What Development Directors Should Say In An Interview

by Joan Garry

Here are the answers you want to hear in a Development Director interview. But what questions should you be asking? Download my free checklist.

There are just three components to hiring a great Development Director:

1) Get a good candidate pool.

2) Ask the right questions.

3) Recognize the right answers.

For the moment, I’m going to assume you know how to get a good candidate pool.

I addressed the second item, asking the right questions, in my earlier post, Great Interview Questions for Development Directors.

But even though I said I’d address the third item (recognizing the right answers during the Development Director interview) the following week, it didn’t happen.

I wrote, It’s one thing to know what to ask. It’s another to know what answers you should be hearing from an exceptional fundraiser. And that’s exactly what I’m going to cover next week.” But then the next week came and I wrote about something else entirely.

Since then, I’ve been asked many times, “What are the right answers?” I’m finally getting to it.

So let’s get right to it… Development Director interview. 10 Questions. 10 Answers. Ready?

1) Far too many people see the word ‘fundraising’ and head for the hills. It’s one of the main reasons board recruitment can be a challenge for nonprofits. But you WANT to be a fundraiser. Tell me why. What do you enjoy about fundraising?

This question goes right to the top of the list because the answer is absolutely key to hiring a great DOD.

You must hear from the candidate that she finds joy in asking people for money. Period. While the actual words they use may vary, the right candidate must find some combination of joy, fulfillment, and happiness in asking for gifts. Remember, this is a person who will be charged with asking for money AND inspiring others (staff board and sometimes the Executive Director) to fundraise.

They better love it.

2) Tell me about the largest individual ask you yourself have made. Tell me the story. Did you get the gift? Why or why not?

You are looking for a few things here.

First, does the candidate have experience making asks at or above the level you need solicited? If your organization regularly solicits prospects for $500,000 and the candidate has only asked for $50,000, that’s a flag and you need to dig deep.

Second, listen for how the candidate made the ask and the process leading up to it. If she doesn’t tell you this information, ask in a follow-up question. You are listening for how the prospect was cultivated, how the ask number was arrived at, and what the candidate did to close the gift.

Did they follow-up after an initial answer of ‘no’? Did they need to hang in there and really work to close the gift? Did they work with the prospect to be sure the prospect’s philanthropic aims were met and that a true partnership was formed? This question reveals if the candidate works with a partnered philanthropy mindset or just focuses on transactional charity.

3) In fundraising trainings you often hear, “Your love of the organization must trump your fear of asking.” What do you LOVE about this organization?

This is actually a question you should not have to ask. It’s a “flag on the field” if this does not come up in an opening statement from the candidate.

You need to sense a deep commitment to the sector you work in.

It is possible that the organization is relatively new to the candidate and that’s OK. But a passion for the sector should lead her to come in with a keen understanding and appreciation for the work your organization does to move the ball down field.

The big thing you’re looking for is authenticity. If you yourself have that passion (and you’d better), you’ll know authenticity when you hear it.

4) I think about fundraising like investigative journalism. You should learn as much as you can before and during a meeting with a prospect so that you can tailor your ask to who they are in the world. What do you find to be the best questions to ask a prospect at a donor lunch?

There are many possible things to ask a prospect about at a lunch, but there is only one key question that every DOD wants to know. The prospect needs to be asked why she is interested in your organization’s mission. The answers can be endless but the reasons the prospect is drawn to your work is the basis for any future solicitation.

5) As someone committed to philanthropy, you no doubt donate to causes you care about. Tell me about your experience as a donor. Is there an organization that treats you especially well (and what does that look like)? Have you ever stopped giving to an organization you care about? Why?

First off, your candidate should be ready with an example. I am always wary of a Development Director that does not give to an organization they care about (I couldn’t care less about how much).

Listen for the candidate to tell you what an organization did well or poorly, as well as why they thought the actions were good or bad.

