Is CFRE Spinning Its Wheels?

I’m not sure. CFRE International is either spinning its wheels or it is poised for growth. Either way, it needs and welcomes our advice.

I see articles and postings that promote the Certified Fund-Raising Executive (CFRE) credential from time to time. Most recently, I saw:

 “New CFRE Website and Online App” posted by Garvin Maffett in the CFRE International Network Group on LinkedIn (Oct. 31, 2013)

“Are You Certified?” by F. Duke Haddad in FundRaising Success (Nov. 8, 2013)

As someone who has held the CFRE designation longer than 89 percent of all others, I care about and support the credential. So, I’m pleased to see that CFRE Spinning Wheels by cpaparcuri via FlickrInternational has a new, easier to use, more robust, more service-oriented website. I’m also pleased to see others promoting the CFRE designation.

However, despite my enthusiasm for the CFRE credential, I continue to be troubled. Two years ago on this site, I asked, “Does CFRE Have a Future?” My concerns persist. As of 2012, there were 5,630 CFRE holders worldwide, according to the CFRE International annual report. That’s just a 5.7 percent increase over the number of certified professionals in 2007.

That’s a miniscule five-year growth rate.

Depending on how you count larger (expenditures of $500,000 or more) and active public charities, the sector has seen growth of approximately 12 percent in the US since 2004/05.

That means the CFRE growth rate of 5.7 percent has not even kept pace with the growth rate of the nonprofit sector in the US. Every year, CFRE has been becoming less significant, relative to the market, despite its modest rate of growth.

The number of CFREs relative to the number of development professionals is modest at best. The number of CFREs in the US and Canada is about 17 percent of the number of members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Since AFP only has modest market penetration as well, let’s also look at the number of organizations that might employ fundraisers. There are 275,000 public charities in the US with expenditures of $500,000 or more. Many of those employ at least one development professional. The number of CFREs is about 1.7 percent of the number of larger public charities.

That’s a small market penetration rate.

In 2007, CFRE International’s expenditures totaled $629,000. In 2012, expenditures increased by 49 percent to $939,000.

That means that while the CFRE International budget grew by 49 percent, the number of CFRE holders grew by just 5.7 percent. For a lot more money, we’re not seeing a lot more CFREs.

I recently spoke with Eva Aldrich, President/CEO of CFRE International. She seems to understand the challenges and opportunities that exist for the organization. She’s also receptive to hearing fresh ideas.

During our conversation, Aldrich expressed some pride in the fact that the number of new CFRE applicants in 2013 is up 5 percent. While that’s certainly positive news, it represents only incremental growth. For the CFRE credential to have significant value for the profession and the broader public, we need to see more than incremental growth. We need to see massive growth.

As long as CFRE International thinks that 5 percent growth in the number of new applicants is good, we will continue to see incremental growth, at best.

I encourage CFRE International to change its institutional culture. CFRE International needs to adopt a culture and a plan that looks at doubling or tripling (or more) the number of CFREs within the next five years. This should involve more than creative marketing strategies to fundraisers. CFRE International will also need to look for ways to enhance the perceived value of the credential in order to attract more professional interest in it.

Massive growth is possible if CFRE International thinks big. Conversely, it will never happen as long as CFRE International continues to accept incremental growth.

In the spirit of being constructive and supportive of CFRE International, I have a challenging question for you:

What can CFRE International do to dramatically increase the number of certificants in five years?

Please respond by posting a comment below. I’ll make sure the folks at CFRE International see your suggestions.

That’s what. Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

27 Responses to “Is CFRE Spinning Its Wheels?”

  1. They might begin by thinking like fundraisers. That is, think of themselves as building relationships (not selling a product) with the people they want to bring into the fold. Explain their mission with stories. Help prospects see the problem they are trying to solve or needed service they can provide, and how they plan to do it. Show how becoming involved can accomplish something both for the prospect and for society in general. Tell stories, provide a good online experience, provide true benefits (group heath insurance for uncovered fundraisers should do the trick) and let people know about them. Nurture the relationships after people join, just as if they were treasured donors. You get the point. Treat CFREs and prospective CFREs as you would donors.

