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Finding the Perfect Novice

Sarah Fawcett-Lee, FAHP, CFRE and Rachel Fournier, MPA
Published:  04/25/2023

This post was adapted from a spring 2020 Healthcare Philanthropy article about a new way Sarah Fawcett-Lee, FAHP, CFRE and the team at Virtua Health tackled major gift officer recruitment. The candidates participated in a simulated qualification visit with a mock donor to test their potential in a real world scenario. This article is an excerpt from the final report and details the experience of Rachel Fournier, MPA, a fundraiser and cancer patient who pretended to be the new donor for the exercise. Members can read the full article here. 

From the viewpoint of mock prospective donor Rachel Fournier

When Sarah contacted me and asked if I would be interested in participating as a “mock prospective donor” in a new methodology for identifying potential major gift officer talent, I was immediately intrigued. In my experience as a fundraising professional across diverse fields, I’ve lamented over the lack of talent, even in a thriving market like Philadelphia.

My career in fundraising came to an abrupt halt in 2015 after a diagnosis of stage IV breast cancer at the age of 38. I am now a nearly full-time patient. I came to our mock qualification visits with impressions and opinions gained both professionally and personally that I hoped would provide useful perspective on what qualities would make a novice healthcare major gift officer successful.

Each of the four candidates Sarah put forward had done background research and professionally prepared for our meeting. All were intelligent, thoughtful, kind people with great potential. But my ultimate impression of these novice gift officers was guided by three questions: 

  1. Who led a conversation that left me feeling more energized and excited about my own life and contributions? 
  2. With whom was I left wanting a future conversation? 
  3. Which candidate created a dynamic that allowed me to reveal the best version of myself? 

The advice of Jerry Panas has guided my career as a fundraising professional: Be energetic, resonate enthusiasm, demonstrate empathy. Suddenly I was experiencing those words through the lens of a patient, and a terminally ill one at that. Each candidate brought all three of these qualities to our meeting. But the nuances of our interactions influenced my answers to the questions above. 


My evaluation of the candidates centered not on which candidates were energetic, but on which candidates added to or depleted my energy, especially as someone who has been in active cancer treatment for five years. Successful candidates must be acutely aware of the energy in the interaction.

Two candidates opened the meeting with, “Tell me about yourself.” Giving the burden of carrying the meeting to me so early was exhausting. It also decreased the ability of the candidate to manage the flow of the interaction and ensure that their questions were answered.

Each meeting was scheduled for one hour. Two candidates completed the meeting and achieved their objectives within that time. One candidate took much less time, but I felt the interaction was rushed and lacked some of the relationship-building strategies that foster warmth. The fourth candidate exceeded the allotted time by 30 minutes and referred most objectives to “a future meeting.” To be a successful gift officer, respecting time boundaries and effectively managing the time constraints offered by prospective donors matters. 


My diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer was not information that was shared with the candidates prior to our meeting. I am very comfortable sharing my diagnosis and prognosis. They have dictated the course of my life over the past five years, thus also carried a lot of weight in our conversations. Sharing my diagnosis in the meeting was a major test of the gift officers’ ability to navigate a challenging subject.

Who could show empathy for my story of being diagnosed with incurable cancer at 38 and still move forward with their questions, without letting their emotions get the better of them and derail the meeting? Conversely, who could allow me the space to share my personal story and the impact the diagnosis has had on my family in a way that felt satisfactory for me, while gently steering me back to their prepared questions?

The most successful novices were able to create a synergy by sharing high-level details of their own healthcare experiences or those of a loved one to demonstrate their capacity to actively listen and understand my unique healthcare journey. Then, they were able to tactfully return to questions that would provide specific insight into my philanthropic inclinations. 


In this constructed interaction, the key element of success was creating an environment in just a few minutes that would lead to me sharing my giving priorities. All four candidates identified a social justice thread in my past giving and volunteerism. All identified my choice to seek out an economically and culturally diverse community in which to raise my children.

The candidates who gleaned the most information were those who showed enthusiasm for my experiences. If a candidate validated my passion, I felt motivated to share a richer story. For example, in one meeting I only shared that embracing different cultures is important to me. Another candidate, who showed greater interest, heard a detailed retelling of my experience taking a Syrian refugee family of six for immunizations and the challenges we overcame together when the interpreter that had been promised never materialized. The outcome from a gift officer perspective is likely similar. They both learned what I cared about. But I felt much greater internal enthusiasm from telling the refugee story. I was given the opportunity to share a better version of myself. The enthusiasm the gift officer fostered created a desire for me to want to continue to be philanthropic and do good things for my community. 

The Final Step-Call Reports

After the meetings, the candidates submitted their contact reports. It was a novel experience to read call reports about myself. They were essential in forming overall impressions on each candidate’s capacity to be successful in a major gift officer role.

It was in the call reports that Sarah and I were able to see which candidates were most prepared to begin successful careers as healthcare major gift officers. While the content of each personal qualification meeting had been quite similar, there were broad discrepancies in the ability to process the conversations and translate them into actionable next steps for the benefit of the Virtua Health system.

One call report is brimming with the candidate’s personal praise on who I am as a person and how I have responded to my diagnosis. Another report is written completely absent of my qualities or their own judgements. Somewhere in the middle would likely better inform a stand-alone call report.

Only one candidate captured how best to utilize me from a fund development perspective, suggesting ideas for advocacy or as a speaker on breast cancer issues. The remaining candidates didn’t venture a next step, likely demonstrating their own need for more major gift coaching and experience. 

Positive Results

As a result of this experience, Virtua hired one of the top four candidates—and this individual has quickly developed productive relationships with key physicians.

The lessons we learned were powerful, and we hope this story will inspire our peers to be creative and even a little daring in how they identify new talent to join our ranks. Using mock qualification visits, with a carefully selected person to play the role of “prospect,” is a helpful way to do so.

NEWS  /08/31/20
Starting a major gift program? Here's how to find the right people.

Meet The Author

sarah fawcett lee headsho
Sarah Fawcett-Lee, FAHP, CFRE and Rachel Fournier, MPA
Virtua Health

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