Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during July/Aug 2011, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.
As you know, I’m leaving my position as development director of Our Good Organization to pursue a new, exciting career as an urban farmer. I hope you won’t mind my taking this opportunity to give some blunt but honest feedback on the challenges I faced and that so many developments staff experience in their work.
Please know that I understand how hard a job you have. The vision, leadership, and 24/7 commitment you bring to this work is inspiring and has made a huge difference to our community. However, some of the problems we’ve faced in trying to meet our budget could be better addressed, I believe, by a different approach to the organization’s development function. In your effort to make your job more manageable, I imagine you have wished that fundraising didn’t take up so much of your time—or even that some rich person or foundation would just give the organization enough money that we wouldn’t have to fundraise any more. I’ve had those fantasies, too!
Or maybe you realize we really are better off building a broad base of individual donors but think that if only the development staff would do it all, your time could be devoted elsewhere. Alas, what’s really needed is a rethinking of some of these assumptions and new ways to tackle our fundraising challenges.
Here are my top suggestions for how you can build a happier and healthier development department, and a healthier organization as well.
A key to successful fundraising is recognizing that development staff are not solely responsible for meeting the organization’s income projections. We’re a critical part of the team and we should play a leadership role, but everyone—from the executive director to the board and nondevelopment staff people—should be involved in some way in fundraising. Everyone should consider how their jobs intersect with development goals and how they can help generate income for the organization.
It will take your leadership to make this “whole organization” approach to fundraising happen. Your support of the development staff when they present ideas for the year’s fundraising plan to the board, or try to get board members to sign up for the major gift campaign, or make thank you calls to recent donors, is key to conveying the importance of fundraising to the board. When you don’t speak up to champion these efforts, you send the message that participation is optional, and maybe even not all that important.
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Similarly, when agendas for staff meetings are so packed that there isn’t enough time to discuss fundraising goals and strategies in depth, the development staff role becomes one of nagging other staff members about their participation rather than offering an opportunity for us all to question, explore and share ideas. The result is, as you’ve seen, an underperforming campaign,
event or appeal.
Your leadership is also essential in modeling engagement in fundraising. When you’re reluctant to ask individual prospects for money or to meet with some of our major donors, the rest of the staff and board take notice. If you won’t do it, they’re certainly not going to. Moreover, many donors will be less likely to give a large gift if they don’t have an opportunity to meet at some point with the executive director.
The director of development should be on the management team. By virtue of our relationships with donors, volunteers, and allies, development staff may offer a different perspective on program direction and strategy. Beyond our skills in developing and implementing fundraising programs, development staff believe in the mission of the organization and have ideas about how it can be carrying out its work.
When I first came on staff you said that it wasn’t a good use of my time to be part of discussions and planning around program work, that since my plate was so full, why would I look for more work to do? But I’ve come to realize that this approach is short-sighted. It leaves development directors with enormous responsibility (to bring in funds) but very little authority (over decisions related to what funds are being raised for)—a stressful work situation that is probably the biggest reason for the high turnover rate in development. Keeping good staff for five years or more will make an enormous difference in your ability to build a strong and effective fundraising program.
It takes a while for a new staff person, especially in a complex position that requires strong relationships with many different constituencies, to be fully up to speed on their job. It’s not possible to build a strong team, identify new sources of funds, and generate new income within a few months of starting the job. Realistically, you should assume that it will take at least six months for the investment in this position to result in new monies, and that for larger gifts and foundation grants it can take closer to a full year. If there are significant problems with the organization’s infrastructure and systems, it can take months just to resolve those and be able to develop successful campaigns. Think about all of the knowledge that is required to carry out one individual donor campaign (e.g., our annual year-end appeal to current donors). In order to successfully implement this year-end fund drive, development directors need to know who the donors and prospects are, what the case for support is, that is, what the content of the request for money will be, who are the best people (board, staff and other volunteers) to recruit to the solicitor team, which members of the fundraising team are the best ones to cultivate and/or solicit which prospects, and that’s all before they even begin designing and producing the letter, making sure the database can produce the reports they need on donors’ giving histories, relationships to the organization, etc. And the first time the development director leads this effort, you’ll need to be closely involved, meaning you won’t actually be able to be as relieved of fundraising responsibilities as you’d hoped, though it should be a lot easier not having to do it all.
Most problems in an organization show up in funding (or its lack), and it is easy to blame everything on poor fundraising. But I noticed that our organization grew very fast and began to community doesn’t really know us, and responses to our fundraising efforts are lower than if we had planned our growth more carefully and with greater attention to what our community really wants and needs. Too often, executive directors think fundraising is the problem and better “messaging” is the answer.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter. I honestly feel that changes to even a few of the issues I raise here will help the next development director not only enjoy a positive, productive and fruitful partnership with you, but will likely play a key role in building a better and more financially secure fundraising future for the organization. N
Stephanie Roth is a consultant with Klein and Roth Consulting. She is the former editor of the Grassroots Fundraising Journal, and co-author of The Accidental Fundraiser: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Money for Your Cause.