Dani Robbins

Is this Chair Taken? Musical Chairs in the Development Department

In Leadership, Resource Development on December 4, 2014 at 10:30 am

There are more development positions open right now than I ever remember being open before. The field has always had a musical chairs component to it, yet it seems to be getting worse. Of course, when one thing shifts, other things shift, but it’s much more than that. Let’s talk about why that might be the case.

All too often, development staff are brought into to save an agency that is failing. By then, it’s too late. You can’t create a robust development department on a sinking ship. Development is based on relationships and relationship building takes time; time is a luxury that sinking ships rarely have.

The other reason it doesn’t work is that development directors, even the best ones, are not saviors. They cannot save an agency by themselves. If there is no culture of philanthropy and if there isn’t even really a culture of fund raising your development director is bailing water out of your sinking ship with a teaspoon. (Please click here to learn more about building a culture of philanthropy.)

As mentioned in The Role of the Nonprofit CEO “Resource development functions most effectively in a culture of servant leadership and philanthropy among the board and leadership team, as well as an agency-wide commitment.  A community cannot and will not invest in an agency without the investment of the board and staff.  Development staff cannot raise money without the support of the CEO. CEOs cannot raise money without the support of the board. Resource development is a group effort, with everyone giving, and everyone moving toward the goal of a sustainable organization.”

Part of why there may be so many positions open is because we may finally be paying the price of not giving recommendations. It is very hard to be on either side of a call for a reference with an agency that has a policy of not giving them. Like every other field, there are more than a few development directors who are not particularly good, and some that are really bad. I have seen development staff that are all glitz no substance; they talk a good game but can’t follow through, close the deal or raise the money. I have seen some that steal lists, or steal money, take advantage of unwilling or unsuspecting donors and some who flat out lie. If we can’t give references for fear of being sued, then we are allowing in another agency what is unacceptable in our own.

There are also quite a few Execs who hire for one thing when they need another. Grant writing, event planning and individual giving are different skills sets, as are marketing, advertising and sales. Grant writing requires knowledge of the program and the grantor’s expectations coupled with excellent writing skills and the ability to follow directions. Event planning is all about the goal and the details. Individual giving is about engagement, impact and relationships. All are dependent on reputation. Most people are good at one, sometimes two. Not very many people are good at all three. For the execs out there: which one did you need? Is that the one you hired?

Development is one of the few positions in the nonprofit field where metrics are really easy to measure. Is there more money? Is there enough money to cover the cost of the staff member plus? Or is there not?

Now, it’s possible that the way you are counting the “more money” may not necessarily be fair. Does your development team do all the back office and foundational work? Who makes the ask? To whose goal does that gift get credited?

Accountability is what separates the wheat from the chaff. What are the metrics for your development team members? What are you measuring and is that the right thing?

I always counted any new contributed income that could even remotely be attributed to the development department toward their goals. Even if I made the ask, they were the ones that made that ask possible. The development team did the leg work. They gave me list of who to call and notes on what to say. They wrote the letters. They entered the data. They reminded me what the donor cared about, the name of their partners and kids and at what level they had previously gifted. I remembered a lot on my own, but team confirmed (or corrected) what I thought I knew. They did the heavy lifting.

My board, volunteers, the development director or I ate the lunches, built the relationships and closed the deals. The development team made us look good, and I credited them for all new money that came into our coffers. The director assigned metrics based on the roles her team members were fulfilling. She held them accountable, I held her accountable and the board held me accountable. Of course, we each held each other and our selves accountable as well.

Some organizations only count the money that specific fund raisers raise, and I’m sure that makes sense for their agency. For mine, whether I made the ask, my DD made the ask or a board member made the ask – other than an ‘atta boy, a high five and a happy dance for the “asker” – the development department got the credit toward their goal and their goal got rolled up under my goals. We weren’t working at cross purposes. We were aligned and are goals were as well. Are yours?

There is also one more wrinkle: This year, for the first time in many years, there is money available for capital projects. That hasn’t happened since 2008, when many foundations stopped funding capital projects in an effort to shore up agency operations during a time of rampant fear, when money that had previously been available began disappearing across the board and across funding streams. New money and new possibilities creates new needs for organizations and new opportunities for fund raisers. That’s good. That’s progress. Or it could be…

The tenure of development directors is short. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually a two year run. I’ve read some studies that suggest it’s even shorter. Two years is long enough to learn the agency and know its donors and begin to get some traction. That’s about it. It’s not enough time to raise significant money. It’s not enough time to get the job done. It’s certainly not enough time to thrive.

There’s a lot of movement in the development field and while there are some positives, at the end of the day it ends up being a detriment to us all. We, as nonprofit leaders, need to make sure we are hiring the right people in the right roles to help us move our agency forward. We also need to create the right culture and enough opportunities for growth and professional development for them to stay. Turnover has a cost, financial and otherwise. It’s also a distraction, and we have work to do.

Why do you think there are so many jobs open? What can we do about it? As always, I welcome your insight, feedback and experience. Please share your ideas or suggestions for blog topics and consider hitting the follow button to enter your email. A rising tide raises all boats.

  1. Thank you for your article. I agree with your point that Development Directors are “not saviors”. This could not be more true. While it is easy to say that organizations should pay more, even organizations with Development directors who are paid well, are successful in their jobs and have a positive relationship with their chief executive, have high turnover. I believe development directors must be included as key strategic leaders within senior administration, have a direct relationship with the board and included in budget planning accordingly. However, on the contrary, all too often I have seen development directors simply “told” who is being cut in their department for example, instead of being included in that decision making process. It is all too common a misconception that development budgets are too high and that they can raise more with less. Organizations continue to cut corners with development for the sake of focusing their dollars on “program”, and do not view development as the long- term investment that it should be. To this point, Development Directors should be respected for their expertise, and have a certain degree of autonomy to run their departments and staff accordingly.

    Quality of life and flexible work hours should also be given a closer look. In addition to needing to work many hours in order to achieve fundraising goals, development directors must revolve their work hours around donor, board and other key volunteer schedules, resulting often in 15+ hour days that begin with 7am meetings and conclude with events that end past 10pm. This is especially true for performing arts organizations and independent schools.

    The key take away here is that fundraising success is not attributable to any one “savior”, but rather to a “team” that is built upon a culture of philanthropy.


  2. From my personal experiences, the lack of continuity can many times be traced to the overall morale in the organization. The employees workplace satisfaction along with a Culture of Philanthropy will go a long way toward making it or breaking it. You can have one, both or neither.

    This process should always start at the top where the example is set. The leadership or lack there of from the President/CEO will resonate either positively or negatively and that sets the stage for feast or failure. Job performance, attitude and longevity are affected by an organizations stance on being employee centric, professional, above reproach, ethical, honest, etc.

    The revolving door of employment does not get the attention it needs or deserves and is a
    tell tale sign of the organizations interest in addressing “THE” issues.


  3. I appreciate your thoughts on “why” the high turnover rate. It seems, that good ‘fit’ for both fundraiser AND organization is imperative to fostering growth (both organizational and professional). If one of those things is off kilter, fundraisers are more inclined to job-hop. Recruiters seem very impressed by metrics and personality, but these things don’t always determine character or ‘fit.’ It seems there may be a need for a fundraiser-specific hiring focus.

    For an interesting take on common hiring practices, read: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/15-dumb-things-absolutely-dont-predict-job-success-lou-adler


    • Thanks for commenting! I agree fit has to go both ways. Would you tell me more about what you mean by fund raiser specific hiring focus?
      I like Adler’s suggestions at the end. Thanks for sharing.


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