Dial It In to Hire Right

To retain talent, particularly in top advancement roles, focus on quality in the recruitment process

By John H. Taylor

Dial It In to Hire Right

When I first entered the workforce as an officer in the U.S. Navy, I didn't have a choice in the hiring of those who would ultimately work for me. I had to accept who was placed within my chain of command. While my "employees" couldn't easily quit, I had to play with the cards I was dealt. In the 1980s, I moved into the corporate sector at the First National Bank of Atlanta. One of the first things my boss and mentor taught me was "Hire slow—fire fast."

I have carried the most important part of that—hire slow—with me for more than 35 years, including more than 22 years as a direct hiring manager in higher education advancement. This philosophy has been a critical component in my work to successfully recruit advancement vice presidents. Many of the staff I hired at North Carolina's Duke University and later at North Carolina State University were still working there many years after my departure or had retired. This has little to do with my day-to-day management skills. I simply practiced what I was taught: Hire slow.

During my early years in higher ed advancement, people in leadership positions commonly stayed in their role for seven to 10 years. That's changed. Today, as a consultant working with nonprofits, I am sadly no longer surprised to learn that an organization has suffered from revolving doors at the vice president/executive director and associate vice president/director levels. While my current work focuses on senior leadership recruitment, the tools and techniques I employ can be used when hiring at any level. Taking the time to find the right person for the organization will fuel the process of building a diverse workforce and foster consistency in staff supporting the new hire. The process begins at the top, because failure at the highest levels starts that revolving door at lower levels.

Take Your Time

When I ask presidents and boards why they have had so much turnover at the VP level—usually to the tune of three new VPs in five to seven years—I am almost always told, "It wasn't a good fit." Meanwhile, as they struggle to find a new leader, they are often blind to the fact that staff in subordinate positions are moving on. These VP bad fits would not be happening if we hired slow.

An example of hiring too fast comes from one private college that immediately replaced a vice president with an internal candidate without looking beyond its doors because the individual deserved it. Six months later, the college parted ways with this new VP. Recruiters had jumped the gun in hiring a replacement, not recognizing that the individual had burned internal bridges and did not actually have the right experience. Nearly three years after the original VP's departure, the college got it right—but only after annual fundraising totals had dropped by more than a third.

Much of the blame for aggressive hiring practices rests with overly eager leadership wanting to enter the fundraising arms race. They want a warm body behind that empty desk so that they can launch a campaign in two months. I have news for them: If they don't hire the right person with the right fit, short-term fundraising totals will dip. And if they try to force a campaign in two months rather than in two years, the new VP will quickly become frustrated, the board will quickly become frustrated, the VP will leave (or be asked to leave), and the campaign will fail.

An advancement VP's departure offers a chance to completely rethink the position's focus and qualifications. First step: Pause. This should not be a status quo replacement. The institution should consider where it wants to be in three to five years—and what skill set the VP must have to accomplish the goals needed to get there. A search for a new VP involves: re-evaluating the job description, obtaining approval from human resources, conducting a national salary comparison, choosing a search firm, putting out a call for applications, reviewing applications, and conducting rounds of interviews. The process can take 12 to 24 months. Once the right person is on board, he or she will need up to two years to build infrastructure, cultivate principal gift prospects, and plan a campaign.

During the search process, you will absolutely want to place an interim in the vacant slot. That selection, too, must be thoughtfully considered and internally vetted. The interim must be able to continue moving the program forward, unencumbered by bridges that might have been burned.

Prepare for Lasting Results

A search for a replacement begins with networking—and there's no better way to do that than through CASE connections and conferences. CASE trustees and district commissioners located in your region might be able to suggest strong candidates. A recruiting firm can also improve your odds of uncovering ideal applicants. Do your homework to engage the best firm, and don't let the finder's fee of 20 to 25 percent of the candidate's first-year salary scare you. The costs associated with hiring the wrong person are much greater. These firms can jump-start the process with already-vetted candidates (if they haven't vetted applicants, you've selected the wrong firm).

CASE, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and other professional associations often conduct salary surveys that can help narrow the position's appropriate compensation range. Be sure to consider additional benefits, such as vehicle use and housing allowance. You might also want to commission your own salary analysis. Then the real work begins: Truly hiring slow involves a thorough interview and engagement process that considers a diverse applicant pool to find the best match for the institution and its future. A quick read of a resume is not sufficient (I scan resumes only for relevant tidbits and find cover letters much more valuable).

Below is my method for recruiting the right advancement leader. A strategy that approximates these steps should yield positive and lasting results in recruiting senior-level employees. The approach can also be scaled back for hiring staff at any level.

