by Mandy Pearce & Jason Rogers

If there is one thing that can be universally agreed upon by nonprofit organizations, it would be this:

Raising money is hard.

It’s true. Even though your organization is focused on its mission, has strong leadership, and is needed in the community, funding is still often hard to come by. So, it should come as no surprise that most organizations struggle to optimize the performance of their development staff. In my experience working closely with various nonprofit organizations, here are the best practices I have witnessed when building a strong development team.

Hire the right person –

Hiring the wrong person for a job is one of the most common mistakes of all employers, and it is one that will have a lasting effect. An employee is one of the most significant investments your organization can make, and the cost to replace them can be staggering. According to PeopleKeep, some studies predict that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs 6 to 9 months’ salary on average. For a development professional making $40,000, that’s $20,000 to $30,000 in recruiting and training expenses. Not to mention the amount of funding that is lost during the vacancy of that position. Yikes!

Know the responsibilities of the role you are looking to fill, have a well thought out job description prepared, as well as online, phone and in-person interview questions prepared. Deciding the types of information you need before engaging individuals in an interview process will not only help you find the best candidates, but it will help candidates determine if the job is what they are seeking as well.

What I find in many cases is an Executive Director or Board of Directors are interviewing potential development staff with no actual development experience of their own, and very little understanding of the role and responsibilities of a successful development director/staff. The development field has specific nuances, as do all fields, and asking the right questions will provide insights into the experience and skill of a potential employee.

Here are a few questions to consider adding to your list, based on the needs of your organization. For example, if your organization is not and does not plan to write grants, question 10 should obviously not be on your interview list. (It is important to know what the answers could be, should be and how to interpret potential replies before asking these questions. If you have little to no development experience, consider consulting with someone who does before interviewing for a development position.)

  1. What attracted you to this job?
  2. What is your favorite part of development?
  3. Tell me about the largest gift you DIDN’T get.
  4. Tell me about a particularly moving or surprising experience you had working directly with a donor.
  5. In your experience/opinion, what is the most important part of fundraising?
  6. What motivates you?
  7. Most successful strategy in working with donor and what is the donor retention rate of your last x organizations?
  8. How do you steward a $5 vs a $5000 donor?
  9. Have you developed your own development plan to reach goals set by an organization? If so, what is your process?
  10. What is your experience grant writing? Number you have written/received/amounts requested? What % of previous budgets funding was reliant on grant funding? Have you ever written state/federal grants?

The second part of hiring the right person is having the resolve and patience to stick with that person. Starting a position with a new organization is challenging regardless of your skill set. It takes time to learn what your typical day looks like, develop relationships with coworkers and supervisors, and become comfortable with the expectations and responsibilities. I would encourage you to have a structured plan for the first few months so that your new employee can get a grasp of the organization while also having some early successes. If you don’t know what needs to happen, what types of expectations are realistic, or what types of goals you should set for your development work/department, you may want to spend some time cultivating that information prior to reaching out to hire staff for the position.

Confidence is key in a development professional – include some tasks in your early plan that will build your new employee up.

  • Introduce them to key donors and community partners.
  • Have them review grants that your organization has successfully written in the past.
  • Direct them to make simple thank you phone calls to supporters who have given in the past.
  • Teach them how to use your donor database/software so they can independently run reports and gather data going forward.
  • Encourage them to set up individual meetings with board members to begin the relationship building process.
  • Provide them with the organization’s strategic plan so they can learn the expectations of the organization and each department, including their own.
  • Provide them with a current, prioritized needs list for fundraising and grant writing. 

These tasks will get your development staff in the right mindset for success while also introducing them to key people and concepts within your organization.

Reasonable Expectations –

Please understand, this is not code for “don’t challenge your employee.” Let me encourage you to step outside of the short-term mindset. If you’re the leader of an organization, you’re likely used to putting out fires all day long. Sometimes that is the necessary mindset to take care of daily operations. However, it should never be your mindset with your employees – especially those in a leadership position.

As tempting as it may be to throw your new development director right into the fire, find a way to ask big-picture questions while simultaneously meeting short-term goals. What is in the best interest of your company? Immediate results or long-term, sustainable success? The obvious answer is both. So why is it that development staff tends to only focus on the immediate needs? There are a lot of possible answers to that question; each organization is unique. The key is to make sure that whatever situation your organization is currently in, you don’t make the mistake of sacrificing long-term sustainability in favor of immediate needs.

