Finding the Best Development Leadership


Small, medium, and even some large nonprofits share a common problem limiting their ability to raise sufficient philanthropic gifts.  They often lack knowledgeable supervision for the Development Team!

We are not talking about simple administrative oversight and basic management accountability.  Fundraising programs that excel have leadership with strong experience in all the various fundraising and donor communication disciplines—major gifts, foundations, government grants, events, members or monthly partner programs, planned giving, direct mail, email appeals, etc…

Such leaders are able to look at the data and know exactly what has been achieved so they can chart a clear path to growth.  They can discuss and approve strategies that will be most effective based on their knowledge of best practices and their own fundraising experience.  Most important—they provide the close supervision needed to keep their fundraising staff and volunteers motivated and productive.

Large organizations (hospitals, major cultural nonprofits, national organizations) raising several million dollars a year can pay well and attract highly experienced and accomplished Chief Development Officers.  Their CEO’s don’t have to know much about fundraising.  They can leave it to the V.P. of Advancement and simply look at the monthly numbers from accounting.

Small and medium sized nonprofits too often try to do the same thing, hire and hope.  Only they lack the salary level to attract highly qualified leadership talent in development.  Instead, they hire a director who has limited fundraising and managerial experience (perhaps directed the annual fund or managed events).  Then, they expect that person to suddenly manage a full-service program that meets or exceeds past efforts.  They leave all the decisions of strategy, priorities, and timing to someone who has never had to make those calls before.  While they may have hired a person eager to advance in the profession, he/she is suddenly thrust into a position of huge responsibility and urgency that they cannot do with their existing skillset.  Failure is likely, although unfortunately it often takes the CEO one or more years to see it.

One organization I know hired a successful foundation fundraising lead as their Director of Development.  She had no experience with major gifts, donor communications, or direct mail.  She really understood about 20% of the business, but since she had raised a lot of foundation money in her past job, she was thought qualified to lead a comprehensive fundraising program.  It took two years of mediocre production, confusing reports, and excuses before the CEO replaced her.  Wasted time.  Donor neglect.  Lost income.

There are INNOVATIVE ways to get the leadership you need.  Here are three suggestions:

  1. Pay your fundraising lead at market rate for such a position in your community. Unlike a lot of jobs within your organization, fundraisers can work across all non-profit genres.  They are not subject to salary scales that museums might have compared to hospitals or human service organizations.  The art and science of fundraising is basically the same.  Your organization is competing with all of the other nonprofits for good development leaders, not just the nonprofits in your specific sector.  So, stretch and pay them at or close to what the best nonprofits in your area are paying.  This might even mean paying them more than the CEO or COO.  If the result is more money raised leading to more mission accomplished, then flex your traditional rules and attract the person you need.
  1. Hire a consultant (part-time) to build and supervise your fundraising program. In the old days consultants were not hands-on.  They did assessments, helped you plan, offered training, and advised for big campaigns.  They were never considered replacements for ongoing staff functions.  That is now changing thanks in part to innovations in staffing models pioneered in the tech industry.  You can now find fundraising consultants who have a strong track record of success in organizational fundraising and management.  These people will accept a part-time contract to create your annual development plan, train and coach your staff, and supervise the team for maximum productivity.  What you pay them to do this part-time can easily be the same or even less than what you will pay to hire a less experienced person (factor benefits as well as salary).  Sure, they will not be at the office every day or attend all the senior management meetings.  But, they will keep your organization laser-focused on the multiple tasks of fundraising, give you weekly progress reports telling you exactly where you stand, and most important—you will see increased income raised.
  1. Hire a development coach to walk with your less-experienced director. This is another way to effectively use local consultants.  Hire one for a few hours a week to help your director make good decisions and effectively solve program and staff issues.  This might require only 4-5 weeks of consulting.  That cost added to what you are currently paying your director will likely be far less than hiring a highly experienced leader, and you will be building your internal capacity.

Strong Knowledgeable supervision is worth the investment no matter how you do it.  It focuses on the “inputs” (what you do to attract the donor and her giving) and doesn’t wait for the outcomes (dollars in the door).  It keeps top management aware of when and where money is coming from so they can plan.  It identifies poorly performing staff early so that adjustments can be made.  Most important, it makes sure that fundraising is done in such a way as to strengthen the organization’s reputation in the community.

No matter what size your organization is, you cannot afford to have a poorly led development program.  You will waste fundraising resources, lose donors, and lose income.  Take a look at your development leadership.  Are they doing the job?  Do they need more training or coaching?  Or, do you need a more experienced leader?  You have options no matter how tight your budget is.  Don’t settle for too little.  Fix it now!



By Michael Friedline
Sparrow Solutions Group Consultant
Principal Consultant, NonProfit Advance



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