Key Aspects of Leading a Strong Development Team

by | Mar 7, 2019 | Development/Fundraising

As a professional development coach, I often see the results of Executive Directors (ED) with little to no development experience who are supervising development staff. Many times the ED becomes a supervisor only and does not have the skill set to lead and build a strong development team.

Additionally, the ED does not fully understand the scope of development work and redirects the efforts of development staff to areas that are not the best use of their time or the organization’s resources. It is always a pleasure to work with an open-minded ED who understands their limitations or lack of knowledge and is ready to learn alongside their development staff to make efforts of all parties more meaningful and more impactful. This truly helps build a strong development team.

What types of things am I referring to? Here are a few real-life examples I have run into over the past 20 years that highlight the lack of understanding of an ED who ‘supervises’ development staff.

  • From an Executive Director to a Development Director. “Why are you handwriting those thank you notes? That seems like a waste of time.”
  • After a development plan has been established for a year, an Executive Director decides to implement MONTHLY special events for the organization to raise dollars and/or awareness and wants to task the Development Director with managing them.
  • An Executive Director creating a capital campaign and getting it approved by the board without including the Development Director in any of the conversations until after the board approves it.
  • An ED who directs program staff to ask the DD to write a grant for immediate needs like a $250 piece of equipment.

This list goes on and on, but I bet you get the picture. Various things that anyone versed in best practices of development work would know not to do.

Here are some of the things an Executive Director can do to not only supervise but lead their development staff.


1) Set a clear direction for the organization.

The primary job of a strong development team is to communicate the mission of the organization in a way that generates excitement. In order to do this, they need to be 100% clear on exactly what your organization is hoping to accomplish, how they want to accomplish it, and what results they can expect to see. Include your development team in all relevant communication, get their input, and make sure they are fully on board with your organization’s goals.

2) Be aware of your limitations as a coach.

Should lack of development experience prevent a person from being an Executive Director?

Absolutely not!

Dynamic leaders come from many different backgrounds, but they are always aware of their strengths and weaknesses relating to their responsibilities. If you find yourself in this position, collaborate with your development team – find out what they need and then use your resources to support them. Also, take the time to learn as much as you can about development work. It will show your team that you are invested in them and will also prepare you to fill their role in an interim basis should they leave suddenly.

3) Set clear expectations.

This is absolutely critical. Development means many different things to many different people. If you want to maximize the output and create a strong development team, clearly communicate your expectations to them. If they aren’t sure what their role is, they will find themselves trying to balance too many responsibilities. When that happens, the quality of their work will suffer.

So, what do you want out of your development team?

Is your primary focus on securing new donors and cultivating those who already support your organization? Do you need someone to write grants for your different programs? Maybe your organization puts on several events each year – are those the responsibility of your development team? Help them prioritize and you will see them succeed!

4) Hire well and get out of the way!

Many times, leaders are so desperate to fill an urgent need, they end up settling for the wrong person. That is one of the worst mistakes any organization can make. Take your time, do your homework, create the job description for the employee you need, and hire a great employee. It will save you significant time, energy, and money down the road to have patience during the hiring process. Once you find the right person, give them the freedom to succeed. If you have communicated clear direction for your organization and set specific expectations for your development team, step back and trust them to do their job. Great leaders create new leaders, while managers simply supervise employees.

If we can help with Development Coaching, let us know. You may also find some Upcoming Events to attend or helpful information in our Free Stuff section. As always, Keep Growing for Good!

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