Right on the Money: Four Ingredients to Hiring an Effective Development Director

Photograph of a young businesswoman looking thoughtful.

According to a recent study by nonprofit consulting group CompassPoint, nonprofit organizations face several obstacles to financial sustainability: high turnover in fundraising positions, a dearth of qualified candidates for those jobs, and the lack of a clear “fundraising culture” that incorporates the entire organization beyond one person.

The common element in these challenges is staffing, specifically the difficulty in finding and nurturing an effective fundraising or development director.

NCFY asked Marla Cornelius, senior project director at CompassPoint and co-author of “UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising,” to talk about how youth- and family-serving nonprofits can recruit great chief fundraisers. She offered four main pieces of advice:

1. Look for expertise. Cornelius warns against hiring a candidate just because they are passionate about your organization’s mission.

“If you’re hiring a development director, a manager who is truly a director, you want someone who is quite skilled at the techniques,” she says. “There’s no excuse to not have expertise in this profession, because it is a profession.”

Cornelius recommends that hiring teams familiarize themselves with CFRE International, which certifies fundraising executives and standardizes their ethics and knowledge.

“Of course professionalism shouldn’t come at the expense of the other components—culture fit, mission fit, team fit—but they should be in balance,” she says.

2. Embrace fundraising as essential, not a necessary evil. Cornelius stresses that financially sustainable programs think of money-raising as essential to services rather than ancillary to it.

“What we see often [at CompassPoint] is that fundraising is thought of as a tactical thing rather than a central mission of the organization,” she says. “There’s a conception of program staff vs. fundraising, and that’s the shift we need to make: stop siloing. We have to be much more integrated in our work or we’ll stay in this vicious cycle” of turnover and fiscal instability.

Downplaying the importance of fundraising can create friction among staff, as well.

“We transfer how we feel about the act of fundraising to how we feel about the person,” says Cornelius, who interviewed many development directors who felt disrespected by staff and boards. “There was an attitude of, ‘You just spend all day raising money, rubbing elbows’” that contributed to the high turnover that CompassPoint observed among fundraising directors.

3. Know where the person will fit. Many organizations place fundraising all on one person’s shoulders. To help a director of development be as successful as possible, Cornelius says organizations should ask themselves a few questions before hiring: Who in the staff will collaborate with this person? Is this position being championed within the company? Do we have a database and good communication and marketing materials to help them get started?

4. Embrace the need for improvement. If your fundraising requires ground-up rethinking, Cornelius says it’s okay to tell an applicant, “We’re excited to have you change this for us. We want you to lead and help us make this shift.”

“If you’re the first development director that helps an organization shift from a shaky financial foundation to a healthy one,” she says, “you’ll feel proud and connected to that organization for a long time.”

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