Successfully transitioning to a career in development includes a lot of skill-sets.

There are a few things that have remained paramount to the success of those I work with in all realms of development. Knowing these 10 things, and learning to do them well, is a great foundation for long-term success for a career in development.

  1. The key to great development work is relationship building.

A career in development is about the relationships you build, the connections you make, and the time you put into building lasting ties. Whether you are grant writing, planning special events, growing a planned giving program, or thanking a donor, work on the relationships first. It will pay huge dividends in the end. The goal of sustainability is to retain donors, not continuously ‘need’ to acquire new ones. This is done through cultivate and true relationship building.

“The overall 2020 donor retention rate was 43.6%, a 4.1% drop from the 2019 rate of 45.4%. The chief factor in the decrease was a 9.2% drop in the new donor retention rate.” (Source: AFP Fundraising Effectiveness Project) For those of you who are wondering what this means exactly, it means that for ever 100 donors you take the time to cultivate and secure, you are only retaining 43-44 of them in the next fiscal year. That is a LOT of work, for a not so amazing return on investment (ROI). It’s pretty expensive to acquire a donor, so the goal is to retain them.

Takeaway: Be sure to ask questions about donor cultivation, the budget allotted for donor cultivation in the development budget, the current realities of donor relations for any organization you are interviewing with, how many ‘active’ donors are in the database, how many inactive/lapsed donors are in the database, and what goals are currently establish around donor acquisition.

  1. There are LOTS of hours spent communicating.

A career in development involves trying to get appointments, thanking donors, confirming information, securing sponsorships, scheduling pick-ups, asking for volunteers, and the list goes on. The amount of time spent communicating as a development staff is significant. It SHOULD be significant. Those conversation will lead to meetings, lead to better relationships, lead to continued conversations and lasting impact, i.e. donor relations.

“Donor relations is the comprehensive effort of any nonprofit that seeks philanthropic support to ensure that donors experience high-quality interactions with the organization that foster long term engagement and investment.” (Source: Association of Donor Relations)

Today’s world lends itself to multiple channels of communication from phone call, to virtual meeting, to emails or texts (and of course, there are in-person meetings when possible). The point is, communication is 90% of the work in a development role.

Most of the communication is not ‘the ask’, rather relationship building until you get to the ask, and then more relationship building for continued cultivation. Thanking, assuring, sharing impact, partnering, and so on all make up the world of development. Do your job well, and sustaining fundraising revenues becomes easier.

  1. It’s all about who you know.

We hear this a lot growing up. But I find it to be very true with a career in development. Who you know can open doors for meetings, can help smooth the way for an introduction, can get in-kind donations more rapidly, will allow for easier conversations and often remove barriers. Who you know, and who your staff, board and volunteers know, can have a positive impact on your ability and success in the world of development. Do lots of networking and learn how to lead your board, staff and volunteer through prospecting exercises to benefit from their connections too. It’s amazing the resources that you already have and the low hanging fruit that is right at your fingertips… if you just know how to search for it.

  1. Handwritten thank-you notes are a must.

For all things in life, and a career in development work is no different, a hand-written thank you note goes a long way. Always thank EVERY donor, at least once a year, with a hand-written and sincere thank-you note. It doesn’t have to be a novel. Do not use pre-printed notes with your signature. Write the notes individually. I have practiced this and encouraged all my clients to do the same for over 20 years and never failed to have positive results.

According to a study conducted by IMPACTS Research, the number one reason – by a wide margin – that donors didn’t give after the initial gift was that they did not receive a ‘thank you’ for that gift. As development professionals, we have to concern ourselves with the sustainability of the organization, not just the short-term gains. In fundraising, sustainability is directly related to your ability to build relationships. We don’t simply want to thank these donors; we want to appreciate them.

For more check out our blog: The Art of the Handwritten Thank-You

  1. Planting seeds today WILL reap a harvest, you just don’t know when.

Becoming a year-round fundraising executive is what I always strived for when I was working as a development professional. I was always planting seeds, putting out feelers, reaching out to new contacts, meeting with potential donors or partners, and building rapport with community organizations and businesses. There was a never ending supply of potential opportunities based on previously planted seeds. I encourage you to always be thinking ahead and planting seeds everywhere you can for the future needs you have not yet identified. You never know when those seeds will sprout and when fruit will be produced.

  1. Fundraising should be strategic-plan driven.

Using the strategic plan as the foundation of all fundraising plans, and aligning your goals to those in the strategic plan will lead to easier fundraising.

Funding for Good’s preferred definition of a strategic plan is “a roadmap for where an organization is going, how it will get there, and specific ways to determine if you have ‘arrived’ at the destination.”

That roadmap includes dollars you need for specific projects, programs, special initiatives and which dollars are not covered through already existing revenue streams. Once these items have been identified, exploring current and prospective revenue streams to determine which ones may be the best fit for each should happen. Then a strategy for raising those dollars gets discussed, and voila, you have the beginnings of a solid fundraising plan that aligns with the strategic plan. Is it work, yes. But, better to have a plan that always winging it!

  1. An approved needs/want list is vital in a fundraising toolkit.

A successful development director will have access to an approved organizational/program/department-specific needs/wants list. This allows for better alignment of organization needs to prospects priorities. It also allows for a development staff to more easily create messaging and speaking/talking points around the identified needs. This list doesn’t need to be complicated. Here is an example of a template you can use internally to craft this list.

  1. All staff should have performance goals for their annual performance review.

As a personal preference, I never took a development job where the goals I was expected to achieve were not written out and part of my annual goals/evaluation. Without this I didn’t know what I was expected to do and couldn’t create the strategies to succeed. It also helps so folks aren’t constantly adding stuff to your to-do list that wasn’t outlined at the beginning of the year.

Not only do you need a fundraising plan that is based on the strategic plan, but you need personal goals so you can’t be held accountable for things that were not assigned to you, or were not part of the goals of your position. In one job I remember clearly, having my goals outlined in writing saved my job from a vindictive superior who tried their best to say I wasn’t doing my job. All-in-all, I had not only achieved my goals, but exceeded them, and thankfully, I could prove those facts in writing. *whew

You never want to think you’ll be in a contentious situation at work, but always cover yourself because you just never know what the universe has in store.

  1. A Development Director is only as good as the program they represent.

People want to fund your impact, not your existence. If you don’t know the impact of your organization/program/project, how can you successful raise the funds to sustain it? If you have a great program, but can’t share its’ impact, how will others know its’ greatness? Insist on systems that allow for tracking baseline and ongoing data, metrics that highlight your impact, and tools to share both. You will be more successful, more quickly, and find fundraising and messaging become easier with these tools at your fingertips.

  1. ‘Ask for money, get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice.’ Pitbull

This is pretty simple. If you go about asking everyone for money, you are going to get a LOT of advice. But, if you spend some time asking for advice, you will find resources in abundance. I’m not going to spend a ton of time elaborating on this one because it’s a blog all of its’ own. But, I encourage you to go try this and see what your experience is. I bet you’ll quickly learn to listen more than you talk, and ask for advice, suggestions, opinions more than you share your own.

While these are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to skills a successful development director will possess, they are a great place to start. Keep growing for good!

Developing Your Development Director

Leading a Strong Development Team

Development Coaching

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