Hiring talented development staffers can be a notoriously difficult process, and American Philanthropic Senior Consultant Kieran Raval has discussed some of those challenges here at Philanthropy Daily. There are many ways to make interviews more effective in finding the best candidates, but for today, consider adding this question to your screening process when hiring a major gifts officer:

“What is the last book you read?”

In particular, you should ask about the last book they’ve read in—or at least somewhat related to—your organization’s sector or main issue area. And hopefully, it would lead to a brief discussion of the book, its point, and its relation to your work. This is not to say that you should only hire bookish or academic individuals for your major gifts staff. However, this question is uniquely suited to clue you into the job candidate’s personality, temperament, and interest in your mission.

First and most importantly, the candidate’s answer gives you a greater sense of the depth of his commitment to your mission.

It’s one thing to ask “Why do you want to work for this organization?” but it’s another thing to tap into the conversation surrounding your group’s issue area and connect it to the candidate’s personal stake in your mission.

Any decent job applicant can and should do preliminary research into your organization—and any applicant can consult the great Google half an hour before the interview. However, someone with a real interest in your work will have a wider base of knowledge about your organization and how it fits into the philanthropic marketplace and the wider world that influences your mission and the problems you are addressing.

Having some facility in these ideas is helpful in articulating to donors and prospects what makes your organization unique among other organizations doing similar work.

The candidate’s response illustrates his or her ability to connect at a deeper level with donors who are as passionate about your mission as you are.

If you consult the many lists out there recommending interview questions for prospective major gifts officers, you will find some variation of “Describe your worst or best meeting with a donor” or “How much experience do you have making asks?” or “How much experience do you have working with donors in the five-figure-plus giving capacity?”  Those are necessary questions to ask, and certainly, one of the most effective ways of judging an applicant’s fitness for the role is from past behavior and experience.

However, this question will give you the chance to see firsthand how the applicants perform in an in-depth conversation about the prevailing ideals in your sector and interact with the people most concerned with helping you advance your mission.

The candidate’s ability to field this question illustrates how well he or she communicates in general.

Having asked this question in a number of interviews, and judging by experienced candidates’ responses (or lack thereof), it’s safe to assume that this is not a common question in development personnel interviews. It has the potential to knock certain candidates off their stride—particularly if the last book they read was Catcher in the Rye at age 14. As the previous two reasons suggest, this question will help you gauge a candidate’s ability to handle himself in substantive conversations about your work, but if he has experience in your field, is passionate about it, and can convey that clearly, it doesn’t matter if Holden Caulfield is his favorite protagonist in a novel.

As we know from working with hundreds of nonprofit groups: you may have a stable of job candidates brimming with certifications and solid resumes. However, finding the person with strength of character and mission fit is what often makes the difference between a high achiever on paper who sticks around for six months, and someone who can grow with your organization as he reaches new levels of achievement year after year.


It’s my personal and professional goal to help purpose-driven organizations achieve their fundraising goals, craft clear and compelling communications, and achieve greater influence. Please let me know if and how I can be of help to you. Feel free to shoot me an email at rjurado@americanphilanthropic.com or check out our services online at AmericanPhilanthropic.com. We also have ongoing fundraising trainings and events throughout the year.