By Adrian Sargeant, the Robert F Hartsook Professor of Fundraising at Indiana UniversityI read today that in June 2011, CFRE (Certified Fund Raising Executive) candidates in North America will begin taking a revised and updated exam to attain their CFRE status. Click here for the full story.At present in North America (and I hope it will change soon) the CFRE is pretty much the only game in town. If fundraisers want an ‘accreditation’’ or ‘designation’ that demonstrates they are serious about a career in fundraising and their own professional development, CFRE is where they will inevitably head.To arrive at the new examination the CFRE team has apparently spent the past two years surveying fundraisers in several countries about their ‘knowledge’ and the nature of their roles. In total around 3000 fundraising professionals have completed a ‘job analysis’ survey, the results of which have now been interpreted and fed into the new exam.Doh!No-one seems to have realized that professional development should be aspirational, not a reflection of the norms of what could be (let’s face it) pretty mediocre practice. Yes – it is certainly interesting to learn how fundraisers currently spend their time – but what should interest us rather more in the context of professional development is how fundraisers SHOULD be spending their time.Equally – where should we be placing the bulk of our emphasis in knowledge – on what 3000 individuals know now – or what they SHOULD know? At the risk of having a Donald Rumsfeld moment – how can we possibly expect fundraisers to articulate a desire for something they don’t yet know they don’t know?There are a number of other critical weaknesses with the approach currently adopted. Firstly, the accreditation fails to draw an adequate distinction between knowledge and skills and appears to confuse the two. The CFRE website refers to six core knowledge areas, yet lists skills, or things an individual should be able to do. They thus begin with verbs such as ‘develop’, ‘implement,’ ‘rate,’ ‘design’, etc. This is rather different from defining the knowledge that individuals should have in order to be able to perform these tasks and more than that, perform them well. To illustrate, one skill required of CFRE’s is that they should be able to design donor-centered solicitation materials. This is a perfectly reasonable skill to expect a fundraiser to be able to demonstrate, but what exactly would we expect people to know to do this well? A little knowledge of donor behaviour perhaps, but if so, exactly what knowledge of donor behaviour? Is this good old Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, or might we as a profession do rather better than that, embracing modern perspectives on giving and perhaps at least one or two formal models of donor behaviour? Ask yourself which fundraiser will design better materials – one using an understanding of philanthropic psychology or one using Maslow as their base. Knowledge and skills are not synonymous and we must define both.The second issue with the current certification stems from the first. The failure to adequately distinguish skills from knowledge has led to confusion in the assessment regime. As many readers may know the CFRE is assessed by a battery of multiple choice questions, with students being awarded the certification when they achieve a certain level of correct answers. The problem with this approach is that multiple choice questions are designed to assess knowledge, not skills, and knowledge that has a clear and definitive answer. So we have a curious position where fundraising skills are defined, yet we employ a testing regime appropriate to fundraising knowledge. In education many claims are made for the utility of multiple choice tests, but academics have long agreed that whatever their merits, they may NOT be used to assess practical skills, in our world such as being able to develop a case for support, write a fundraising solicitation or analyze a prospect list. And think about it, which is more valuable from an employer’s perspective, to know that someone knows what a case for support is, or to know that they can actually write one. Multiple choice tests can only testify to the former, they offer no assurance on the latter. To adequately assess the skills of our profession an entirely new assessment regime would be called for. The current one is analogous to certifying a plumber as competent who has never held a spanner or soldered a pipe. They might know what these tools are and how they function, but …..The third key weakness lies in the scheme’s conception of what constitutes knowledge. For CFRE a fact becomes accepted as professional knowledge if it has been published in two or more fundraising books. So in theory if I screw something up in my book and you reference me in yours – that becomes fundraising knowledge. This is unacceptably weak for a modern profession. There are certainly ‘truths’ that emerge from professional practice, but there is also a wealth of research available to practitioners that could and should be informing what we do. Fundraising, like every other profession should celebrate both academic knowledge and professional experience and expose competent practitioners to both.None of these weaknesses are terminal, they can all be fixed. The CFRE for all its faults is a widely respected international accreditation which presents us an excellent base on which to build. As a profession we just need to get on and rebuild it. Another round of job analysis surveys just won’t do.
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