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Invest in yourself. Earn your CFRE.



Invest in yourself. Earn your CFRE.

I knew I wanted credential letters after my name from an early age. Some of the smartest minds I knew, including my late father, were validated by a set of credentials that their professions require, ensuring they adhere to a strict quality of education, ethics, and accountability.


The moment I learned a CFRE credential was an option, I knew I wanted it.

But in that line lies two critically disparate notions, pitting the CFRE against so many other credentials. It was an option that I wanted. It was not a requirement that I needed. A CFRE is not required to practice professional fundraising.

In a field that is notoriously underpaid, and in many cases undervalued, why take the journey to become a Certified Fund Raising Executive? On the surface the exam appears expensive, time-intensive, and yet another thing to track.

But I encourage you to look deeper.

Why should you become a CFRE?

I’ve shared my initial reason for wanting to become a CFRE above. But my interest evolved as my career did. In the beginning I wasn’t sure that I wanted to remain in fundraising. I had tremendous self-doubt and at one point became quite sure that fundraising was not for me. In reflection, I found that my superficial interest became an anchor, a reason to remain in the field, to keep learning, and work harder & smarter. If I became a CFRE I felt that I would have a place and a tribe, and that I would have proven to myself that I do in fact know what I’m doing. As my CFRE journey went on I identified so much more.

  • You should become a CFRE to show that you hold yourself to a higher standard.

The CFRE credential includes a 200-question exam to prove competency in the theory and practice of fundraising. The test covers a range of fundraising topics including current & prospective donor research, securing the gift, relationship building, volunteer involvement, leadership & management, and ethics & accountability. More details about these sections can be found on the CFRE website here. The reality is that no single fundraiser is perfectly-versed in all of these topics. But the questions are based on best practice and theory, and as you study you will inevitably be pushed to improve your own work. As you attend more workshops, classes, and webinars to earn your 80-credit hours of education; and as you study and practice the exam, you will become a smarter fundraiser. Your work will become stronger; you will have a standard of excellence rooted in best practice and theory; and you will expect more of yourself and your team. And with recertification every three-years you will be keeping up on the best CFRE-approved education and staying ahead of the curve. Simply put you will become a better fundraiser.

  • You should become a CFRE to be afforded more responsibility and autonomy.
    Choosing to invest in your professional growth says a lot about you. It shows you are committed to striving for something more, that you believe in not only gathering but implementing the best fundraising ideas. You are not only providing further evidence of your expertise to yourself and team, but to your director or CEO as well.

    Furthermore there is evidence that employees who are encouraged to continue their educational journey, and flourish both personally and professionally, are not only happier. They are more productive, more successful, and more likely to stay with the organization. Naturally as your time with a single organization lengthens you are brought into more strategic work, encouraged to take the lead, and provide direction to colleagues and volunteer leaders in new ways. Most leaders will not only be encouraged by your self-determination but will cheer you on as you reach a major professional milestone! You are a great asset to your organization and like you, they can’t wait to say “our fundraiser is a CFRE!” These leaders are amazing, wonderful, and should be praised with all the superlatives that Merriam-Webster can muster.

    On the other hand, there is always the tale of the boss who is not supportive and even may go so far as to “disallow” you from getting your CFRE. That’s garbage and here’s why: foundationally speaking your professional growth is yours alone even if it brings tremendous value to your organization. An attempt to craft an arbitrary rule around your ability to grow speaks volumes about their insecurity. To all this I say: defy their rule, study and sit for the exam, make your professional growth a priority, and get the heck out of there. The mission might be great but your value is greater.

  • You should become a CFRE to advance in your career.
    If you’re reading this there is a good chance that you want more from your career. You’re interested in growing your work in some capacity, either doing more or working more deeply. To move up to a director or vice president role, a growing number of organizations are requiring or strongly encouraging a CFRE candidate.

    Fundraisers who obtain their CFRE are rewarded for their success, motivation, and tenacity. Earlier I mentioned that it’s not an inexpensive exam to prepare and sit for. However if you’re willing to make the up-front investment you will make that back in spades. According to AFP’s 2018 Compensation Report, a fundraising professional with a CFRE earns an average of $20,000 more annually than their non-certified peer. That’s quite a return on your investment.

    Furthermore fundraisers with a CFRE are understood to have greater credibility, opening the door for speaking and writing engagements, consulting gigs, and a host of other unique opportunities.

  • You should become a CFRE to advance the profession.
    I’m willing to bet that if you’re like me, one of your CliftonStrengths is Humanitarian. Or at least it’s probably in your top ten. You chose to become a fundraiser because you see the value in working together in particular to support the greater good of humanity. Especially for those of us in small fundraising shops, there is tremendous value in working together as our challenges aren’t unique.

