How do you find a great Head of Development?

I’ve been asked this question a lot, and was asked it again the other day by the CEO of a growing, successful nonprofit, so here are some thoughts.

First, let’s clarify who’s asking the question and what this means about what they’re looking for.

For a long time I’ve argued on this blog that the nonprofit sector has radically misunderstood what fundraising means, what fundraising jobs are, and, consequently, how to staff the fundraising (“development,” whatever) department.  To recap: it’s not separate from “the real work.”   It is core to your strategy, to who you are, and to how you deliver on your promise to the world.

There’s a lot of talk about what “traditional fundraising” is and isn’t, and whether in the brave new nonprofit world in which we live, we need to re-imagine fundraising (yes) and what a fundraiser looks like and does (probably).

I think part of the reason we’ve ended up walking down the wrong path is because professional fundraising was born in a university setting – which unfortunately is a poor model of what most nonprofit fundraising is really like.  Referring to the 2-by-2 matrix below, I’d describe university fundraising squarely in the bottom-left corner: “existing constituency” and “primarily execution.”  That is, there is an established constituency (alumni) with an existing ties to and strong relationships with the university, and the role of the professional university fundraiser is largely to execute on a set of giving targets for this constituency.  University fundraising for really big donations can certainly drift to the top left corner of the matrix – think new chairs, new fields of study, new departments – but by and large the ability of the Development team to regularly and significantly impact the overall university strategy in the short- to medium-term will, in most cases, be limited because of the sheer size and scope of the institution.

Contrast this with the world of the startup / growing nonprofit: it has no constituency and its strategy and aspirations are evolving, expanding, taking sharp turns.

Suddenly it’s obvious that you’re looking for a different set of skills than what’s needed in a big, established institution.  An organization in the top-right corner is mobilizing resources against an idea with no defined constituency in place, and it is going through a period of its evolution in which there will be a constant interplay between the financial resources that can be mobilized, the promises made to funders and the overall organizational strategy.

So how do you find a successful top-right corner fundraiser?  There are no simple answers, but I think that this role is different enough from the traditional nonprofit fundraising path that you don’t need to put “demonstrated track record” on the top three list of things you have to see (great if it’s on the list, but you have to decide in advance if the absence of that disqualifies folks.  I’d say it doesn’t).

This is a terrifying notion if you don’t know what you are looking for, so I put together this list of things I’d be on the lookout for when scouring those non-traditional resumes:

  • You want someone you want to be with, someone who has both the gumption and drive to get the first meeting and who is consistently interesting, personable and engaged enough that he’ll consistently get the second meeting.
  • You want someone who cares deeply about your organization’s mission, who has a personal reason for being there
  • You want someone who can tell the whole story of the organization, who can dive in and across the organization and get into the weeds with folks, but who naturally thinks in and talks in terms of narrative.  The person absolutely doesn’t need to be (and won’t be) an expert in everything you do, but they have to have the intellectual facility and curiosity to get their hands dirty.
  • Inevitably you will want someone systematic, because when you have a few people (your team) managing a lot of donor relationships, you’ll need to build some sort of systems to make the whole thing work.  The level of sophistication of these systems will vary, but if you want to build something lasting for your organization, you’ll need to build more than your funding base and your funds raised – you’ll need to build out HOW you do this in the long term.
  • Gumption (whoops I’ve said that twice now…maybe I should say it a third time), fearlessness, drive and passion go a long way
  • Obviously they have to be articulate
  • And finally, if you’re looking for nontraditional cues that might indicate success, you might look for people who have an element of performance / “it’s showtime” in their background.  This could be artistic, athletic or even military, but some element of: “the lights are on…now go!”

7 thoughts on “How do you find a great Head of Development?

  1. Love this matrix and I totally agree that there are big distinctions between development needs and large, established organizations versus newer, growing ones. Now the question is, how to find that “gumption”?!

  2. Confession: so I’m not much of a planner. My last semester in college, I walked into the Career Development Center with the naive hope that they’d magically find me a job straight out of college. The director kindly informed me that it wouldn’t be possible with the given time and parameters, but I did walk out with some encouraging words that this blog reminded me of. The director told me that companies won’t hire you based strictly on your skill set, but that they looked at the whole person. I knew it as truth at the time, but the haunting melancholy temperament in me has always been telling me that I was never good enough…so I just never applied for the job.

    Fast forward to today, and I feel that I am now at a place that can finally accept it as truth. Haha, and I also wanted to let you know that this article is pretty timely. I’ve been searching for a specific job description similar to the one you’ve described for the past hour or so and your tweet popped up on my feed. SO! Thank you for breaking it down for me like that! I feel a bit more confident about simply being me and finding a cause I believe in to be a part of 😉

  3. Interesting blog a friend sent to me. The solution is to teach small non profits…PROSPECTING..teach them Individual Major Gifts prospecting. I have been a development officer for 25 years, I am currently a Chief Development Officer. I have crossed both worlds. From grassroots, to Ivy League to “start-ups” as you call them. I have specialized in non-profits in areas where they have no donors or only foundation donors, often with difficult areas of work to explain. However, small and start up non-profits can learn a lot from University’s. They understand aggressive, prospect research driven prospecting. The majority of small/medium non profits and their Board’s have no ideas what this is even. Many Board’s of Directors for small and medium non profits, start ups don’t have the vision, don’t understand the investment in serious prospecting. Again and again, I have seen non-profit Board’s scream for “big gifts” from individuals, hire some poor person as a solo Development Director, under pay them and watch them fail. What universities teach you is the investment in a TEAM approach and specialization in roles. Hiring NOT just a Development Director but a Foundation, Corporate, Annual Giving and Prospect Research Officer, a Major Gifts specialist. These are all separate skills. The same non profits who say they can’t afford that much staff, hire that kind of staff for program all the time.

    So to say University’s can’t teach non profits anything is really not accurate, we just need to scale and tailor the best University practices to fit the mission and resources of the smaller non profits.

    Armando E. Zumaya

  4. Terrific post. When people ask me why I am so pleased to have spent a career raising all kinds of money for all kinds of organizations, from 20 dollar donations to hundreds of millions donations, my comment is that there is almost no other profession where you have the privilege to work with people at the best times of their lives. Lawyers work with people when they have something they need to protect, doctors when we are ill…and fundraisers when we realize that we have enough to give back. So, if I were to add a characteristic to your list (which I love), I would add “grateful.”

  5. What a great point Andrea, I fully agree. True and heartfelt gratitude towards donors and to the world are a great addition to the list.

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