Recently, I took and passed the Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) exam. I didn’t choose to get this credential because it’s required (it isn’t) or for the supposed bump in pay (I’m not planning on leaving my current job). I chose to do it because I qualified to do so, I had the income to pay for it, and I hope that having those four letters after my name will encourage my employers and clients to take my advice more seriously. It’s a good credential and I’m glad to have it, but let’s be serious about some of its shortcomings.
The CFRE credential is expensive. The cost for me to buy study materials I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased and pay the exam fee was almost $1,000. In the future, I’ll need to maintain this certification through additional continuing education and recertification fees. Not all organizations have the money to help their fundraisers gain this credential and not all fundraisers have the resources to pay for it themselves.
The exam is about theory, not practice. In order to take the exam, any fundraiser must have five years of experience, have raised about $1.4 million (or done the equivalent amount of fundraising-related projects), have an appropriate amount of education and continuing education, and so on. In principle, this means that all CFRE candidates have solid practical experience. The test, however, is focused – as any computer-based multiple choice exam must be – on theory. For the most part, having the credential means that a person knows how to fundraise, not necessarily that they are good at implementing that knowledge.
The exam seems to focus on one school of fundraising knowledge. For the most part, the exam and the study materials that are recommended for it are based on Hank Rosso’s pioneering fundraising theory. While Rosso’s work is impressive and foundational, there are other ideas about the best ways to fundraise out there. Moreover, how we must fundraise in the real world doesn’t always align with how we would do so in an ideal world. Altogether, this means that someone who is an excellent fundraiser, but works under a different theoretical framework, may not perform as well on the exam as someone who is a less effective fundraiser but knows Rosso inside and out.
Not everyone with a CFRE designation is a good fundraiser (and vice versa). Because eh exam requires that a fundraiser meet certain requirements, every CFRE should be a competent fundraiser. But not every CFRE is an excellent fundraiser. And that’s okay. What’s more important is that some excellent fundraisers do not have the designation. Perhaps they haven’t been able to afford it. Maybe they work under a different theory of fundraising. Maybe they’re a specialist who’s excellent at planned giving or annual giving, but who doesn’t have the generalist knowledge required for the exam. We should be careful not to confuse the credential with the ability.
So the natural question is whether the CFRE designation is valuable. I believe that it is as long as everyone keeps a few points in mind.
First, if you’re a fundraiser, don’t get the designation because you feel like you’re supposed to have it. Only pursue the CFRE if you find that your experience, education, and so on align with it anyway. That includes having the theory that you work under – or, if you’re like me, one of the theories that you’ve studied – align with Rosso’s.
Second, if you’re a fundraiser, don’t take the exam unless you have the disposable income or the savings to do so. Certainly don’t take it in the hopes that you’ll get a salary bump because of the credential. There’s no problem with starting your application and then waiting until you have the money to take the exam.
Third, if you’re an organization, treat the CFRE designation as one factor among many when you fire a fundraiser. Whether someone has a CFRE is no more or less important than their experience, their demonstrated ability, and their passion for your organization. The CFRE is one credential, not the perfect measure.
So if you’re thinking about getting the CFRE designation and you have the means to do so, by all means go for it. But don’t treat it as anything more than it is.