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Why I Wanted to be An ACFRE

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Leah 189pLeah Eustace, the newest ACFRE, came from a long line of philanthropy-fanatics—her grandfather was awarded the Order of Canada for his voluntary contributions. As such, when it came time for Leah to choose a career, philanthropy was her natural choice. Another natural choice after spending more than 20 years in the field of philanthropy? Seeking out her ACFRE. This is Leah’s journey from CFRE to ACFRE—the good, the bad and the inspiring.

My reason for wanting to become an ACFRE is pretty simple: I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself, and this seemed like the ultimate challenge to me. Could I do it? Did I have what it takes to get through the rigorous testing process? (And, yes, was I good enough?)

Some have asked me whether I did it to advance myself professionally, but that wasn’t the reason for me. After all, I’m a partner in a consulting firm and love my work, so there really isn’t any opportunity (or desire) for advancement. I’m where I intend to be for the rest of my career.

Curiosity also played a role. I knew there were only seven people in Canada with the credential (and just 100 worldwide). That indicated to me that it was a difficult process. But how difficult was it? The only way to find out was to try it and see.

And, at the end of the day, imagine how it would feel to receive it? I knew it would be pretty amazing.

The Process

Professional development points for the application can only go back five years, and I’d taken a number of leadership and management courses at the MBA level that would have been six years old in 2014. That was motivation enough for me to get the application completed by the end of 2013.

I probably spent about ten hours on my application—not including the time I spent gathering all the information I needed on my publications, conference presentations and volunteer work. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought when I first entered the process. The key was to just start it and get it done—it didn’t have to be perfect.

The five-week wait until I heard my application had been accepted was agonizing, but now I was ready to prepare for the next step: the 100-question multiple-choice exam.

I love taking multiple-choice exams, so that part of the process didn’t bother me at all (in fact, I looked forward to it). I read at least part of all the books on the reading list, and I also read two books on how to take multiple-choice exams (yep, you read that right). Although you get three hours to complete the exam, I was finished in about an hour and a half (you really are giving more time than you need) and I felt very confident. I was fortunate to pass on my first attempt!

I found the portfolio to be a difficult step—not because it was time-consuming (it wasn’t, really), but because it didn’t have a deadline attached to it.  Because of that, it became a little too easy to procrastinate. Fortunately, I had a wonderful coach in the form of James Phelps, ACFRE, who would poke and prod and set deadlines for me. If I hadn’t had him, I might still be putting the thing together. (Tip: Get an ACFRE mentor to guide you through the process!)

For the portfolio, I really focused on the work I was most proud of rather than what I thought the reviewers might want to see. I used some rather quirky examples—the quirkiest being an article I’d had published on the missed fundraising opportunity of out-of-office messages.  My portfolio was accepted on my first try, so my approach seemed to have worked.

By far the most difficult step for me was the oral exam. I’m a classic introvert. Even the thought of having to answer unscripted questions in front of three reviewers who were not allowed to have any facial expression or encourage me in any way, made me break out in a cold sweat. It took me two tries, but I managed to pass the second time, despite being on the edge of passing out the entire time.

Within two hours of finishing my second attempt at the oral exam, I got the call from Jill Pranger, ACFRE, letting me know I was successful. She now laughingly tells the story of how I was so convinced that I had completely failed that I sent her a text message apologizing and letting her know she didn’t need to interrupt her dinner to call me with the bad news. To say I was speechless when I heard that I’d passed would be an understatement. I was floating on air for days!

Lessons Learned

You’ll never be perfectly prepared for any one of the four steps of the process. I could have gone over my application one more time. I could have added a few more conference sessions for good measure. I could have used a stronger ethical case study. Lots of ‘could haves’ that might have left me never hitting send.

I also learned the importance of having a group of people rooting for me and supporting me along the way. I chose to be very open about the fact I was going through the process, and I have no regrets. Even if I’d never been successful, I knew that my support group would still be with me cheering me on.

Lots of people are out there ready to help. Find peers who will coach you, who will review your portfolio, and who will even take the time to run you through a mock oral exam (thank you, Daniel Clapin, ACFRE—it made all the difference).

Stick to what you believe—I stuck to what I believed was my best work for my portfolio (even though it wasn’t a sure bet and was a little non-traditional). During my second attempt at the oral exam, as nervous and out of sorts as I’d ever been in my life, I stuck to a few things I was passionate about—diversity, ethics, and the need for us all to work together to reach our common goals. Even if I hadn’t succeeded, I would have still been able to hold my head up high.

So, if you’ve been thinking about doing your ACFRE, here’s my advice: just do it. I can guarantee it’s not as scary and difficult as you think it’s going to be.  And it’s an amazing feeling when you get that call!

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