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Staffing & Retaining A Nonprofit Development Director: The Truth

Find out what it takes to staff and retain the right nonprofit development director.

Fund development is one of the greatest challenges nonprofits face, beginning with staffing their head fundraiser: the Development Director, commonly known as the position with the most job turnover.

If things aren't working out with a Development Director, the question from leadership is often, “Should we fire our Developmental Director?”, as many suggest. However, the root of development problems often trace back to more fundamental issues, such as the engagement of the Executive Director and Board or the organization’s infrastructure and culture.   

Many nonprofits need to look at making changes within their organization in regards to their leadership style, systems, and culture to better support fundraising as well as their directors of development. Let's take a closer look.

The “Revolving Door” Position

Throughout the sector, the nonprofit development director position is the hardest job to fill and retain. As a result, organizations often have long vacancies and face instability in management and donor relationships and contributions.

On the surface, there is only a small pool of qualified candidates. Individuals also do not seem to continue to work in the field long enough to develop their job skills. “Many development directors aren’t committed to staying in development. Beyond anticipated rates of organizational departure, significant numbers of development directors reported that they anticipate leaving the field of development within two years,” according UnderDevelopeD: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising.

Nonprofit organizations are confronted with a critical staffing problem. It’s a seemingly never-ending circle of insufficient talent, poor position definition, and unrealistic expectations that contribute to high job turnover and dissatisfaction.

A Marketer or PR Specialist or Salesman?

Several executive directors will argue there is not a pool of adequate talent to draw from when hiring development directors in the first place. Many of those individuals have no prior experience working in nonprofits beforehand as well.

Traditionally, nonprofits look for candidates with a background in marketing, public relations and promotion.  With fund development mostly about securing donations, sales management could be a more relevant field to draw potential hires. Fundraising is essentially selling – not so much promoting – and development directors are supposed to be donor-centric, where as a marketing director is more institution-focused. Basically, fund development is about suiting donors where as marketing is more aggressive in its communications in serving the organization’s mission. If more could see the parallels between the nonprofit director of development and the corporate sales and retail manager, executive directors might be able to source more qualified, applicable talent.


Annual Development Plan Checklist


Unrealistic Expectations Placed on the Position

When donation numbers fall short of projections, the individual held accountable is usually the development director. There is an essential issue with evaluating their job performance by results when so many other factors can influence fundraising outcomes. In addition, if executive directors and board members only look at quantifiable donations, they are not considering the progress the development directors could have made in cultivating prospects and donor relationships, which lead to funds in time.

There is a common misguided mindset among executive directors that their organization could just fundraise more with someone else in the development director’s position. Many smaller organizations, especially, view a new development director as the answer to their financial predicament – they think that by bringing in the best job candidate their payroll can afford, their problems will just be solved. “Most nonprofit organizations find themselves knocking at the door of financial insolvency before they consider hiring a ‘development person.’ The situation is dire. Budgets are no longer reachable. Membership rolls are dwindling…find someone to ‘be a fundraiser’ – who will save the day,” says Jeff McLinden in The Successful Developmental Director. Organizations will place a lot of their hopes on one person.

Many nonprofits feel that if only they had someone devoted to fundraising, their organization would begin to thrive. A nonprofit cannot just hire their way out of a fundraising lull and the position of development director cannot simply be inserted into an organization. To be successful, nonprofit development directors need an involved executive director, board, and staff to be integrated into their fundraising – they need to coordinate and communicate across departmental boundaries.

When development directors do work across departments upon getting hired, it is usually in vain, with other staff merely offloading their excess workloads. They are then bombarded with the entirety of the fundraising and all the related tasks that support donor prospects and membership. As well, the inconsistent attention and collaboration executive directors and the board of trustees often provide development directors can be a frustrating relationship structure.

Organizational Synergy and Energy for Fundraising

Fundraising can’t just be the responsibility and concern of one person in the organization – it needs to be a priority that’s shared among everyone, including the executive director, staff, and board. All organizational workers should be aligned to the nonprofit’s mission and the ultimate goal of raising funds to support that mission. Nonprofits need to establish a “culture of philanthropy” within the organization, defining the principles as well as the practices that will cultivate fund development.

Also, the smaller the organization, the more “hats” the development director has to wear. Often, job specifications remain undefined and ambiguous, leaving the director of development to perform everything from marketing to general operations in addition to finance and fundraising. If they are not fully focused on the donors – generating and nurturing both “givers” and “gifts” – the organization will not be able to successfully raise the resources they need to continue.

The development directors are often unsupported by their organizations. Nonprofits often do not have the elements in place to help their development directors succeed or even adequately do the job. Newly established development director roles frequently include having to try to reach goals without the use of adequate donor management systems and fundraising resources. A development director’s responsibility should be to support and expand upon an existing fund development strategy and donor membership base rather than completely establishing a fundraising infrastructure from the ground up. Outlining and instituting the definite job specifications of the director of development is principal, with setting the up with the proper resources for the position too.

It is an understatement to say nonprofits are strapped for people and strapped for resources. A nonprofit that relies on fundraising efforts and donor relationships to subsidize its budget should have a development director.  Fundraising directly translates into organizational success and must be an integrated aspect of its operations.

Having high turnover rates and gaps in a development director position create lag effects in fundraising — the mainstay of sustaining an organization’s philanthropic work and mission.  Simply hiring a “fundraising expert” is inefficient without establishing the proper cross-departmental infrastructure, systems, and culture within the organization, making fundraising some level of priority for everyone. A change in thinking across the nonprofit sector could ease the challenges organizations face in attracting quality development directors and raising the funds they need to succeed.


If you want to unlock more supporter management and fundraising tips, check out these additional resources:

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Topics: Donor Management