TOOLS AND TRAINING
By David Whelan
As an associate director of development at the University of Texas M.D.
Anderson Cancer Center, Jennifer Covington helps attract big gifts to the Houston hospital. Her six-year career has also included fund-raising jobs at two other Texas medical institutions. She looks forward to a long career raising money for charities and does not necessarily expect to be at M.D. Anderson forever.
In June, she passed her certified fund-raising executive exam. She can now attach the CFRE credential to her business card, official documents, and, perhaps most important, her résumé. "The CFRE boils down to marketability," she says.
The CFRE credential, according to its boosters in the nonprofit field, helps those who attain it get better jobs, higher salaries, and more respect from bosses and donors. Some think that the CFRE, which has been available for two decades, provides an answer to the public's questions about fund-raising practices and ethics. Although most employers don't require that candidates for development jobs be certified, many say they prefer or recommend it. And some employers are willing to pay extra for fund raisers who have the credential: According to CFRE International, in Alexandria, Va., the organization that awards certification, fund raisers with the credential make an average of $73,000 per year, 17 percent more than their uncertified counterparts -- though the comparison is not weighted for other factors like experience.
Despite those benefits, most fund raisers do not bother to get certified: Only 4,000 of the 25,000 members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals have the credential. Over the last five years, an average of 495 people have taken the exam annually, with about 20 percent of them failing it, according to Morgean Hirt, head of CFRE International. Even fewer -- only 66 -- have acquired the advanced certified fund-raising executive credential, a higher level of certification that requires further testing, more work experience, and more continuing education, Ms. Hirt says.
Fund raisers do not qualify to take the CFRE test until they have five years of experience, and attaining certification requires considerable determination: attending continuing-education classes, passing an exam, and filling out an application that describes the details of one's career and charitable interests. Also, fund raisers must recertify themselves every three years by showing that they have continued to raise money and attend classes. According to Ms. Hirt, 80 percent of those who hold the credential choose to do so.
But many nonprofit professionals who lack a CFRE also remain unconvinced that the credential is worth the effort. They say that their job experience and personal skills are more important factors in their professional development.
CFRE International would like to change that. Two years ago, it split off from the Association of Fundraising Professionals, in Alexandria, Va., the largest professional organization of its kind. With its newfound independence, CFRE International seeks to strengthen the credential by giving it more credibility and visibility. The group is embarking on a campaign to educate employers about the credential, trying to persuade large national organizations like United Way of America and the American Red Cross and their affiliates to encourage their fund-raisers to get certified, says Ms. Hirt. She says that she hopes this effort would trickle down to smaller charities. By making more people aware of the credential, Ms. Hirt says, the group looks not only to increase the number of individuals who attain it, but also to increase the CFRE's value for those who do. "The credential establishes credibility, it shows that fund raisers have a core body of knowledge, and it acts to self-regulate the profession, which fends off any threat of government regulation," says Ms. Hirt.
The certification body already works with 13 fund-raising organizations that endorse the CFRE. The affiliated groups offer tests to their members at their conferences at reduced prices, down $150 from the nonmember price of $500. Both Ms. Hirt and Richard B. Chobot, senior vice president for professional advancement at the Association of Fundraising Professionals, estimate that tens of thousands of fund raisers are eligible to apply for the CFRE but do not go through with it.
"Although the credential is increasing in numbers, it's not seen as a desired perk," says Mr. Chobot. "People do not view it as required, so it is not where it should be. The evidence is that references to the CFRE are completely missing in job ads that appear in The Chronicle and elsewhere. There's no critical mass."
A 'Seal of Approval'
Fund raisers like Ms. Covington may be evidence that the trend is changing. Because very few of the 75 people employed in her hospital's fund-raising office are certified, she believes that the credential could be her ticket to climb the ranks. Although she received no immediate recognition for her achievement from her employer, she says, she feels confident that certification will aid her in the future.
Ms. Covington is a stalwart advocate for the credential, and believes it tests the skills that fund raisers need. "Laziness is the only good excuse for not getting a CFRE," she says. "It's the right thing to do to support the profession. Senior people might think it's not worth it because they have all this experience. But they should still do it to support the profession and set the example for younger people."
