I walked out of the Community College of Philadelphia in mental fog. The summer sun was blinding, and I had to stop and blink a few times to adjust my vision. For the previous 3 ½ hours, I was in a small, quiet, interior room pondering, evaluating, and assessing fundraising scenarios through a series of 200 multiple-choice questions. I carried a piece of paper in my hand with the results of the CFRE exam. I still had yet to fully process the information, but on that paper were the words, “you have PASSED.”
My CFRE journey officially began in 2014 when I mustered up the courage to begin the application. I gathered my notes and historical files going back five years and, to my surprise, I had enough points to submit my information for consideration. Scheduling the exam, however, was more intimidating. As I looked though the study materials to prepare, I knew I had some work to do.
And then of course, life happens. Over the next seven years, I had two job transitions, moved to a new city, and wrote a book. Cancer took my Mom, I got divorced, and the family dog died. Needless to say, the CFRE was not a high priority. But earlier this year, I was appointed to the Association of Fundraising Professionals – Greater Philadelphia Chapter (AFP-GPC) and the topic of the CFRE came up again. I decided to commit to four months of study and scheduled the test.
I have found that everyone’s pursuit of the CFRE is different and the advice I’ve received is as varied as the folks giving it. There is not one strategy that works for everyone. But, perhaps some of my approaches will be helpful to anyone considering the certification.
What is the CFRE?
CFRE stands for Certified Fundraising Executive. It is a certification process administered by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the world’s only accreditation for philanthropic professionals. It is endorsed by over 30 organizations including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) in the US, Brazil, China, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Nepal, along with the Better Business Bureau. It demonstrates a commitment to accountability, ethics, and fundraising achievement. Currently, only 7,200 professionals hold the global CFRE designation.
How do I start?
First, you must complete an application. Information for creating an account can be found on the cfre.org website. There is no cost to start an application. When you enter your information, you receive points for various fundraising activities and service:
- Education such as conference attendance, presentations, and publications along with volunteer service: 80 points required
- Professional practice (your fundraising job) or consulting: 36 points required
- Professional performance such funds raised or communications activities, or fiscal programs: 55 points required
When you submit your application (with the fees) and it’s been accepted, you can schedule your exam. More detail can be found in the CFRE Candidate Handbook.
What content is covered?
The CFRE covers six areas of knowledge called “domains.” Some domains have more weight than others and will have more questions on the exam.
- Domain 1: Current and Prospective Donor Research – 28 items, 14% of the exam
- Domain 2: Securing the Gift – 46 items, 23% of the exam
- Domain 3: Relationship Building – 52 items, 26% of the exam
- Domain 4: Volunteer Involvement – 16 items, 8% of the exam
- Domain 5: Leadership and Management – 38 items, 19% of the exam
- Domain 6: Ethics, Accountability, and Professionalism – 20 items, 10% of the exam
You can find all the tasks and knowledge areas in the Candidate Handbook. You might also find the Glossary of Terms helpful.
What should I study?
Look through the study aids listed on the CFRE website. Keep in mind that not only do learning styles differ, but also the levels of background with the content.
My fundraising experience is grounded in the annual fund so I had to focus on the major gift, planned giving, and capital campaigns areas. My best scores were in Domain 5 (leadership/management) and Domain 1 (donor research). My worst? Domain 2, of course, which covers the major and planned giving content. Carefully consider each area and focus on those where you need more background.
In my journey, I utilized these resources:
- Materials: The CFRE Exam Compass 2020 guide, the AFP CFRE Refresher Course Participant Manual, and Achieving Excellence in Fundraising Fourth Edition. I highly recommend AEF. It’s one that you’ll want to keep at your desk for future reference.
- Study Groups: There are usually several free study groups listed on the CFRE website. I joined Jack Alotto’s six week group that met every Saturday and it was so helpful. I also joined the Unofficial CFRE Study group on Facebook that meets once a week and it was also beneficial.
- Practice Exam: This 205-question exam really helped me understand how the questions would be presented and also gave me more confidence when taking the exam. The 30-day subscription is sufficient. You’ll only need to go through the questions a few times to get the hang of it. But, word of warning: do not memorize these questions. Use them as templates. There are questions between the two exams that are similar and it would have been very easy to select the wrong answer. In fact, I heard from one woman who only used the practice exam for her study, memorized all the questions, and failed.
- CFRE Refresher Course: I took a 2-day refresher course with the AFP-GPC. Check with your local chapter to see if one is available in your area or look at others offered nationally. If you can’t find one, don’t stress. The course was helpful but not a necessity.
- Flashcards: These were the most helpful to me. I used Quizlet to create cards as I was reading and studying materials. I’d run through a set at the grocery store or over lunch. Another tip: do not use other people’s cards. I found misleading information. Connecting your own learnings to your own study is most helpful.
Overall, keep in mind that the purpose of this exam is a comprehensive understanding of the domain principles. While you might be given a few questions asking for definitions, the majority are based on scenarios. Throughout your study, look for clues like “the best approach” or “the first thing to do.” Be familiar with fundraising processes and relate those to real-world scenarios. Also remember that the tactics used by your own organization may not align with what you learn in the CFRE materials. Keep an open mind and follow the CFRE approaches.
How is it scored?
There are 200 questions that are worth a total of 800 points. You need 500 to pass. The results are scaled and you’ll receive a breakdown of your performance in each domain.
Additionally, the exam is continuously reviewed and revised. So, recommendations you get from others on specific topic areas may not appear on your exam. For example, I was told to know the minimum ages for planned gifts and their tax benefits. None of this appeared on my exam.
Is it worth it?
Development professionals have been debating the benefits of the CFRE for years. I would say that if you are an established Development Director with an organization of which you have no immediate plans of leaving, then probably not. However, if you are looking to expand your current fundraising role, take on more development initiatives, or move up at your nonprofit, then you’ll likely find it helpful.
For me, outside of my established day job, I work to assist other organizations and nonprofit professionals with best practices in digital fundraising and online engagement as well as speaking at conferences, publishing helpful articles, promoting my book, building networks of professionals, and reflecting the values of ethical philanthropy and accountability through my service with the AFP-GPC.
You will find that the exam itself and all of the materials can carry a hefty price tag. But, like my 2010 website certification, the materials and computer applications were outrageously expensive. For one class, I had to purchase a $1,500 version of Adobe CS4. Altogether for the six classes, I likely spent over $7,000.
Think of your CFRE as an educational investment. Because, that is exactly what it is.