    • Emily, thank you for commenting and taking the time to share your suggestions. One of the complaints I frequently hear about CFRE International is that the organization fosters transactional relationships. Some folks even find CFRE International staff to be officious at times. I agree with you that fostering strong relationships is important. CFRE International can certainly do more to do that on an individual basis. In addition, it can do more to build a community of CFREs. For example, CFRE International does NOT host the CFRE International Network Group on LinkedIn! In the vacuum left by CFRE International, the Group was started privately and is hosted by Garvin Maffett. CFRE International should be taking the lead.

  2. Michael, I find the problem being that anyone can be a fundraiser and any organization can hire anyone to be a fundraiser. Not enough has been done to promote the credential and build it up as a professional accreditation similar to a CGA or JD. This is due in part to a lack of leadrrship in the fundraising sector where you have two camps, those that promote CFRE and those that do not. Both arguments have merit. For those that promote CFRE the argument is that the CFRE lends credibilty to a profession that is reliant on transparency. For those opposed, it is a lot of money and time and is not rewarded on the basis of individual merit. Heck, upon completion of my current contract I will have exceeded the requisite amount of money needed to be raised to receive the designation. Not because I raised any of it myself, I have never even been in an exploration meeting with a donor and yet because I am on a successful campaign team I am rewarded by the efforts of others.

    CFRE International needs to do more to promote the credentials as necesssary and for fundraisers to be awarded them on the basis of individual merit. How much did that fundraiser grow their organization’s revenue? Are they successful in securing big gifts consistently (this is relative to organization’s size)? There is nothing in CFRE that rewards fundraisers for advancing philanthropy. That first and foremost should be a priority for CFRE International. Just my abridged thoughts.

    • Joseph, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree that CFRE International must do more to promote the CFRE designation, not just to fundraisers but also to the folks doing the hiring and even the general public. Unfortunately, the credential receives little recognition or respect, even within the profession. For example, The Chronicle of Philanthropy does not mention the CFRE designation when referring to individuals by name. Even our professional associations seldom make a point of seeking speakers who hold the CFRE.

      While I agree with you, I do just want to point out something important. There is a difference between holding an advanced college degree and a professional certification. A lawyer earns a JD degree but still must pass the Bar. An accountant receives an accounting or finance degree but still must earn the CPA. Degrees and certification serve two similar but distinct purposes. I think I can underscore the point you were making by speaking further about accountants. A bookkeeper has accounting skills but is not certified. A CPA is an accountant who has been certified. One expects that the CPA will have broader and deeper skills than the bookkeeper. Ideally, the same would be true of fundraising. An uncertified person would be a fundraiser. Someone with certification would be a development professional.

      One of the problems with CFRE is that it is a voluntary designation. A lawyer cannot practice law unless she passes the bar. However, as you mention, anyone can fundraise. As a practical matter, this means that the CFRE designation will likely never be adopted by the majority of fundraisers. That’s to be expected with voluntary certification. However, CFRE International needs to achieve a market penetration rate more in line with other voluntary designations. Right now, CFRE is no where close.

  3. Thank you for posting your thoughts Michael. I have shared them with my Australian colleagues as I, too, have been concerned. If the latest listing of CFRE’s in Australia provided off the CFRE International website is to be believed there are presently only 62 Certified Fundraising Executives in Australia. That is almost 50% of the number of certificants in 1994. That hardly reflects incremental growth, let alone retention or growth borne of vision and passion.

    • Mark, thank you for your insight. While the overall global number of CFREs has seen modest growth, Australia has seen a decline, based on your understanding of the number in 1994. However, I do have a tiny bit of positive news. The decline is not quite as bad as you thought after a visit to the CFRE International website. I asked the folks at CFRE International to run an up-to-the-minute report of active Australian CFREs. As of today, the number is 74.

      Do you have any thoughts about why CFRE has not grown in Australia?

