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Behind the Scenes of a Fundraiser Search: the Job Seeker’s Perspective

Written by: Eden Stiffman
Published on: Feb 5, 2020

As Penn State’s development department began to hire more fundraisers in advance of the university’s next big capital campaign, it decided to make a bigger bet on planned gifts—and that involved hiring another director of gift planning, to be its fourth official with that title in the central Office of Gift Planning.

Keith Cook took on that role in February 2015, five months after applying for the job. He says the university’s attention to both his personal and professional needs made the hiring process a positive experience. A full schedule of interviews, transparency about the hiring timeline, and a clear sense of the role he would play gave him confidence that the job was a good fit.

In a competitive market for hiring talented fundraisers, nonprofits can learn from Mr. Cook’s experience.

Here’s what happened during the hiring process.


Mr. Cook applied for the job from North Carolina in September 2014 after seeing a posting online.

On Penn State’s end, the hiring process began with a meeting between a hiring manager; Michael Degenhart, the assistant vice president for gift planning; and Drew Kovacs, the development office’s associate director of talent acquisition. Together, they reviewed submitted resumes and other candidates they identified through LinkedIn.

The office of development had created new recruiting and human-resources positions, including Mr. Kovacs’s job, as part of gearing up for the capital campaign. The fundraising department used an outside firm before it hired a person focused on recruitment, Mr. Kovacs says, and it still works with search firms to fill key leadership roles.

Telephone Screening

The office of development typically begins the interview process with a series of telephone interviews to narrow the field to two to four candidates, who are invited to campus for in-person interviews.

The development office scheduled initial calls to screen candidates. Mr. Kovacs contacted Mr. Cook via email and interviewed him on the phone. As part of that first call, Mr. Kovacs shared a timeline for the interview process, and he continued to provide status updates and debrief about steps along the way.

Mr. Kovacs then shared his notes on the call—along with notes from other candidate calls—with Mr. Degenhart. After Mr. Degenhart had additional phone interviews with Mr. Cook and one other candidate, they were both invited to campus.

In-Person Interviews

Mr. Cook spent two days at Penn State in mid-October. He had a full schedule of interviews with members of the development team. Some of the meetings were formal and professional, while others were more casual, such as conversations over meals.

On his first night in town, he had dinner with his future supervisor, who provided more information on the office’s organizational structure.

“There wasn’t any downtime, which was great,” Mr. Cook says. “There was an opportunity to meet all the people I would be directly working with, reporting to, and who would be reporting to me, as well as other leaders across campus that my department would have interactions with.”

That process gave him a sense of what his day-to-day encounters would be. “We want to make sure the candidates have a good understanding of the ways in which their role interacts with internal and external stakeholders,” says Mr. Kovacs.

On Penn State’s end, this approach allows for multiple stakeholders to get a sense of the candidate’s fit. After the interviews, the selection committee shares feedback with Mr. Kovacs and the hiring manager. Depending on the position, the assistant vice president for development or other top departmental leadership may be involved in the feedback meetings before an offer is extended to a candidate.

The Finalist Visit

In mid-December, the development department brought both Mr. Cook and his wife back from North Carolina for a weekend to explore the area and look at neighborhoods in State College, where Penn State is located. The couple met with the department’s part-time “candidate care” staff member, who assists out-of-state finalists for senior positions. For example, she introduced Mr. Cook’s wife, a schoolteacher, to officials in the local school district.

“It was a very personal experience,” Mr. Cook says. “There was a lot of interest in wanting to make sure not only that I realized what a great place it was, but also that I was comfortable with being there.”

The attention to detail and personalization stands out from past experiences, when Mr. Cook and his wife had to navigate a new city on their own, he says.

“If you’re relocating somewhere out of state, having somebody help you through that initial process gives a greater level of comfort,” says Mr. Cook, who previously worked as the associate director of gift planning at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and in a similar role at Rutgers University.

Mr. Cook was given a verbal offer during that visit to campus with his wife.

Around the same time he was going through the hiring process at Penn State, Mr. Cook was involved in several other searches. In some cases he determined that the position did not fit what he was looking for, and in others the organization went with other candidates. In choosing this particular position, he considered a handful of factors, including the opportunity for growth, the organization’s vision and mission, location, and accessibility of employment for his wife.

Mr. Cook had agreed to respond to the offer early in the week following this visit. But by the end of the weekend, he had already made up his mind. He sent a text to the hiring manager to accept the offer before returning home. The verbal offer was contingent on a background check. Following the background check, Mr. Cook was given a written offer.

Mr. Cook and Penn State jointly agreed on a start date, and he gave five weeks notice to his current employer.