If you take your time filling critical leadership roles, you will prepare the organization for what you wish to accomplish in the future rather than being comfortable with the status quo. Engaging an individual with diverse cultural attributes will reduce the internal learning curve and transition time. Staff will already be comfortable with the new hire because of the thorough vetting. The process will also allow the new VP to seamlessly take the baton from the carefully selected interim and avoid a dip in revenue generation.
Taking shortcuts, on the other hand, and trying to get someone in the door as fast as you can is likely to set you back in your overall fundraising program. You might also find yourself repeating the whole recruiting process six to nine months down the road.

How to 'Hire Slow'

Identify six to 10 candidates for phone interviews.
If an outside firm has already vetted candidates, fewer calls are doable. But if you do not have a potential pool of this size, you might not have advertised in the right places (or might have suggested too low a salary).

Schedule 30- to 45-minute phone interviews with each candidate.
Conduct all of them in a day or two (mornings are best). If you spread out the calls too far, you will forget too much. You might also have had a particularly good or bad day for some of the interviews, and you want the evaluations to be fair.

Fairness also means doing ALL of these initial interviews by phone, even with internal candidates. Remember, an advancement VP's first interaction with a prospect is often on the phone. A candidate who takes the time to find a quiet spot with a strong signal has an edge.

When hiring an advancement VP, I imagine how a prospect might feel if the VP were making a discovery call while driving down the road going in and out of cell coverage. Likewise, please do not use a cell phone or put the call on speaker when conducting the interview. Give each candidate the benefit of a clear conversation.

Ask each candidate the exact same questions.
This levels the playing field and should avoid questions easily answered by reading candidates' resumes or checking their LinkedIn profile (which I sure hope you did prior to issuing an interview invitation). You'll need to ask routine questions, including how they might handle a difficult solicitation, how they might address a subordinate's job performance, and how they might respond to a hypothetical ethical dilemma involving a gift.

Ask questions that make candidates think on their feet and that yield more than stock responses. Here are some of my favorite questions from the 1994 Benci-Ventures publication How to Answer the 64 Toughest Interview Questions:

  • Where do you see yourself five years from now?
  • Tell me honestly about the strong points and weak points of your current boss?
  • What good books have you read lately?
  • Looking back, what would you do differently in your life?
  • Who has inspired you in your life, and how?

Interview face-to-face your top three candidates (no more, no less).
This critical phase must involve representatives from the entire institution—but only individuals with whom this position will frequently interact. These include your boss, a candidate's prospective co-workers and subordinates, and other key institutional players with whom the candidate would work. It also includes anyone who has a bone to pick with you or your division! Allowing those individuals to participate and feel heard will help restore relationships and prevent past issues from distracting a new hire.

But avoid group interviews. Reserved individuals who have much to say might end up saying little. If time constraints or similarity of role require a group session, participants should be equal in stature and relationship to the open position.

Spend a full day with VP and even AVP candidates.
They need to get to know you, and you need to ensure they will be a good cultural fit for the institution, not just a good job fit. This could be as obvious as political leanings or as subtle as differences in leadership style.

Schedule the interviews with the top three candidates all within one week. And remember, as the hiring manager, you are NOT the main event. You absolutely should be the first and last person the candidates see for the day, but for 30 minutes or fewer each time. Feel free, though, to take them to lunch where they can relax and ask you questions! They need to eat. Lunch isn't an interview—or is it?

Provide interviewers with parameters for the interview.
While HR staff should note questions that CANNOT be asked (anything pertaining to religion, age, marital or family status, medical issues) and you can provide suggested questions, do not force interviewers to use a specific script. The interview should be free-flowing. Do, however, provide a rating sheet for interviewers to complete within 24 hours of the session (see the example below).

Use the rating sheets to calculate an average score for each candidate.
Depending on the number of interviewers, you might toss out the highest and lowest scores, although you might contact those two raters to ask about their evaluations. When you've finished the calculation, the individual with the highest average score is likely the one!

But if you, or one of the interviewers with whom the individual will interact the most, feel uncertain—or scored the candidate low in a critical category—you might meet the candidate at a neutral site for a final gut check. If the distance is great, a Skype or Zoom conversation could suffice.

Follow HR rules—they exist for good legal reasons.
Ensure a background check is performed, and contact previous employers. While employment and HR policies limit what former supervisors can say, asking if they would rehire the candidate if the same or better position were open can yield amazing results.

Instead of calling the candidate's other work-related references, check employer directories for someone else with whom the candidate likely worked.

Rating Candidates

Your HR department likely has a candidate ratings format. If not, interviewers can respond to variations on these categories, assessing candidates on a scale of 1 to 10 and providing additional comments as needed. 

Rating Candidates


CASE Career Central


About the Author

John H. Taylor is a partner with the fundraising consulting firm Alexander Haas.