  4. Thanks for your enlightening post, Michael! I am considering the CFRE, and so I have spoken with many experienced development professionals about why they do or do not have the certification. The most common refrain I hear from those who do not have it is, “What good will it do me? My win record, my investment in philanthropy, my service, etc. speak louder than the CFRE.” I read that in part as a cost-benefit analysis (costs of taking the test and maintaining the certification are too high compared to the perceived benefits). Have you heard this from others?

    • Heather, thank you for your comment and question. There are a number of reasons for one to get her CFRE. Return on Investment is just one reason. CFRE International listed 10 benefits, some involving ROI, on its old website:

      1.Increases Credibility
      2.Improves Career Opportunities
      3.Prepares for Greater Responsibility
      4.Develops Skills and Knowledge
      5.Yields Greater Earning Potential
      6.Demonstrates Commitment
      7.Enhances Professional Image
      8.Reflects Achievement
      9.Enriches Self Esteem
      10.Fosters Peer Recognition

      While there are a number of benefits to holding the CFRE designation, I do frequently hear the question, “What good will it do me?” Frankly, as my career has developed, I’ve asked the same question. I’m now at a point in my career that I do not believe CFRE offers me any direct Return on Investment. So, why am I still a CFRE? Because I want to demonstrate my commitment to development as a profession, and I want to encourage others to do the same. However, if the number of CFREs does not grow significantly and quickly, I’m not sure I’ll continue to see the value of the designation for the profession.

  5. I am hoping CFRE will become more active on social channels. I actually got off the LinkedIn group page, simply because they are not endorsed formally by CFRE. I do think the new website is terrific and a step in the right direction.

    Sharing a brief, early article from my blog regarding the CFRE: Candidly, if you review job application notices today, the better job listings request the credential. On a personal note however, securing the CFRE improved my professional self-esteem, and I am so glad I took the time to secure it. I’m very proud of my CFRE and have been through the recertification process a few times now.

    Having said this, my experience of the exam is that the mindset seems to be of a younger fundraising professional with 5 or so years of experience. “Grey areas” of thought are not encouraged, and of course as one gains more experience, most everything falls into those “grey areas.” That might be an idea for CFRE – to incorporate an exam section for bigger picture thoughts on key fundraising issues, not just the standardized test score format. That would require more work, but it would be a more accurate “read” on the intelligence of the person taking the test. Best wishes!

    • Carolyn, thank you commenting and sharing the link to your blog post. I, too, wish CFRE International would be more active on social media to build more of a CFRE community. It would be another way to build value.

      As for the CFRE exam, the most common complaint I hear about it relates to the pesky “grey area.” You’re right. With more experience comes a greater ability to see nuance. Unfortunately, standardized tests are all about the black and white. While CFRE International does have some flexibility when developing the exam, there are also some limitations. CFRE itself is an accredited designation. To maintain that accreditation requires adherence to certain protocols.

      I also want to mention that I agree with you that the new website is a step in the right direction. I hope it will be one of many positive steps forward.

  6. Hi Michael, allow me to weigh in with my personal tuppence worth. I do agree that the new website is a great leap forward. The former one was dated and clunky and rightly or wrongly may have been perceived as reflective of the organization. My interactions with the executive over time have led me to conclude that they are committed but under resourced. Comparing a much earlier interaction with my most recent, I believe that there have been changes in culture toward shorter response times and more transparency and concern for members. Let us collectively offer as much encouragement as possible. I am proud to be a CFRE and reckon it is a credential to be encouraged.

    • John, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I do not disagree with anything you wrote. While I didn’t mention it in my post, I will now say that my interactions with CFRE International staff have been good; I’ve found the staff, at every level, willing to listen and to help.

      My concern with CFRE is that it is something of a secret club. There are so few of us that it raises the issue of just how relevant the designation really is. If CFRE were a new credential, it would be more understandable. However, CFRE is over 30 years old. It’s no longer a start up. There should be many, many more CFRE holders. Given the small number of CFREs, the growth rate in that number should be vastly greater than it has been.

