4 keys to finding and keeping effective development directors

AAI E-news readers should take a close look at the Bell/Cornelius study featured in this issue. The research findings about the fundraising challenges faced by many nonprofit organizations are enlightening, interesting, helpful, concerning–and not surprising. In fact, the study directly reflects my own perceptions and experiences as a development officer over many years and an advancement consultant since 2002.

Some of our AAI clients came to mind when I reviewed the data about the difficulties many small nonprofits face in finding and keeping effective development directors; setting realistic fundraising expectations and goals; and involving organizational leaders in the development program. But I also thought of those who have successfully addressed the obstacles identified in the study, and are now reaping the benefits of strong stakeholder support.

Bell and Cornelius include a helpful list of recommendations at the conclusion of their report. Below I underline some of those suggestions and add several of my own.

1. Grow your own development officer. A number of years ago, I wrote an article that described how small nonprofit organizations should consider “growing their own” development officer, instead of just looking for someone already in the field. They can do this by paying more attention to the essential qualities a successful fundraiser must have, rather than be fixated on previous development experience. (Read the entire article under the “Resources” tab on the AAI website.)

This approach may lead to a candidate currently connected to your organization who has the potential to be a great fundraiser. Why? Because such a person already fits the culture of your organization, believes strongly in your mission, can build positive relationships with major donors, and is committed to a long tenure. As the Bell/Cornelius study found, those attributes are vital for success in fundraising.

2. Invest in your development director. Particularly if you have hired a fundraiser with little previous experience, provide adequate resources for professional development–consultation, mentoring, development conferences. Require a written advancement plan each year, read through it, ask useful questions, and use the plan for reference in annual evaluations.

3. Consider your chief fundraiser as a key organizational leader. The development director should report directly to the CEO and have a seat at the senior executive table. The director should be invited to present the annual advancement plan and give fundraising reports to the board at strategic times throughout the year. These arrangements promote realistic goal-setting and ensure that the “donor voice” is heard directly as major decisions are made.

4. Understand that development is a team effort. Yes, the development director is the team captain. But there are distinctive roles both the CEO and board must play in a successful fundraising program, particularly with major donors. Clarify these roles and responsibilities. Provide training so that everyone is prepared and comfortable. Finally, create the expectation that board and executive staff members will be regular givers themselves.