You are really looking for the candidate’s thought process, and her ability to put herself in the role of a donor. Fundraising is all about building relationships and so in addition to authenticity, the best development directors exude empathy.

6) What are the three ideal characteristics of a five-star Development Director?

You should have already heard about the joy the candidate takes in fundraising. So I’m not counting that one. Here are three others I like to hear from folks.

  • Ability to keep calm under pressure. You sure don’t want the person to come to work on a heart monitor. Yes, every dollar means more impact and that can take its toll. The stress of raising money is real. But panic never inspires anyone to support your organization.
  • Flexibility and Resilience. There will be setbacks. You need a person in the role who can develop strategies to change course. You are looking for someone who is creative, nimble, and optimistic.
  • Attention to Detail. Perhaps the candidate uses a tickler file to keep a donor informed about a success in a program he funded, the name of the donors’ elderly dog, or where the donor went to school. Donors want to know that they matter and stand out. Now no one is expected to remember these things. But all development professionals attend to the details of entering that data into a database so it can be accessed by anyone stewarding or asking for a renewal or upgrade.

7) How would you describe the ideal relationship between the lead fundraiser and the Executive Director?

One word: partnership.

An organization will never reach its full fundraising potential without a true partnership between the ED and the DOD. Both people are responsible for the success of this relationship.

Also, an Executive Director must be an active participant in fundraising. If you believe that a DOD is solely responsible for raising money, you are mistaken. I used to take this one step further and joke that as an Executive Director, I worked for my development director! Whatever it was it worked. Lots of give and take, discussion about strategy, and lots of deconstructing what worked and didn’t about asks.

8) How do you build and sustain a relationship with your board that positions you as something other than a nag?

Look for a candidate to talk about meeting each board member where he or she is, and working with you as the ED to design a personalized engagement plan for each director.

Working with boards on fundraising is never one size fits all. Each director has a different level of comfort and experience with fundraising. Working with board members is about building authentic relationships and that can only happen when each director is treated as an individual.

9) One client of mine said, “We don’t have a development committee on our board – we think it sends a message to the rest of the board that they are off the hook.” What do you think about that? Does a board need a development committee? What should the role of this committee be?

Look for a candidate to say that a board absolutely needs a development committee, and if one isn’t in place now, the time has come to start a committee as soon as possible.

A board without a fundraising committee is not fulfilling all of its responsibilities to the organization. The role of the committee is to support the organization’s fundraising efforts and function as peers to the full board in encouraging and soliciting gifts. When a board does not have a fundraising committee it sends a clear signal that fundraising is only the staff’s responsibility. That could not be further from the truth.

10) The biggest complaint I hear from E.D.’s: “My Development Director is not out asking for money,” or “Why is my lead fundraiser always at their desk?” How do you balance the need for managing the fundraising efforts and the need to be out and meeting and asking?

When I ask this question, I’m first looking for a candidate to be honest that this is always a tension.

Second, I want to hear about the tools the candidate has put in place in the past to be sure she’s out in the field asking for money. What do I mean by tools? Could be something as simple as blocking the same hours every week for visits so that staff (and you) understand that these are “do-not-disturb” times, or having focused ‘admin days’ where the DOD sets aside time for in-office tasks so the rest of the time she can be out with donors.

The most successful DODs will have a system that works for them to be sure they are out of the office.


So there you go… I finally finished what I started. Sorry it took so long!

What questions am I missing? Or conversely, what answers am I missing? Do tell in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “What Development Directors Should Say In An Interview”

  1. These are great posts, Joan, as always. But, in your own example you chose someone without the experience and I doubt she could have answered all of these and a young person just out of college may not have given yet. The debt issue is a real thing. I think talent trumps experience every time. so, would love your thoughts on how you saw that certain something that made you sure.

  2. Thank you so much for your post and question. For me the important things to be sure of are that the candidate finds joy in asking for money, and has a passion for the mission of your organization. When I see both of these in a candidate I know they have the basic tools to be a great fundraiser.

Leave a Comment