Some employers agree that the credential matters. In June, Inez Wolins started as the new executive director of the C.M. Russell Museum, in Great Falls, Mont., which houses art that depicts the American West. Ms. Wolins is currently recruiting an associate director for institutional advancement, and wants to hire one who holds a CFRE. She reasons that since her museum has only recently begun to try to create an endowment, she wants to "do things right." Also, she feels that someone who is certified would complement her own experience, which has been on the curatorial side of museum management, rather than in finances and administration.
She has had positive experiences in the past with people who were certified, she says. When she ran the Wichita Art Museum, in Kansas, she says, the institution's fund raiser held a CFRE and the employee's expertise impressed her and served the museum well.
"There is a big difference ethically and professionally between individuals who have that kind of certification and those who haven't," she says.
Viki Barie, communications and development director at the YMCA of Orange County, in Tustin, Calif., is also seeking a fund raiser and hopes to hire someone with a CFRE. She has been certified since 1993, and views the credential as a signal that a candidate is making a long-term commitment to the field. She calls the credential "a Good Housekeeping seal of approval."
"The CFRE is shorthand that a person is reputable," she says. She also thinks that the ethics agreement that each CFRE holder signs is just as important as the skills tested by the exam. She worries that news-media reports of charity scandals, such as recent ones involving the Red Cross and the United Way that serves metropolitan Washington, give the public negative ideas about how fund raisers get paid and steward gifts.
The certification, Ms. Barie says, shows that a person has a breadth of knowledge. She would hire someone who had only special-events experience for a major-gifts job if he or she had a CFRE, she says, because she knows that the candidate would have had to master other disciplines within fund raising to pass the test.
The only problem for nonprofit employers, she says, is that people who hold the credential are in such short supply compared with the demand that they can command higher salaries. "It's hard to find top-quality candidates," she says, adding that the CFRE International estimate of $73,000 in average annual salary is a bit low for her region.
'It's Not a Good Predictor'
No organized opposition to the CFRE exists within the fund-raising profession. However, some fund raisers remain unconvinced of the credential's worth.
Steve Katz, vice president for development at Earthjustice, in Oakland, Calif., is looking to hire a director of foundation relations to raise grant money for the environmental advocacy group. Does he feel strongly about the CFRE? "No, I try to only feel strongly about things that are important, like the war on Iraq," he says.
Nonetheless, Mr. Katz, who has worked as a fund raiser for eight years, says that the CFRE may give some development officers an edge, such as those in high-visibility positions, or those who work for what he calls a "mainstream" charity, like a university, hospital, or museum. (According to CFRE International, those types of charities are more likely to employ certified fund raisers.)
But those circumstances don't apply to him in his work at Earthjustice. "If someone applying for the job here had a CFRE, I wouldn't pay attention. It wouldn't be a decisive factor," he says. "Any good development director will look for a range of personal and skill-based qualifications. The CFRE is kind of like a standardized test at a university: It's not a good predictor."
Other experienced fund raisers have summoned more enthusiasm for the CFRE. Some do so because they worry about the profession's integrity.
Lisa Hicks, director of gifts and estate planning at the Florida Hospital Waterman Foundation, in Eustis, Fla., has been raising money for 13 years but just got her CFRE this year, at the suggestion of her boss. She took her boss's advice mostly out of professional responsibility, she says: "We ask people to give us their hard-earned money. We have to be good stewards, and we should be tested." She says she is gratified that she has won certification, but doesn't intend to use the new résumé line to leave her current job. Recently, however, she won election to the national board of the National Committee on Planned Giving, an opportunity she partially attributes to her newly minted CFRE.
Other experienced fund raisers get the credential because they like to have their knowledge affirmed. Gail Witzlsteiner, director of development at Sonora Community Hospital, in Sonora, Calif., a small town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, received her CFRE this summer. She gained the credential after a busy period during which she juggled studying for the certification test with completing a $2.2-million capital campaign to pay for her hospital's new cardiac and cancer center.