      If CFRE is to be a relevant credential, it needs a far greater market penetration. Unfortunately, the support of current CFREs is not enough. CFRE has enjoyed that support for decades, and here we are. Something more, something different must be done. What do you think CFRE International should do to attract larger numbers of folks to the credential?

      • Michael, Interesting and timely discussion. I definitely believe in Certification. A basic reason – it helps in our education processes. Fundraisers must continually learn. I am involved with our local AFP chapter and have taught courses to help people who wish to take the CFRE exam. We seem to have a lot of interest. I hope it catches on throughout.

        I wish CFRE international would reach out to those of us who care, have some experience and use us to help gain understanding among our work places. I earned the FAHP in 2009 and barely had a nod from my supervisors… of our 50 or so Institutional Advancement team only 2 have current CFRE designations.

        I have found when I had reason to contact CFRE that they weren’t welcoming at all. They were “officious” to use your earlier term.

        Thanks for opening this discussion up. You and Mark Hindle are big encouragers!

        Art Horne FAHP, CFRE

      • Art, thank you for your kind comment. I also thank you for giving-back by teaching courses for your local AFP chapter. Continuing education is essential for fundraising professionals. However, one doesn’t need the requirements of a professional certification process in order to be motivated to pursue continuing education opportunities. So, while that is an important requirement of the CFRE process, I don’t think it is really part of the value proposition, at least not for holders of the designation.

        Your other two points are of particular importance. CFRE needs to be broadly recognizable and appreciated, particularly by those doing the hiring. That’s one way that the perceived value of CFRE will be enhanced.

        Your other point is about customer service, which I also think is quite important. Over the decades, I’ve had mixed experiences with the staff. In the early days, some staff were actually quite ridiculous with one being the subject of one of my favorite development “war stories.” However, over the years, I’ve seen the organization’s commitment to customer service improve. Given the recent stories I’ve heard, it’s still not a perfect situation. However, I can tell you that from my first-hand experiences, CFRE International has vastly improved its customer service. Furthermore, the organization seems committed to the idea of continuing to improve its relationships with CFREs and the general public. As CFRE holders, we should insist on nothing less.

  7. Michael,

    Thanks for continuing the conversation on this topic. I think one of the major stumbling blocks for CFRE is the COST. Right now, the CFRE exam fee is $823. That’s egregious… and it is stopping lots of people from seeking their CFRE certification. Small non-profits that have only one full time fundraiser may only budget $500 per year for professional development. They balk at paying $823 to reimburse a fundraiser for professional certification, and the fundraiser who is likely making $50,000 per year can’t afford to pay almost 2% of their salary for certification.


    • Joe, thank you for commenting. I think you have struck upon a critical issue. CFRE is expensive. That’s why we see CFRE holders tending to be more experienced folks from larger institutions. While it would be nice if professionals would invest in their own professional certification rather than expect their employer to pick-up the tab, the reality is that fundraisers are often under-paid and, therefore, paying for the CFRE process would be a hardship, as you’ve pointed out. I’ll just add that the expense of certification goes beyond the cost of the certification process itself. One must all pay the fees associated with continuing education in order to meet that requirement of the certification process. The expenses certainly add up.

  8. I think the issues of CFRE certification lie with the application process and then the test and its cost. The application is, in my opinion as well as others, unnecessarily cumbersome, requiring extreme due diligence to tracking and justifying years of minutia, then submitting it to be reviewed and hopefully approved. Additionally, I question the due diligence CFRE does to verify the applications–my casual inquires reveal no one from CFRE ever contacted anyone to verify attendance to any workshop or college/university transcript, and when I dug deeper, my local AFP chapter had never received a verification request about any of our member’s attendance to our workshops–that is troublesome to contemplate.

    Further, the test (again in my opinion and a few others) in unnecessarily ambiguous. There is no need to ask the vague type of situational and trivial data questions that they include, and then combine that with answers to these questions that are clearly debatable. Many knowledgable fundraising professionals won’t go through the time consuming application process only be defeated by the ambiguous test questions and the hair splitting answers.

