Development Director

Nonprofit Development Staff Turnover: An Opportunity for Strategic Thinking

This week I have had the opportunity to attend a small fundraising conference and was able to rub shoulders with a wide range of development professionals with job titles ranging from Development Director, to Major Gift Officer, to Annual Giving Manager, and on and on.  Albeit, the conference was designed to meet the needs of large institutions, like hospitals, private universities, and K-12 schools, it offered great reminder of the range of development department specialization found in many large multi-million dollar institutions.

During a lunchtime conversation, I was asked, “so what do you do?” I shared that my consulting practice helps nonprofits think about revenue strategy, strategic planning, board development, succession planning, and performance improvement.  The person I was talking with followed up by adding, “So you are not a fundraiser.” It was a declarative response rather than a question.  I smiled and responded, “Actually, I believe that strategy is the foundation of fundraising and, without a foundation, your fundraising efforts are the equivalent of building on sand. Unstable and with resiliency that is based on luck.“

Zooming back from Baltimore to Portland. The Linked In discussion group of the Willamette Valley Development Officers has been having an interesting discussion of the challenges that some nonprofits are facing with finding qualified development officers.  Among other things that I asserted in the conversation was:

“The value is in the strategic conversation with nonprofit leaders and board members about what development skills are needed at this point in time. As noted by Bianca (of Mercurial Development & Marketing), “gone are the days of the development director riding in on a white horse to save the day.” I also believe that gone, are days of the “generic” Development Director job description. Having the executive & board leadership engage in thoughtful conversations about Development Director Job responsibilities (as they tie directly to an intentional revenue plan) is the critical element of strategic thinking that will set up the next development director for organizational success.”

Strategy. It is avoided only at the peril of your nonprofit and its success. While those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I believe in strategic planning, Readers also know that I believe — even more– in strategic thinking. I am convinced that nonprofit organizational transitions are clear opportunity points to think strategically.  In this article, I want suggest how a nonprofit board and executive leaders can fill the “white space” created in an organizational chart when a development director resigns.

Strategic Plan and Strategic Imperative. At points of transition, a great place to start a conversation is to review your strategic plan and revenue model (Uh… You have a strategic plan and revenue model… Right? Okay, let’s assume that you do and, let’s assume that it is dog-eared, annotated and has yellow stickies, here and there, that reflects it’s active use).  Using your long term strategy documents as a compass, focus your time and energy on reviewing your strategy.  What’s the same? What’s different? What’s coming at us? These are the initial questions and are followed by an exploration of your revenue plan.  How has the development landscaped changed for your organization?  What are the critical skills your agency needs now in a development director?  The core skills and expectations of a development director are strategic and need to be defined, shared, and understood by your board.

Emerging & Best Practices: Before jumping into the hiring process, the second exploration you may want to consider is to ask yourselves, “What are the emerging and best practices associated with our development director expectations?” For example, if you are hiring a new development director to build your individual donor program are you thinking about how the changing nature of donor engagement is changing your agency’s individual giving program? Do you understand the role of social media in your individual giving?  Is your donor database an engagement tool or a mortuary for names and addresses?  Note: this might require a bit of board training from a fundraising consultant.

Recruiting the Right People: It is at this point that a board should provide input to the hiring process, including a review of the job description, and giving the executive director access to resources that support a strong recruitment process.  Support for hiring may be as simple as ensuring budget is allocated to support a broad and diverse recruitment.  It could also be as significant as increasing the compensation of the position or hiring a group to help in the recruitment process.  The goal is to ensure that the recruitment process is resourced and aligned with the organizational strategy so that your agency increases its competitive position in recruiting the best candidates.

Management and Analysis: Finally, the strategic conversation needs to “close the loop” by ensuring that the organizational leaders have the resources and tools to manage performance and assess progress toward the strategic goals. Revisit your performance expectations, monitoring dashboard and ensure that performance management systems align with tyour expectations.

The point of this article is not to overview a step-by-step process for redesigning a development director position.  Rather, the outline offers a way of employing strategic thinking.  At its core, strategic thinking recognizes that in times of transition, there are opportunities to reimagine, redefine, or simply readjust your organizational strategy.  As illustrated here,strategy is the foundation of effectiveness. Nonprofit leaders and boards that recognize the importance of strategy and strategic thinking are those that stay at the front edge of management and leadership.   Where is your agency and board when it comes to strategic thinking?


Photo: Credit: Startup Stock Photos


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.


  1. Mark,
    I agree with you completely. If you aren’t clear on your revenue strategy, what outcomes are you hiring for?
    I’d go a little farther in the thinking to also ask: What would happen if we invested in even more staff capacity in fund development/revenue generation? Something you might have noticed at your conference is that those large institutions have significant staff capacity. They don’t have a lot of money by accident, they invest in the staffing needed to raise significant revenues.
    There is a fabulous case study of the Steppenwolf Theater done by the Nonprofit Finance Fund that discusses the difference it made for the theater when it significantly ramped up its development department.

  2. Fundraising without strategy is like pouring water into a bucket with holes. It is a useless effort. Strategy leads to success and prepares the organization for lean times. Part of that strategy must include continued investment in a strong development team.

  3. Gayle and Barb,

    Thanx both for weighing in! Gayle, great example of an additional strategy point to consider Barb, I have seen more than once boards who take a hands off approach to staff transitions sometimes actually create the holes in the bucket. When a board member asks, “how come we can’t keep a development director?” my answer is “When was the last time you had a clear strategic discussion (not gripe session) to set the Development Director up for success?

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