Nothing could stop Michèle Joanisse from becoming a CFRE. After an unsuccessful CFRE exam attempt in 1999, Michèle continued to invest in her education and professional development. Life got exciting, with a move from Canada to Switzerland, a new leadership role, and undertaking an MBA.
As the world shifted during the pandemic, Michèle set her sights on becoming a CFRE again. Below, she shares the story of her international career and how she prepared for the exam to ultimately become a CFRE in May 2021.
You began your fundraising career in Canada and now currently work in Switzerland as a director of the Fondation CHUV of the Lausanne University Hospital. Could you share a bit about how your career led you to move to Europe?
Short and sweet, in 2000 I attended our annual fundraising skills-sharing conference organized by Doctors Without Borders in Geneva. I fell in love with the city and country and decided that one day I would work in Switzerland.
Twelve years later, I applied for a job as Head of External Relations for an international not-for-profit organization focused on tropical disease research. Lucky me, I was selected for the position and moved in October 2012. In 2017, I was approached by the Fondation CHUV in Lausanne and have been here ever since. Nine years in Switzerland already. Time flies when you are having fun!
What helped me secure the position at the hospital was my:
• Proven development experience in academic, medical research, and humanitarian settings
• Knowledge and passion for the medical field
• Language skills
• Reputable local references
• Interest and ability to adapt to the local culture
• Residency in the country with a valid work permit
What are the main differences you’ve noticed between Canadian and Swiss fundraising approaches?
Swiss and Canadians are very generous and just like in Canada, people give to people here, too.
There are, however, a few differences. In Switzerland, philanthropy is discrete, less visible, and less discussed in social circles or in the media. Some say it is rooted in Protestant religious beliefs. Some say it is related to the maladroitness of discussing or boasting about your financial affairs, wealth, and philanthropy. Individuals keep their philanthropy private.
In terms of fundraising approaches, online campaigns and donating online is less popular than in Canada. There are fewer planned giving vehicles—mostly bequests. Few have a written will since the law stipulates inheritance allocation. There are many private family foundations but very little public information about them, making it more challenging to engage.
Fundraising approaches sometimes resemble a transaction and stewardship could be improved. The nice thing is that Swiss donors are more open to meet a professional fundraiser to learn about their favorite organization.
What unique challenges does hospital fundraising, especially during a pandemic, have compared to causes you’ve fundraised for previously?
Institutional readiness was the biggest challenge we faced. We are a very new foundation. When I started, there was little in place. Only a handful of donors, no database, no fundraising programs. All needed to be built from scratch.
When the pandemic hit, I knew the community would support us spontaneously as donors did when I worked with Doctors Without Borders. When a natural catastrophe happens, people are compelled to give as a way to help. We experienced the same at the hospital—only that it lasted for months instead of a few weeks.
Our challenge at the foundation and the hospital was identifying Covid-related projects. The hospital leadership was preoccupied with responding to patients’ needs.
As soon as they articulated their urgent funding needs, we updated our foundation website, our online donation page, worked with the hospital Communication Department to launch an online appeal to give via their social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter). We also prepared major gift proposals for family foundations.
Everyone was pleased with the results and our donors were happy with our stewardship and to learn specifically how their gifts were used.
You became a CFRE in May 2021. How did you first hear about the CFRE and why did you decide to pursue it?
I have been in the field of fundraising since 1993. I heard about the certification when I attended NSFRE luncheons in Toronto in 1994. I took the exam in 1999 but did not pass.
Back then, your score arrived months later. There was little infrastructure in place to help you study. You could attend a two-day course and write the exam a few days later—at the tail-end of an AFP conference.
So why retake the exam 22 years later? I decided to pursue the certification to set me and the foundation apart and bring credibility to the field in Switzerland.
I thought it would also be an excellent way to review all the knowledge and theory. The review would help me structure the hospital foundation and catch anything I may have missed. I believed writing the exam would personally confirm my level of proficiency.
Did your employer contribute any funds towards your CFRE? If so, how did you approach requesting their support?
