Considering Pursuing Your CFRE Credential? Lena Balkaran, CFRE, has Advice for You

So far 2023 has proven to be a pivotal year for Lena Balkaran, CFRE.

She became a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) on May 13, 2023. While she had considered earning the credential for a number of years, she made it happen after putting it in her 2023 SMART goals at work.

About two weeks after achieving certification, she began a new job as Associate Director, Philanthropy in the Office of Development and Alumni Affairs at Trinity College, University of Toronto.

Lena has invested heavily in her professional development since entering the field in 2008. In 2021, she became a CAGP member.

Here she shares how she reached her goal of becoming a CFRE with advice anyone looking to get started.

What was the moment when you decided to pursue your CFRE credential and how long had you been in fundraising at the time?
I intended to pursue my CFRE earlier in my fundraising career. I attended my first AFP conference back in 2008 and was also engaged in other fundraising courses.

I thought it was the natural progression because I had earned the needed Education points.

I delayed it for many different reasons until recently.

What were the reasons that made you think the time was right to start?
In 2022, I realized I had a new cycle of Education points and decided this was the right time to study for and write the exam.

Ongoing professional development is a wonderful and important part of fundraising, so Education points accumulate.

At any point during your CFRE journey did you seek advice from a CFRE? If so, what words of wisdom did they offer?
Absolutely! I have quite a few mentors in the field who are CFREs. They encouraged me to write the exam because they believed I had the skills and experience.

How did your CAGP membership support you in your CFRE journey?
Being a member of CAGP is a great benefit to anyone in philanthropy. Not only do they provide courses and conferences, but they also serve as a hub for fundraisers.

Did you speak to your boss about supporting your CFRE journey? If so, how did you approach the conversation?
During my time at Plan International Canada and as part of my SMART goals, I listed the designation as one of my 2023 goals.

When did you begin your application and how long did it take to complete?
I began my application in 2022. It was an easy process.

It gave me the opportunity to list my credentials and determine where I was lacking points. Once I got the application going, it became easier to pursue the additional Education points to bridge the gap.

I completed the application over a few months while working to achieve the additional points.

The part of the application that usually takes people the longest is the Education section. How did you approach earning the needed Education points?
I had the majority of the Education points from courses, webinars, and conferences (including the 2021 CAGP virtual conference) I had attended. It’s amazing how many points we accumulate from professional development, which is a natural pathway in philanthropy.

The majority of my points were accumulated through CAGP, Toronto Metropolitan University, and a course run by Proposals for NGOs. The rest came from webinars and courses which were at no cost.

Can you describe how you approached studying? Did you participate in a study group? Which materials did you use and which did you find to be the most useful?
I drew a lot from my own experience as a fundraiser. I also joined a Facebook CFRE group who advised that one of the best resources was the book, “Achieving Excellence in Fundraising 5th edition.”

I consulted with colleagues who are CFREs and they offered good advice.

I think it is important to gather feedback from everyone but ultimately, you have to do what works best for you and reflect on how you have achieved results in the past. We may have different ways of studying. It’s important to recognize and stay true to that.

I also purchased the Practice Exam. I found that although the questions did not show up in the exam, it made me very comfortable with the format so there were no surprises on exam day. It also helped in identifying areas in philanthropy/fundraising where I needed to focus and spend more time.

Did you feel anxious at all about taking the exam? If so, how did you go about managing your anxiety?
Yes – there was some anxiety on exam day. I contacted a colleague who recently passed the exam to ask her advice on what to expect from a technical standpoint.

I wanted to ensure no time was wasted with technical difficulties. She shared her experience and that helped in getting me prepared for the proctored online exam.

Can you describe your experience on exam day and how you were feeling as you sat down to take the exam?
I felt anxious but excited. I knew the exam was going to be long. I prepared myself for that. I also knew that I loved the philanthropy field. With my experience and knowledge, I was going in well prepared to enjoy and pass the exam!

Once you passed, who was the first person you told?
The first person I told was the last person I called regarding any potential technical pitfalls. Her name is Kali. She was very excited and celebrated with me on the phone.

There are a number of people who complete the CFRE application requirements but hesitate to hit the “Submit” button. For anyone in that position, what words of encouragement would you offer?
Go for it! You know this!

The CFRE credential is a clear message that you are passionate about fundraising and especially about making the world a better place, regardless of which great organization, institution or mission you are part of.

Also, there is a whole body of fundraising professionals and CFREs who are willing to offer their advice, support, and encouragement.

Lastly, we have great support and resources from organizations like CAGP, AFP, and CFRE International, among others.

I wished I had done it earlier, but I am glad I finally did it!


CAGP members enjoy a 20% discount on CFRE initial certification and recertification. Put this member benefit to work for you.

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