Because she lives in a sparsely populated part of the country, and has no plans to move or switch jobs, the credential was mostly just for her own satisfaction, she says, Her hope, though, is that it could lead to a raise from her current employer, which has already reimbursed her for the test fee.
Professional job recruiters who specialize in placing fund raisers give the CFRE a mixed review. They recognize that the credential has some importance, but do not only look for certified fund raisers to fill positions.
Kristine Morris, a partner in Morris & Berger, in Pasadena, Calif., recruits senior-level nonprofit executives. She thinks of the CFRE as a stamp that signifies a fund raiser's work experience. "It's not the be-all and end-all," she said. Ironically, because so many people have it, it can often be a nonissue. "It's sort of like how everyone has a bachelor's degree," she says.
Sally-Ann Hard, a recruiter in New York, says that she spends 80 percent of her time filling fund-raising spots. For the first time earlier this year, she says, she saw a job listing that required a CFRE, and it took her aback. As a recruiter, she is never asked by clients to seek only those job candidates who are certified, she says -- her clients never even mention the credential. And when she talks to candidates, she doesn't ask them about the CFRE either. Finding the right candidate, she says, involves more important factors, like complementing a charity's mission.
She says that many outstanding fund raisers lack certification, and cautions employers not to rely on it too heavily as a mark of abilities.
"I sometimes think that the strength of fund raisers is that they come from many different walks of life," Ms. Hard says. "It's not a hard science. It's about relationship building -- it's not like a medical degree where there are strict standards." She doesn't dismiss the CFRE completely, however. "I'm not saying anything against it," she says, "But it won't necessarily make you a better fund raiser."
An Obstacle to Acceptance
One blow to the CFRE International's quest to make its credential standard in the fund-raising profession is the unwillingness of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, in Washington, which represents fund raisers and public-relations officials at schools, colleges, and universities, to endorse the credential. While already 15 percent of those who hold certification work at educational institutions, advocates of CFRE say backing from the council would greatly expand the number of people who get certified.
In a letter written in August 2001, Vance T. Peterson, the council's president, enumerated the reasons why his group would not affiliate with CFRE International. He wrote that "advancement" means more than just fund raising. It also includes alumni relations, marketing, communications, and "advancement services" such as database research.
Mr. Peterson also wrote that a credential was not necessary for most higher-education fund raisers. "Within the academic communities served by CASE professionals, there are strong norms of credentialing based on objective research and bodies of professional literature that guide best practices," he wrote. "The feeling of most at CASE is that we have barely begun the work needed to develop a strong core of knowledge that might be used in a curriculum designed to train professionals and certify their competence. And the literature based on research in fund raising, while growing, is still very thin....At the moment, however, we feel it is premature to think in terms of mounting a credentialing program that would have the intellectual credibility needed to pass muster on most of our member campuses."
For many fund raisers, however, the greater need has been to be viewed as professionally as possible by the general public. Ms. Covington says that her CFRE, which appears on her business card, has sparked many conversations with prospective donors. When she explains what the credential means, she hopes it helps the profession as a whole.
Although Ms. Covington says she has not personally encountered any such problems in her interactions with donors, she has talked with some nondonors who express skepticism to her about the fund-raising field. "When you've worked with someone to draft an estate gift, and now they are gone and the family is questioning their decisions," she says, "a CFRE helps the fund raiser garner respect and remain credible."
Is the CFRE essential to success in the fund-raising field these days? Tell us what you think in the Fund Raisers online forum.
WHERE CERTIFIED FUND-RAISING EXECUTIVES WORK
People who currently hold the credential are employed in the following fields:
These 13 organizations offer the Certified Fund Raising Executive test to their members:
- Association for Healthcare Philanthropy
- Association of Christian Development Professionals
- Association of Fundraising Consultants (United Kingdom)
- Association of Fundraising Professionals
- Association of Lutheran Development Executives
- Canadian Association of Gift Planners, or Association canadienne des professionnels en dons planifiés
- Council for Resource Development
- Fundraising Institute-Australia
- Fundraising Institute of New Zealand
- International Catholic Stewardship Council
- National Catholic Development Conference
- North American YMCA Development Organization
- Philanthropic Service for Institutions