    To this end, there is value in working together to advance the profession of fundraising. We work hard to understand the psychological science behind what motivates individuals; the sociological science behind why a community behaves in a particular way; the economic and financial knowledge to forecast and predict revenues, expenses, cash-flow, and a host of other critical metrics; and the marketing knowledge to best present our message in a way that will get the letter opened, phone call returned, or meeting confirmed. This profession is more than hosting a party, although those are fun! It’s about making sure the right people are in the room for the party, identifying who those right people are, understanding how best to approach them and engage them in your cause.

    Fundraising is a profession. And with your help it will continue to evolve as such to the greater public.

Are you qualified to take the CFRE exam?

The first thing you need to find out is if you’re even qualified to sit down and take the CFRE exam. Details about what exactly that means can be found here at the CFRE site. Before you even choose a test date you’ll need to plug in all of your qualifications which requires an account to be set up here. Generally speaking you’re looking at:

  • Professional Experience - minimum of five years in fundraising, with a minimum of 36 months actively fundraising
  • Professional Performance - $1,375,000 in funds raised, although various marketing & management projects will count
  • Education - 80 hours of continuing education within the last five years, although various degrees, community service, or authorship will count

After conducting two study groups with my peers I have found that the most difficult to achieve is the 80-hours of continuing education credit. With so much work on our plates it can be tough to make time to stop and learn. I recommend searching through the CFRE website for approved education providers to see what webinars are available. If you find that your local chapter of Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) does not provide CFRE-approved professional education sessions, ask them to start! Encourage them to consider becoming an approved provider or host group webinar sessions with material provided by AFP International. Lastly if you have not ever gone to AFP ICON I would recommend finding a way. This is a valuable conference connecting you to the best minds in fundraising, you learn a TON, and you will earn a large number of credits. Unable to afford to attend? Ask your local AFP Chapter about applying for a Chamberlain Scholarship.

A note about being audited: one in every ten applications will be pulled and audited to verify the above three sections. In my experience this isn’t a big deal. You have around 30 days to offer proof of your experience, performance, and education activity. The best case scenario is that when you leave a place of employment you’ll have records and reports confirming your fundraising activity, or when you complete an workshop you'll have printed and retained a copy of your completion certificate. The reality is that you’ll forget, misplace, or just not get something.

In my case I approached my audit by crafting letters for previous employers to confirm, then copy and paste on their letterhead which would verify dates of employment and funds raised; or letters to local AFP or Leave-a-Legacy chapters to verify continuing education participation. In the case of webinars that I did not receive a “completion certificate” I was able to provide a payment receipt. I ended up emailing the team at CFRE to clarify how best to do this and they provided me with wonderful guidance, and I strongly recommend that you do the same if you have any questions at all. They’re quick to respond, courteous, and super helpful!  

How do I prepare for the CFRE exam?

I am a big believer in making a plan and working that strictly especially when it comes to something like this (a nice to have, not a need to have). It can be easy to push it aside until it never gets done, but what gets scheduled gets accomplished. Work your plan. That being said what type of plan works for you will be different than what works for me. Some colleagues of mine elected self-guided study over a few months, others flipped through the study guide a few weeks before the exam, and others still traveled out-of-state for multi-day preparation workshops.

The best tools that I found to prepare for the exam were:

Tips for taking the CFRE exam

As I mentioned the exam is 200 multiple-choice questions but only 175 count towards your actual test score. The remainder are validation questions just to help the exam-developers make sure they’re on the right track. You’ll have the ability to flag questions that you want to come back to and take a second look at before you hit “complete.”

If you are like me and are an anxious test taker, it’s important to get some perspective here. The exam is held at a third-party testing center that maintains strict security. In my experience I had a palm scan, a retina scan, was asked to remove a scarf (I was cold! It was February in Buffalo!), and remove my glasses for inspection. But I also found that this exam center was packed with other professionals sitting for similar exams. The difference between all of them and me was that if I didn’t pass...I was out a few hundred bucks and a bruised ego, but I was going back to my exact same job the next day. There was no major risk. But for a nurse or social worker sitting for his or her boards, if they didn’t pass their exam they were out of a job.

Breathe. Relax your shoulders. You’ve got this.

Once you submit your exam it will be immediately scored. You’ll walk back up to the receptionist and she’ll give you a piece of paper with your score and what happens next.

It won’t say to celebrate, but that’s my final tip. You’ve worked hard and achieved something great.

Welcome to the club!

Kate Heidinger, CFRE serves as the Director of Development for Compeer, a mentoring organization using the healing power of friendship to provide a non-clinical layer of support to individuals living with a mental health diagnosis. She serves on the board of directors for Association of Fundraising Professionals, Western New York Chapter, as well as for PreventionFocus.

Kate earned her CFRE in 2018, and is now entering her third year leading the AFP WNY Chapter CFRE Study Group. The next study group starts March 28, 2019, and runs through May, with a second cohort beginning again in August 2019. Sign up now to join her and start your journey to earning your CFRE credential.