By Alexis Alm, MNA, CFRE

Alexis has been a fundraising professional for nearly 20 years, lending her talents to organizations in both Chicago and Philadelphia.

She prepared to sit for the CFRE exam while working full-time in a senior role and raising five children. Alexis is proof that no matter how hectic life can be, there are easy ways to carve out study time.

Below, she shares some of the most common reasons fundraising professionals have for not getting started with their CFRE and how to overcome them.

1. Lack of time
Variations: My kids keep me busy. My current job is too demanding and time-consuming.
Answer: There are many ways to incorporate CFRE prep into your daily work and family life.

A. Set an 8-week, 12-week, or 16-week study plan. I prefer the 16-week plan because it gives ample time to study various areas in detail without feeling like you’re cramming.

B. Match study materials with the subject areas. Determine areas where you need the most study and start there first. Ask family members to help you study. Children especially like the idea that you can do homework together.

C. Study with your children of all ages: elementary, junior high, and high school kids. High schoolers have the best study tips because they are likely preparing for college and know all the new ways to get studying done.

D. Make your own flash cards and use them when you have five minutes. Get up 15 minutes early in the morning. Carry flash cards/notes with you at ALL times.

E. Make it a game when you take the kids to school or sports practice. They get to quiz you with the flash cards on the drive over. Use your flash cards while waiting at practice.

F. Road tripping with your kids? Give them the flash cards to quiz you for a block of time.

G. Preparing for the exam is a great excuse to get out of awkward social obligations, e.g., “Sorry, Susan. I’d love to watch home videos of your vacation, but I have to study for this important exam.”

H. When at work, study the areas of the exam that are related to your current task. Working on developing, expanding, or growing your planned giving program? Let your CFRE prep work do double duty to help you with current work tasks. You will be able to incorporate new activities and tasks that WILL boost your current campaigns at work.

I. Have a goal to increase your annual appeal? Need to recruit volunteers for a capital campaign? Whatever your work task, incorporate studying for that section of the exam as a part of completing your work and incorporate a new and/or increased goal.

J. Get an accountability partner. They don’t have to be prepping for the CFRE, just someone else working toward a specific goal in the next three to six months.

K. If you often use your free time to watch your favorite TV shows, remember that with TV on-demand and Netflix you can add items to a queue to watch after study time.

2. I’m not ready/afraid to take the exam
Variations: What if I fail? It’s been years since I’ve studied. It may be too late for me. I’m too old to take an exam. What if I don’t know what I think I know?
Answer: Fear of failure is normal and you can feel more is at stake when you already have an established career. It feels scary to prepare for an exam.

A. Think about the people who are your biggest supporters, the ones who always encourage you to be your best. Maybe it’s a parent, spouse, or best friend. Talk to them and keep the encouragement flowing.

B. Make a list of reasons you want to obtain your CFRE. Keep that list handy. Read it daily.

C. When you are reviewing study material, keep a notebook of “golden nugget” ideas you can incorporate into your current program. Being able to see some measurable impact of new ideas will build your confidence.

D. When reviewing your study materials, make note of the activities and procedures that you are ALREADY DOING that are “spot on” with CFRE best practices. Pat yourself on the back and actually write it in your notes that you already know and practice most of the CFRE content areas. The more you reinforce the knowledge and success that you have already achieved, your confidence for the exam will grow.

E. Join a study group. If you can’t find one in your area, start one.

F. If you still feel fear, think about the worst-case scenario: if you fail, you just take it again. But the odds are in your favor. Most who prepare for the exam DO PASS! And you WILL be prepared.

3. My employer won’t pay for it and I can’t afford to pay for it myself
Answer: First you don’t know until you ask. But don’t ask until you have figured out the best way and the best time to ask. You are a fundraiser. You already know about having good timing.

A. The best way to ask a boss to “pay for something,” especially when many nonprofits are “tight on cash,” is to emphasise the value it will bring to the organization, donors, and your overall fundraising program. It is an investment in excellence.

B. If you know your employer won’t pay for the full exam, ask if they will pay for half.

C. If all else fails, take the exam and ask for reimbursement after you pass.

D. Gently point out examples of how your CFRE prep helped in a particular donor/gift situation.

E. Remember that “no” very often means “not now.”

F. Current members of CFRE participating organizations receive a 20% discount on certification and recertification.

4. I can’t afford books or study materials
Answer: With a little creativity, it is possible to get all the materials you need within reach.

A. Ask your boss if you can start a fundraising resource library. These books will not be yours personally as they will belong to the organization. But you’ll have access and can prepare accordingly.

B. Put books on your Amazon Wishlist for your birthday and holidays.

C. Check out your local library. You can request for them to order a book if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

D. The “used” section of a university bookstore could also help you get books at a low price.

E. Check Amazon for used books.

F. If you know a CFRE, ask if they would mind loaning you some of their prep books.

5. My boss doesn’t see the value. How can I prove the CFRE’s worth to them? 
Answer: Ensuring fundraising professionals have the latest tools and knowledge they need to do their jobs is always worth investing in.

A. Talk to a CFRE and ask them how they feel their CFRE added value to their organization.

B. Don’t know any CFREs? Go to the CFRE website and contact any of the board members.

C. Develop your own list of how you believe you would be more effective or how your efforts would bring better results.

D. Show them. Study a section, put the best practices into use, track the results, and report them.

E. One new gift or one increased gift will pay for the CFRE many times over.

6. I’ll do it later, perhaps next year or after ________ (some life or employment event).
Answer: It may never seem like “the right time.” Everything starts with the first step.

A. Getting started is the hardest part. Mapping out the journey helps!

B. Turn off social media notifications to minimize distractions.

C. Look for and celebrate preparation milestones along the way.

D. Set the goal to START the CFRE process. Sometimes, it’s easier to set the goal to start something than to set the goal to finish something.

E. The right time is right now!

American Public Gardens Association (APGA)


United Negro College Fund



Tri-Valley Nonprofit Alliance


Nepal Center for Philanthropy and Development


BBB Wise Giving Alliance


Korea Society of Philanthropy


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Habitat for Humanity




Boy and Girls Clubs of America


China – CAFP




Brazil Fundraising Association


European Fundraising Association


Japan Fundraising Association


North American YMCA Development Organization


New England Association for Healthcare Philanthropy


Kenya Association of Fundraising Professionals


International Catholic Stewardship Council


Fundraising Institute New Zealand


Fundraising Institute Australia


Association of Philanthropic Counsel


Association of Fundraising Consultants


Educate Plus


The Giving Institute