To CFRE or not to CFRE – that is the question

The CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) is a professional certification for fundraisers, which is quite well known in North America. To qualify to write the CFRE exam – professional fundraisers must have a minimum of five years’ experience (among other requirements).

Over the last six months, an internal debate has been raging: should I get a CFRE? Do I need a CFRE? Do I want a CFRE?

I’ve asked and interviewed hundreds of fundraisers from around the world and heard a range of responses on the topic, including:

  • It wasn’t life changing”
  • “There are other, better, professional development programs out there”
  • “I wouldn’t have gotten my current Director role without it. It shows full fundraising competency for fundraisers.”
  • “Have you met some of the CFREs out there? It means nothing”
  • “The CFRE indicates a dedication to the profession and the advancement of skills, standards and practices.”
  • “I felt that at as a young professional early in my career it was definitely worth it…an achievement I can carry forward.”
  • “Ha! Don’t waste your time.”
  • “I got my CFRE and was immediately given a raise”
  • “It only matters to a small group of people”

These are broad and diverse answers ranging from positive, to apathetic, to negative. Everyone seems to have a unique view on the designation – let’s explore the arguments…

The Good

  1. Increased credibility: I’m 25. I chose fundraising as my profession when I was 17. Unlike many fundraisers, I didn’t have a career as a banker or real estate agent or journalist before finding fund development as my profession. That means that I have the same level of experience as many of my peers – but with far fewer grey hairs. While I have never faced outright discrimination, there have been times when my age has been a disadvantage. The promise of “increased credibility” and being taken seriously as a fundraising professional is the most compelling and appealing reason why I would pursue a CFRE.
  2. Studying and learning: One of the most valuable parts of having a CFRE is studying for the test. I like the idea of forcing myself to spend time on learning and professional development. It can be an easy thing to put off – especially in the hectic world of fundraising. One of the benefits of having a CFRE is going through the process of getting a CFRE: reading amazing books by smart fundraisers and discussing them with my peers who are also studying.
  3. Commitment to the profession: This is a theme that came up time and time again in my discussion with fundraisers. Having a professional designation for fundraising legitimizes our profession. Pursuing and maintaining a CFRE demonstrates your commitment to fundraising, the body of knowledge around fund development and to industry best practices.
  4. Continued professional development: Learning is lifelong. A CFRE is a way to make sure you continue developing and growing as a fund development professional. Maintaining a CFRE certification requires training, study and keeping up with changes and trends.
  5. Expanded career opportunities: A number of fundraisers I talked to reported making more money, or getting new jobs because of their CFRE.
  6. Confidence and pride: One fundraiser told me “I feel a great deal of pride in having those four little letters after my name.” In a profession that is constantly misunderstood and undervalued, having the confidence to stand up for yourself and for fundraising best practice is a huge advantage.

The Bad

  1. Not all CFREs are good fundraisers. Not all good fundraisers are CFREs. This is a theme I heard over and over again. There are many, many excellent fundraisers who are raising tremendous amounts of money and who don’t have a CFRE. A number of people I spoke with expressed their disappointment with CFREs they had hired and worked with. It certainly isn’t regarded as a seal of quality. While a CFRE won’t hurt your reputation as a fundraiser, there are many more factors considered when hiring. It’s no magic bullet.
  2. It doesn’t mean anything to donors. A CFRE doesn’t make more donations magically fly in through your window. If you are expecting it to be like a fairy godmother you’ll be disappointed.
  3. The test is flawed. Someone remarked to me that the better you are at fundraising, the harder the test. It is multiple choice – which rewards memorization. In real life, fundraising is so much more than choosing one of four choices. It requires critical thinking, intuition and emotional intelligence.
  4. There are other (maybe better) options out there: There are now a multitude of fundraising education programs on the market. The CFRE is not your only option for professional development and credentials.

The Ugly

These aren’t arguments against getting a CFRE but rather things about the designation that are a bit troubling and I think need to be discussed.

My main problem with the designation is that the CFRE isn’t an inclusive and accessible designation for a number of reasons. It largely legitimizes people who I would classify as belonging to advantaged groups, reinforcing dominant culture power dynamics that exist in our sector. Some of these issues include:

  • Language: The CFRE is only offered in English. There is some amazing fundraising happening around the world, and an English-only designation is extremely limited.
  • Parents: many parents I spoke to express their frustration with the 5 year credit system. If you’ve taken a year off for parental leave, it can be almost impossible to keep up with the professional development and volunteering needed for the application.
  • Country: Canadian fundraisers expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of Canadian content on the exam. Overwhelmingly, I heard that it is a more valuable designation in America than anywhere else.
  • Size: many small shop fundraisers face barriers pursuing a CFRE when the professional development budget at their organizations simply isn’t enough to cover the AFP sessions needed for the application.

So what to do?

Quite honestly, I go back-and-forth every day between wanting to get a CFRE and not. At this moment, I am building my credits to apply. But every time I ask a new fundraiser, I get a new piece of information that changes my mind.

So, what do you think? Do you have a CFRE? Why or why not? Would you recommend it? Are there other professional development programs or credentials you recommend in its place?

Let’s keep the debate going…

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