    I found my masters degree in Strategic Fundraising and Philanthropy much more relevant and worth my time and expense, yet is was only worth minimal overall points towards the CFRE application.

    I think CFRE would be wise to make the application and test less complicated, after all there are now many fundraising/philanthropy related certificate programs and masters degrees that are easier to apply to than the CFRE, and the knowledge gained and retained is much more relevant and credible than one four hour multiple choice test.

    It won’t be long before fundraisers and their employers catch on that the CFRE is no longer the high bar for certification of fundraising competence, there is credible competition.

    • Susan, thank you for sharing your thoughts and analysis. I agree with you that the application process (new and renewal) is cumbersome, though I’m hoping the new website can help with that. My ACFRE friends try to sell me on switching to that credential by pointing out one only has to do it once, not every three years. However, for a variety of reasons, I’ve declined to go after the ACFRE.

      Like you, I also hear complaints about the exam. While improvements have been made over the years, I still caution folks not to over-think the questions. Fortunately, CFREs only need to take the test once, assuming they pass it.

      As for your comparison of the CFRE designation with graduate degrees, I need to point out that each serves a different function. I also want to point out that a graduate degree is also much more expensive. A graduate degree is a statement that the individual has attained certain knowledge of a particular subject. The CFRE shows the individual practices fundraising, has raised certain minimum amounts, continues his/her education, and subscribes to ethical standards. Think of someone who holds a degree in accounting but also holds his/her CPA. Or, think of a lawyer who has a JD degree but also must pass the bar. Both graduate education and professional certification have their place.

  9. I have read this twice now, because as of Friday, my application was finished and ready to go. I agree that it is not recognized as much as it could be in our profession. Not sure where that lies. Is it with CFRE International, our local AFP chapters, or does it lie with every fundraiser?

    As for costs, it is expensive. But so are nursing fees. If we all mobilize to make the CFRE designation more recognizable and understandable, then I think people would find the cost worth every penny.

    • Sarah, thank you for your comment. I think responsibility for the current state of the CFRE rests, in ranking order, with CFRE International, participating partner organizations (of which AFP is just one), CFRE holders, and all other fundraisers. While CFRE is expensive, you’re right to suggest that if it is perceived as a worthwhile value, people will make the investment. Unfortunately, for many, including myself, we don’t see the value. Yes, the more CFREs, the greater the value. But, we live in the world today and not the world as it one day might be. Perhaps its a bit of a Catch-22 situation. In any case, the perceived value of the CFRE designation must be enhanced if more folks are going to be convinced to get it.

  10. Michael, thanks for keeping this discussion moving forward for the last few years. CFRE is important to our industry and worth the effort of all of us to keep it viable and thriving. I’m now speaking only for myself….if CFRE is not relevant it’s because I haven’t done anything to make it relevant. I’ve not read the strategic plan, I’ve not volunteered for a sub-committee, I’ve not called staff and asked what I could do to help.

    I was first certified in 2001 (give or take a year). The first organization that hired me also hired a consultant to work with me and teach me how to fundraise. The consultant indicated that a CFRE designation was important. The organization agreed and so I went through the process and when it came time to take the test the organization paid the fee. The consultant said it was important and the organization didn’t question that so I was certified.

    Every recertification fee has been on me. I recertify every time because I do feel that it is valuable to potential clients who see 4 letters behind my name and assume it means I know what I’m doing.

    So here is my commitment to you Michael–in the next month I will:

    1. Read the CFRE strategic plan

    2. Look through the new website

    3. Contact staff about serving on a sub-committee

    4. Make two updates on my Linked In account about CFRE

    I’m not saying my four action points will increase the number of CFREs, but it will be a start.

    • Nathan, thank you for your comment and your commitment. We all need to be engaged, and we need to help promote professional certification. However, CFRE International needs to lead the way. Unfortunately, that leadership has historically been very limited. Fortunately, the culture and orientation at CFRE International is beginning to change. Time will tell if that change comes fast enough and is significant enough to make a difference.