When setting expectations for your development staff, be honest about urgent short-term needs while discussing how you can work together to set the organization up for long-term success.
Another aspect that is often overlooked when setting expectations is that development professionals need time to develop relationships with current donors, time to cultivate relationships with potential donors, and time to really understand what your organization is all about. Experienced development professionals estimate 18-36 months of cultivation is required before receiving a major gift (donation of $10,000+). That clock resets each time your organization experiences turnover in your development staff. So yes, push them to hit the ground running, there are some great ways to ease someone into their new role successfully, but don’t lose focus on the big picture.

Communication 

If you only have one takeaway from this article, I hope it is this one. All great leaders are incredible communicators. As an effective leader, you must cast vision and empower your employees. Without communication, nothing else matters.

This may sound simple, but in the nonprofit world, employees are spread thin. I don’t think lack of communication is ever a conscious choice, but a byproduct of being too busy and an overall lack of prioritization. Make sure that you don’t view every potential interruption as an emergency. Block off time with your development team each week to discuss progress toward goals and to communicate what is going on with the organization. The more the development staff knows, the more effective they will be in securing funding.

If you have ever worked for someone who is a poor communicator, you can understand how that can affect your job performance. For your employees to execute your vision for the organization, they must understand their piece of the puzzle. What good does it do to set expectations for your employees if they don’t know what they are OR how to get there? Always be intentional about effectively communicating with your team.

Have a Plan –

How can any piece of your business be successful without a plan? Goals without plans are nothing more than wishes.

Sit down with your development staff frequently to discuss goals and responsibilities for the short and long term.

  • What does your organization need in the next 3 months?
  • What are your diversified funding streams and which ones are your development staff responsible for annually?
  • What is the strategy for accomplishing each development goal and were the development staff responsible for, or a part of creating those strategies?
  • How are you going to get there?
  • Who is going to be responsible for what?
  • What does reporting look like, to whom, how often and in what format?
  • What about in the next 12 months, the next 5 years?

Constantly asking these questions will ensure that your development team will be effective in addressing all needs and that they will understand what is most important.

If you hire the right employee, set reasonable expectations, communicate effectively, and allow your development staff to have a voice, you will create unparalleled buy-in.

Collaborative Evaluation –

In order to effectively evaluate performance, you must be on the same team as your employee. Approach them as a partner, with a mindset of working out a plan together. This should be a simple four-step process: Strategize, execute, analyze, and adjust. Too frequently, I see goals passed down, with no understanding of how those goals are to be met. Having a monthly meeting to track progress will prevent small, preventable problems from getting out of control.

Strategize –

Meet with your development team and review your goals together. Collaborate to come up with the best strategy to reach each goal. This strategy should include things like assigning responsibilities and timelines so that the next steps will be more effective. Often this results in a development plan that is created at the end of each fiscal year with a projection of realistic expectations for the coming year. If a development plan is well-written and thought out, it should result in an easily trackable monthly chart of incomes/expenses which can be used to report to staff and board.

Execute 

Together you have come up with a plan, now empower your development team to go execute the plan. Let it be known that lines of communication are open and that you are available to support them in any way needed. Hire the right person for the job and let them do it. If you are going to hire someone with no experience because ‘they have a passion for your organization’, please, for the love of goodness, give them some training and don’t expect miracles right away.

Analyze 

Come together to review what worked well and what didn’t. There will be ideas that don’t go the way that you planned – that’s okay! Understand that people and ideas need room to succeed and room to fail. When something doesn’t go as planned, own it as a team and learn from it.

Adjust 

When your team met to analyze results, you were able to identify what worked well and what didn’t. This is the step in which you come together to decide what to do next. Maybe you tweak an idea or get some input from a new source. Maybe you decide to scrap the idea completely. Either way, this is a team-building exercise that promotes communication and collaboration. This process should never be about pointing fingers, but rather identifying opportunities to improve.

Your employee wants to be successful, both personally, and for your company. As the leader of the organization, your responsibility is to be there to support them, plan with them, and hold them accountable. When an employee feels like part of a team, they are going to be much more productive and open to suggestions and new ideas.

Finding the right Development Director may not be easy, but they are out there! Find them, challenge them, and support them, and you will see your organization thrive!

If you need help writing a job description, searching for and interviewing development staff candidates, or training new development staff, Funding For Good is here to help. Learn more about our Development Coaching or schedule a Vision Call to talk with us about your current needs.