Yes, my employer supported me. During my annual review in January 2021, I mentioned the certification and asked the President of the Board and the CEO of the hospital if they would support it financially and provide time to study. Both time and money were granted. Specifically, my employer allowed me to leave work one hour early to join a weekly online study group for three months. They gave me 1.5 days off the week leading up to my exam and a day off to write the exam.
When I passed, I submitted my expense report for the exam fees in May 2021 and negotiated a considerable raise and received it in July 2021.
Passing the exam created a sense of shared pride among my team, my colleagues at the hospital, fellow fundraisers, and my board. A win-win for all!
How long did it take to complete the CFRE process, from the time you began your application to when you passed the exam? Which part took the longest?
In 2017, I started to fill out the online application while in the midst of doing my MBA at the University of Geneva. I knew I had to complete my MBA before tackling the CFRE. Juggling a full-time job and the MBA was hard enough.
After taking a one-year breather, I signed up on January 27, 2021, to write the exam on May 7, 2021. I wanted to write the exam before I turned 51 years old and make the best of the Covid lockdown since there was nowhere to go.
What took the longest was filling out the form but also accumulating education credits. Since I was doing my MBA, it was difficult to find time for additional continuing education. Thankfully, my MBA counted so this helped with the final education credits I needed.
When it came to studying, could you walk us through your process and which resource you found to be most useful?
Studying started in February 2021 with the help of an online study group. We met every Wednesday. This helped me structure my reading since we covered a domain each week. I ordered the CFRE Exam Compass Study Guide and the CFRE Practice Exam (one-month subscription).
Every weekend I would initially set-aside two to four hours to study. A month prior to the exam, I increased my weekend studying to eight hours.
I used the CFRE Exam Compass Study Guide questions and wrote out all answers. This was a way to locate the information and integrate the learning and theory.
I read “Achieving Excellence in Fundraising” and the AHP Advanced Course in Health Care Fundraising since I took the one-day course at the AHP Convene Conference in Ottawa in 2019. During my daily work commute, I read chapters and listened to Lilly School of Philanthropy podcasts.
Did you take the exam in-person at a test center or from home?
At a test center in Geneva, one kilometer from my home.
Could you describe your exam experience and what was going through your mind in the hour before you began the exam?
My exam experience was challenging. A week prior to receiving a reminder from the test center, I was informed the building was under considerable renovation and to expect very loud noise. The test center provided a sound-cancelling headset but could not guarantee it would be soundproof.
They suggested contacting other test centers. Due to Covid, all were fully booked until September 2021. I tried to switch to writing the test from home but it was too late. Seeing that I was ready, I decided to go forward.
The noise was indescribable. From 9:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., there was constant drilling. My exam was scheduled from 9:15 a.m. – 1:15 p.m. Those 45 minutes of silence, while the workers ate lunch, was a godsend as it allowed me to review close to 100 questions—many of which I changed my answers. Needless to say, I was exhausted at the end and glad I had the rest of the day (and weekend) to replenish.
So many things went through my mind. First, I regretted telling so many people I was taking the exam and sharing the exam date. What was I thinking? This added to my stress because I felt I needed to pass even more and that I could not move the date.
Then, I reminded myself that I know the field, I did well with the CFRE Practice Exam, I read and reviewed all my material, and therefore I should not doubt my ability to pass the exam this time around.
Many CFRE candidates feel anxious about the exam. Did you feel any anxiety and if so, how did you handle it?
The anxiety was sky high a week prior to the exam. A few days before the exam, I visited the test center and met the manager who showed me the premises (construction had not started yet).
Surprisingly, the morning of my exam, I was relaxed. Instinctively, I knew I had to save my energy for the exam and potentially loud construction noises. Before heading out, I took deep breaths, drank a tall glass of cool water, and walked to the test center. This helped release lingering stress.
Arriving early also helped. I chatted with other people who were writing different tests and saw the manager again who shared a few words of encouragement. I put on the headset and hoped it would work…
What would you say has been the main benefit to going through the CFRE process?
A thorough and structured review of all the knowledge related to our profession. Perfect timing considering my role at the hospital foundation. It will also help me with classes I will be teaching.