  11. Michael, Nice post. I think to note is that Eva has only been with CFRE International for about 2 years. I knew Morgean Hirt and I’m starting to get to know Eva (who ran into me at the AFP Int’l conference in Vancouver and impressed me by recognizing me from LinkedIn comment I made and spoke to me about CFRE because of it) but I couldn’t tell you the name of the person who was the head of CFRE in the middle of them. That was a problem. CFRE is paying for the past leader(s) who didn’t seem to communicate with CFRE holders. It seems like it is taking some time to rectify the lack of communication.

    Is 5% a good figure based on other voluntary accreditations? I don’t know. At least it isn’t a negative figure. Obviously double digit growth is important to build up awareness and for long term security.

    I’ve been a CFRE since 2001 and just renewed it again. While I don’t like the cost, I think it is important to show the dedication to ethical fundraising. It is also why I like teaching CFRE review courses.

    I do like the direction CFRE Int’l is going. CFRE’s conspicuous presence at AFP leadership functions and at other international nonprofit leadership events is a good sign.

    Maybe they can work with groups like AFP’s NextGen committee or YNPN to get more younger nonprofit professionals and consultants interested in the CFRE accreditation.

    • Dave, thank you for your comment, insight, and suggestion. Like you, I do think CFRE International is moving in the right direction. For me, though, the issue is: Is CFRE International doing enough, fast enough? I’m not sure what the growth rate or market penetration rates are for other voluntary professional certification programs. I hope the folks at CFRE International are looking at such numbers. While a five percent growth rate is certainly better than no growth or negative growth, the reality is that the sector in America is growing at a faster rate. And CFRE International has expanded its geographic market internationally meaning the potential market has grown even faster. So, relative to the market, CFRE is falling behind.

      The foundation is there for CFRE to meaningful. Time will tell whether or not it will be.

  12. Hi Michael,

    I know you have been a longtime supporter of the CFRE designation; however, aside from an individual’s personal satisfaction in achieving the recognition of CFRE, I never have seen a professional case for it.

    During my career in fundraising, fundraising management, consulting, and recruitment, I have never hired a qualified development professional because they had a CFRE. Perhaps more importantly, I have never not hired (or promoted) a qualified candidate because they lacked a CFRE. The vast majority of the top fundraising and nonprofit management talent that I have had the pleasure to work with have not been certified, nor did they express an interest in becoming certified.

    In these days of tighter budgets, it has become increasingly rare for employers to undertake the expense of certification, let alone the expenses to attend AFP conferences for the workshop training. I believe there is also a perception that certification is viewed by many as unnecessary for career advancement, and that the costs for certification (and renewal) are seen as just an additional revenue source for the participating organizations. CFRE International gets the application and testing fees while the partner associations generate revenue from providing the continuing education courses required by the CFRE process as well as CFRE prep courses.

    If the partner associations are serious about the CRFE then they need to make the case why it should be seen as being necessary for career advancement. Until that happens I would expect the number of new CFREs to remain flat. AFP, and other partner associations, could try adding some teeth to the CRFE by perhaps requiring certification for all presenters, committee membership, and local/national board members.

    • Michael, thank you for sharing your insights and suggestions. You’re quite correct. It all comes down to the value proposition. If the market does not see the value of the CFRE, people will not pursue it. Here are some questions that CFRE International and the participating associations should be asking about CFRE:

      1. What value are fundraisers looking for?

      2. What value are organizational staff and volunteer leaders looking for?

      3. What value are government officials looking for?

      4. How can CFRE deliver enhanced value?

      5. What market penetration rates, growth rates, and renewal rates are the most successful voluntary certification programs achieving?

      6. How can CFRE International model its activities after the most successful voluntary professional certification programs?

      The primary reasons I continue to support the CFRE designation are personal. As I’ve become more established in the profession, the external benefits of holding the CFRE have faded. Now, it’s a matter of me liking the idea of the CFRE much more than the reality of it.


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