. You've got 5-10 minutes. You can probably make 1 point for every 2 minutes you have. You don't need to spill everything you've ever done - you just need to answer the brief. It's better to present well, and memorably, than it is to talk fast to pack more information in. 
  • Use approach + example + outcome. Strike a balance between theory (this is how I would approach this) and examples from your own experience. You need both, to show how you think and illustrate your [relevant] experience. 
  • Sum up. You recapped the brief - make time you allow time to reiterate the main points and round up your presentation. 
  • Keep to time. Don't risk over running -  you won't get to finish your presentation. That means you need to practice and time yourself. If you can't keep to time, cut your presentation down. 
Remember: when you're asked to present it's not just about assessing the content of your presentation. It's about assessing how you plan and prepare, how you answer a brief and above all, how effective you are at communicating. In a fundraising role, that's an essential skill and something your interviewer will be looking for. 

Plus, this is the one part of the interview you control. You know it in advance. You can practice. Make sure you do! 

I know you're nervous. It's okay. 

Interviewers know you're nervous. If your voice shakes a little, if you take a little time to get into your stride, if you fluff your answer, talk too much or go blank, don't panic. That's all pretty normal - it's a stressful situation and we know that.

How you deal with that is more important. It's fine to say: "Sorry, I went blank - could you repeat the question?"

Some preventative measures:

  • Take a tip from University Challenge: Note down the question you're being asked, when it's being asked. 
  • Give yourself a moment to think
  • Ask for clarification if you're not sure whether you've fully grasped what's being asked of you. That's also has the benefit of normalising the interview: it makes it feel more like a conversation and that's good for everyone in the room. 

The three step guide to answering questions 

Fairy tales follow a simple format: Once upon a time there was a .... then this happened...  and that... and in the end...

Answering interview questions follows a simple format too. Something like this:

"Here is how I would approach this...   Here is an example of how I have done that in practice...  This is what the outcome was."

Or in other words:

Q: "Give me an example of a time you had to set a fundraising target and how you went about it?"

A: "When I'm thinking about fundraising targets there are a number of factors I look into. If it's a well established fundraising stream I will look back over the last 12-36 months performance to chart trends and look at the financial picture - for example, response rate, average gift size and return on investment. Then I'll look forward at planned activity. Based on the variables I've just described I'll map out the expected return from each activity. For example, when I did the individual giving plan for my organisation last year...etc etc "

TIP: If you're not sure you've answered a question fully - if you are worried you've wondered off piste or rambled, check in. Simply ask: "Did I answer your question?"   If it didn't, asking that will give you a second chance. It will also make you look confident and assertive - you're putting yourself on an equal footing with your interviewer. It's not just them asking the questions.

Competencies, Competencies, Competencies - where are you pitching yourself? 

It's important to match the complexity of your answer to the seniority of the job. Someone applying for the role of Fundraising Director must answer at a far more strategic level than someone who is applying for the role of Fundraising Officer, even if the question they're being asked is the same.

That's all to do with competency levels. Most organisations with well established HR processes will have competencies associated with each role and each of those competencies will have multiple levels which match the seniority of each role. If you want to succeed you need to match your answer to the level of your role if you want your answers to achieve top marks.

If you're applying for a more senior role, that might require shifting up a gear. Consider the types of questions you might be asked (ask people who recruit to similar roles) and talk to people who are already working at that level. How do they approach strategy, budgets, management, working with senior volunteers?  How does that map against your experience?

Don't prepare alone

Interviews are your opportunity to crowd source support:

  • Ask people who recruit fundraisers the sort of questions they ask candidates - and the sort of competencies they assess against. 
  • Test your answers on friends or colleagues. Just because you're super successful in your role doesn't mean you can always explain how you go about the business of being successful. You know the outcome but the method is second nature to you. It can help to have someone question you about the how so that the first time you have to explain how you go about your work, isn't in an interview. Depending on the level of the role for which you are applying you should be able to describe how you approach managing complex projects; dealing with difficult people; creating a strategy; setting targets; managing budgets; asking for money; your approach when things go wrong; and how you deal with volunteers. 
And lastly, you should know... 

Facts and figures about your own performance e..g your annual target, your largest gift, your average gift; the response rates you've achieved; your most successful fundraising event etc. You should have examples which match all the different areas you might be asked about. 

Unsuccessful? Don't repine. Use it. 

1) Note down the questions you were asked when you come out of your interview. If you're successful, fine. But if you're not you can look at them and think about how you could have answered them more effectively. Next time you're asked them, you will answer them more effectively. 
2) Ask for feedback. Interviewers know you've given up your day to interview for them. They should be up for giving you feedback, in exchange. This can be really good for helping you to know what you did really well, as well as what you could have improved upon. 

And on feedback... 

Sometimes you don't get a job because you're not right for that specific job. I've interviewed people I thought were bloody marvellous - just not right for that specific role. It's been a joy to be able to tell them that and helpful to them to think about the implications for their career choices.  Sometimes I've even been able to help them find the job that is right for them. 


Sometimes you don't get a job because you're not ready for that job. Feedback can help to highlight where you lack the experience you need and give you pointers about where to gain more experience. On more than one occasion I've employed someone a year or so after I first interviewed them - because they had gained the experience they need. It's great to see how much someone has developed. 


Sometimes you don't get a job because your interview technique failed you. 

This blog post is all about making sure that doesn't happen. 

So what about your experiences? 

Recruiter? What do you love or hate to see? 

Candidate? What has worked really well - or really badly - for you? 

Any top tips for... 

Group exercises?

Psychometric tests? 

Role plays? 

Share the love, and help a friend!

Related Posts: 

Dear Candidate... 9 ways to Improve your Fundraising CV

Do you know what your next fundraising job will be? 

Crucial top tips for a new job 

Knowledgeable networking: 10 top tips for making connections

Jumping sector - one month in 

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