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Best Practices for Interviewing and Hiring in Prospect Development

Fri, September 29, 2017 3:54 PM | Laura Parshall

If you're currently looking to hire new staff, or to transition to a new job, you're in luck this month! In this excellent article, Suzy Campos, NEDRA board member and Director of Advancement Research at Amherst College,  presents a look at hiring and interviewing practices in our industry.

Best Practices for Interviewing and Hiring in Prospect Development.

We all want to be part of a strong team. Prospect development is a great career option, but the niche nature of what we do can sometimes make recruiting and hiring a challenge. For this article, NEDRA surveyed team leaders/directors from a variety of institutions about their experiences with searches and what has worked well.


When evaluating candidates, whether for positions in research, prospect management, or fundraising data science, hiring managers are looking for good communicators who exhibit curiosity, problem-solving skills, and the ability to think outside the box. These characteristics are considered by survey respondents to be more essential than direct experience. One respondent said, "I can teach someone how to use research tools and about fundraising processes, but [the successful candidate] has to be willing to be creative and think of other ways to find pertinent information when tools or resources have limitations." Ability to handle confidential information with discretion is also a requirement. A passion or interest in the organization's mission is considered a plus. One director looks for comfort with math and basic algebra in prospect research candidates. How else to calculate accurate capacity ratings?

Prospect development hiring managers advise looking beyond direct experience for skills that are transferable. Leaders have welcomed historians, genealogists, medical researchers, and journalists to their groups with good results. "I usually look for a generalist. Someone who knows about a lot of things," said a director at an academic institution.

Leaders hiring for analytics/data science positions look for proficiency in at least one software language such as SAS, Python, R, or SPSS. A demonstrated interest in learning additional languages is a plus.

Good writing skills are still considered a must. In addition to writing basics such as grammar and spelling, "brevity," "clarity," and "conciseness" were frequently cited. "Very long cover letters can be a red flag."

Along those lines, when NEDRA asked hiring managers what would happen with "an otherwise promising applicant if there was a typo in the resume/cover letter? Two typos??" the responses were varied. Many managers said they wouldn't reject the candidate outright if all else was strong, but that it would be a factor if other concerning signs emerge. "I realize sometimes candidates are having to quickly update a resume at night, after work, and I can give a tiny bit of leeway on a small typo." However, for some, it is a dealbreaker. "One typo would be tough, two completely unbearable," said one respondent. Another noted, "It shows a lack of the attention to detail that is so important in our work." Others say it depends on the nature of the error, "Something glaring like a misspelling, I would probably not move [the candidate] forward; an extra space or missing comma, I would probably let go." A respondent who has been involved with data science-related searches is willing to forgive a few errors, pointing out that English may not be the primary language of the applicant.

To better assess writing skills, most institutions require a sample of written work for prospect research positions. Many also administer an exercise−either on site or as a take-home−in which the applicant is provided with some standard source material to synthesize into a summary. One institution asks the applicant to give a ten minute presentation on something technical. Other assessments include proofreading tests and exercises to demonstrate Excel skills. None of the responding institutions said they ask candidates to do original research.

It's natural when conducting a search to look for qualities like fit and compatibility. However, it is important to keep in mind that research increasingly shows that diversity among employees brings strength to the organization. (See "Why Diverse Teams are Smarter," Harvard Business Review, November 2016)

Dina Levi, Director of Inclusive Leadership at Amherst College, advises that when hiring, "fit" be well defined so it does not translate, consciously or unconsciously, into "looks like us and thinks like us." Dina notes that while it behooves interviewers to check their own biases, it is even more beneficial to create structures in the hiring process that mitigate bias. Some strategies Dina suggests include:

  • A clear, written definition of "fit" is less subject to bias than looking for a feeling of personal compatibility. One possible definition of fit could be "exhibits the values of the hiring organization (e.g., communication, respect, service to others)."
  • Skills assessments that are standard for all candidates, such as the exercises described above, are more objective than relying solely on a conversation-based interview. 
  • Make inclusion part of the body of the job description, not just a tagline in the employer boilerplate. Some examples: "Successful candidates should possess specific competencies and demonstrated experience working with diverse colleagues;" or "Takes appropriate actions to participate in the organization's efforts to create a respectful, inclusive, and welcoming work environment."
  • Resist assumptions about a diverse candidate's ability to conform or to be compatible with the work environment. For example, avoid the assumption that a candidate would not feel comfortable being the only member of their gender on a team, or that a minority candidate would not want to relocate to a rural college town.

Consider standardizing questions so that all interviewees are responding to the same inquiries and can be compared objectively. This keeps the discussion focused on the job and results in fewer tangents about personal similarities with the search committee, such as sharing the same hometown or alma mater.

Respondents to NEDRA's hiring survey shared some favorite interview questions including:

  • Describe a difficult situation with a fundraiser or client and how you handled that.
  • Tell us about a time that you had to sacrifice quality for quantity [or vice versa].
  • How would you handle getting an inappropriate or unreasonable research request?
  • What makes for a really fun day at work?
  • How would you handle an analysis project where key data are missing?
  • Tell us about a time you took a risk that didn't work out.
  • What is your proudest achievement?
  • What's the difference between an "attending" and an "admitting?" [healthcare setting]
  • If you were me [the hiring manager], how would you describe the essence of the position and the characteristics of a successful candidate?
  • What have we not asked you about yet that you want us to know?
  • What song would you consider your anthem and why?

Several hiring managers mentioned that they consider it a warning sign when the candidate doesn't have any questions of their own. "When I ask 'do you have any questions for us?' I'm not just being polite, I'm gauging how prepared and how interested the candidate is."

Lastly, no thank you note, no job offer. Not sending a thank you "indicates a lack of interest in the position." Some hiring managers prefer email, some prefer a handwritten note, but all agree that any type of note is better than none. "Savvy candidates will send one note by email for speed, and one by post for another "touch" and a reminder that they get the art of the thank you." "We think of it as another opportunity to assess writing skills." One director said, "I always make sure the candidate has the business cards of everyone on the interview team, so that the applicant has all the contact information needed to send thank yous."

Some final words of wisdom? "Be patient. Be persistent. Follow your instincts." Good advice for both hirers and job seekers!

To Bruce Berg, Brooke Burke, James Cheng, Amber Countis, Diane Garvey, Bill Gotfredson, Vicki Law, Dina Levi, Barbara Moore, and several others remaining anonymous, many thanks for their contributions to this article. 

Where do hiring managers post their prospect development positions?

Institution's own website
Local arts and culture newspaper
PRSPCT-L mailing list


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