Have you ever woken up one morning and thought, “You know what? I want to be a lawyer,” and proceeded to show up in a courtroom to try a case? Or perhaps you decided to be a firefighter and then jumped on a passing firetruck and ran into a burning building? Probably not, seeing as training, certification, degrees, tests, research, and experience are required to qualify you for a position in the aforementioned fields.
The strange fact is that many people DO jump into high-level fundraising positions with no previous nonprofit experience. The individual may have a marketing background, which they believe qualifies them to be a development director. Or perhaps they are great at talking to people, which they believe automatically translates into donor stewardship.
While some people are very good at team-based fundraising (i.e. they can tap all their friends and raise money for a charity by running a marathon) we at DSA have seen organizations suffer because they hired someone as an ED or a Development Director who had zero experience actually working for a nonprofit organization in a fundraising capacity.
What does it take to be a good Development Director?
This article is not meant to discourage individuals from joining the nonprofit sector-on the contrary, it can be very beneficial to organizations to mix in different skill sets. However, those skills should be paired with nonprofit experience and training before individuals assume leadership positions.
Those of us working daily in fundraising have to monitor trends and act on them. We read many articles on best practices and have formal education in the field. We regularly attend conferences on new trends and brush up on old. Working on the front lines of fundraising, we see every day what appeals to donors and we act upon this combined knowledge. Your development director should be exposed to these same professional development experiences.
Assuring that a candidate for development director is experienced and able to secure gifts falls to those doing the hiring. In the 2013 report from the Haas Fund, Underdeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, one in four EDs say their development directors have no experience with prospective donor research. It is unwise to expect someone with no experience to get the job done correctly. We need to know what constitutes a good candidate and what individual is the right fit for our organization. The fact that 40% of development directors anticipate leaving the field within two years means it falls on us to make sure that the people we are hire are those who plan to grow with the organization.
More dauntingly, the odds are stacked against smaller organizations. The Haas report says that “development directors in small organizations are much less likely to have the range of skills and experience that their counterparts at larger nonprofits do.” Small organizations (under $1million) are unable to compete with larger organizations in terms of salary and stability, which results in a much smaller pool of qualified candidates to choose from.
Okay, against all odds we finally found a good candidate. Now what?
A key piece of an effective development director position is having the systems and people in place to support their role. According to the Haas Fund report, 43% of development directors characterize their fundraising programs as “not at all effective” or “somewhat effective.” This can be attributed to any combination of the following: a failure of the organization to establish a fundraising plan, ambivalence of the board towards fundraising, or inability of the development director to influence financial goals. We in the field need to establish a position with a strong support system built in that includes a functioning database, a supportive board and executive director and a fundraising budget.
For any organization, fundraising is an ongoing pursuit. It takes the correct combination of the resources and time you as an organization put into it and what the person you are hiring brings to the table. As with any profession, having the right mix of skills and experience is incredibly important to maintaining a sustainable organization. Finding and cultivating a development director with skills specific to the nonprofit sector can go a long way towards the success of the organization.