Why I Became a CFRE

By Betsy Mehlman, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee            

I passed the CFRE (Certified Fundraising Professional) exam recently. It was challenging, and I'm proud that I succeeded. What a feeling of accomplishment!

When I assumed responsibility for prospect research at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the field was new to me. I hadn't heard of Apra, nor CFRE, so it took me a while to consider pursuing certification.

I had so many questions along the way. What does CFRE mean and what value does professional certification offer me? Who are the professionals who obtain it and do I belong with them? How would I find the time and what would I have to do to prepare for the exam?

One of the things I appreciate as an Apra member is the ability to learn from professionals who are willing to share their knowledge and practical experience. I hope that describing my CFRE journey through the questions I raised (and the answers I found) will help those who are debating just as I did.

The Background: My Professional Journey

When I graduated university with degrees in history, political science and economics, prospect development didn't exist as a field of employment. I began my professional journey in the public sector and moved into the private sector. Later, looking for a change, I took a job in resource development for JDC, an international Jewish humanitarian organization, where I have been since.

There is a common theme in my diverse resume: the need to process and interpret information and data so it is understandable to others. I translate complex concepts into language tailored to engage the audience. I also love all types of research and analysis. It was only natural that I jumped at the chance to develop JDC's in-house capability to conduct prospect research.


Looking for more career pathway profiles? Learn how Paulette Bilby pivoted from research to chaplaincy in this inspiring conversation.

My CFRE Journey

I became curious about CFRE when I saw the credentials alongside the names of speakers at Apra conferences. I picked up the CFRE checklist at the conference for attendees to keep track of the sessions and checked out their website.

An inspiring session — “Developing a Strategic Plan for Your Career,” led by Susan Faraone at Apra Prospect Development (PD) 2018 in Pittsburgh — got me thinking seriously about steps I could take to advance myself professionally. A short chat with CFRE staff in Pittsburgh encouraged me further when I learned that I had a year to complete the exam from the time my application was approved. I was finally ready to act.

These were my questions along the way:

What is professional certification and why CFRE?

Professional certification is increasingly common in today's competitive job market. The certification process focuses on best practices, established standards and professional knowledge.

Professionally, the credential brings recognition in the marketplace and attests to a commitment to ongoing learning. For the individual, achieving certification is a significant personal accomplishment and a clear acknowledgement of one's career aspirations. For fundraising and prospect development professionals, becoming a CFRE also indicates a commitment to high professional standards and ethics and accountability.

Who pursues CFRE and is it relevant for me?   

It has taken time for me to view myself as a fundraising professional despite my years of experience. As a resource development professional, I manage relationships, communicate with donors and plan strategically for a changing philanthropic marketplace. I've raised funds for JDC but I am not a frontline fundraiser.  

Through my involvement in Apra, I've gained a broader perspective of fundraising and philanthropy and have been able to deepen my knowledge in areas that are less familiar to me. I've also learned to appreciate the knowledge and practical experience I already have.

Much like Apra members, CFRE professionals come from diverse fields with varying levels of expertise and a broad range of knowledge. They, too, are committed to pursuing professional excellence, improving their practice and sharing their knowledge and experience.

CFRE was a good fit for me because of my passion for philanthropy and my desire for professional excellence.

How do I find the time to pursue CFRE and how do I prepare for the exam?

Once I decided to certify, I mapped out a plan of action and a timetable for completing the exam.

First, I discussed it with my supervisor. JDC supports professional education, so they offered to pay for the initial certification fee and cover the cost for educational materials. I had flexibility to juggle my normal responsibilities so I could study and prepare for the exam on my own time.

Next, I worked on the detailed CFRE application. When CFRE notified me that my application had been accepted, the clock on the one-year time span for taking the exam started ticking.  

I drew up a study plan to ensure I would have time for reading the materials and taking practice exams. Preparing for the exam is daunting but the CFRE website and staff provide helpful guidance. Along with guidelines regarding the exam's content and knowledge area requirements, CFRE offers access to study resources such as a Resource Reading List, virtual forums, and a practice exam.

The Reality

Changing responsibilities at work forced me to put my study plan on hold. With the end of my testing window fast approaching, I had less than three months (not six as planned) to prepare intensively for the exam.

Fortunately, two months before the exam, I joined a weekly virtual study forum to review the different knowledge domains and related practice test questions. The study group was critical to my success in passing the exam. The best piece of advice I received while preparing for the exam was to teach some of the knowledge domains to the group. Thanks to the extra investment in learning that material, I received higher scores in those test areas.

My Next Step

The CFRE designation has boosted my confidence while validating my professional credentials. My next step is to document my professional education, practice, and performance over the next three years in order to recertify. This is inspiring me to share my expertise publicly and motivating me to continue expanding my knowledge. 

If you are considering CFRE certification, I hope my experience has given you insights to help in your  decision. Good luck!

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