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Where Do Development Directors Fit in Nonprofits?

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man taking online surveyDevelopment directors, for the most part, are not happy campers. Especially those at small nonprofits.

This fact and the reasons behind it are included in the findings of a recently released national survey conducted by CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. The survey was launched because of the nonprofit sector’s widespread concern that development director has become a “revolving door” position, that some vacancies are remaining open for a year or more, and that the pool of qualified candidates is shrinking.

While executive directors at large organizations – those with budgets in excess of $10 million – are less affected, their counterparts at smaller organizations bemoan their inability to hire and retain qualified fundraisers. For their part, development directors mourn a lack of consistent support from their organizations, executive directors and board members.

The authors of the report are sympathetic to those development directors whose ability to thrive is stymied by their organizations’ lack of a culture of philanthropy, where fundraising and philanthropy are “widely understood and valued.”

Survey Findings

To uncover possible solutions to the fundraising challenge, 2,700 executive and development directors across the nation were contacted. The organizations surveyed were diverse: their size, mission, budgets, staff sizes and locations all varied. The one common factor was that the organizations’ development directors were considered to be senior management.

Many of the development directors surveyed, especially at small or mid-size organizations, planned to leave their positions within two years. Forty percent of those respondents said they didn’t know if they would remain in the fundraising field.

While high turnover in any position is bad, a lack of consistent fundraising leadership almost guarantees an organization will not maintain consistent levels of giving. The survey’s authors quoted fundraising expert Kim Klein, “The purpose of fundraising is not to raise money, but to raise donors. You don’t want gifts, you want givers.”

Finger-pointing existed between executive directors and their fundraisers. One in three executives was “lukewarm” about their development directors. Overall, 25 percent of executive directors reported having fired their last director.

Small agency leaders seemed both surprised and irate that their lowly paid development people were novices with poor skills. Development directors, though, were more likely to be critical of their organizations’ fundraising efforts. About 43 percent characterized their fundraising activities as “not at all effective” or “somewhat effective.” Only 17 percent of executive directors rated their fundraising efforts so negatively.

Effective Fundraising Program

The survey’s authors noted that too many organizations placed too much fundraising reliance on the shoulders of one person. It’s not just about hiring someone who is right for the job. Directors must also work on building the capacity, the culture and the systems necessary to increase giving.

To be up to the task, organizations must:

  • Invest in fundraising capacity building, necessary technology and systems
  • Include everybody – all staff, the executive director, and the board – as ambassadors and solicitors for the organization
  • Ensure fund development and philanthropy are understood and valued by all
  • View the development director as a key partner in the organization who is integral to organizational planning and strategy

These points may seem like common sense, but they are foreign to many small nonprofits. About 31 percent of those with budgets under $1 million had no fundraising plan. In contrast, just 7 percent of the largest agencies were without a plan.

Surprisingly, 21 percent of organizations had no fundraising database. Board member participation also varied greatly according to organization size. More than eight in 10 small organizations reported insufficient board participation, while 48 percent of large ones said they have sufficient board support.

Interestingly, fewer than half of development directors claimed strong relationships with their executive directors, but more than 50 percent of execs thought their ties to their development people were strong. While 89 percent of all responding development directors were senior management, a majority felt they had little or only moderate influence over staff participation in fund development. (Development leaders at high performing organizations were more likely to feel they have an impact.)

Call to Action

According to the survey’s authors, “The right development director alone will never break the cycle, but the right person inside an organization that has a culture of philanthropy can.”

They urge nonprofits (executives, staffs, boards) to move away from “siloed” activities to an integrative approach that values donors and constituents. This new approach includes:

  • Requiring fund development to be a central and valuable part of everybody’s work
  • Creating a pipeline of new development professionals that includes more minorities and men
  • Training boards differently by creating a curriculum that addresses what it takes to sustain a culture of philanthropy
  • Creating transition programs for development positions similar to those used for executive director jobs
  • Experimenting with new grant-making strategies that recognize the need for sustainability and fund development capacity that is central to organizations’ success in achieving their vision
  • Embracing social media and other technology
  • Sharing accountability for fundraising results
  • Placing the development director in a position to identify the organizational changes needed and then leading the process to attain them
  • Expecting executive directors to develop strong relationships with development heads and to prioritize and invest in fundraising capacity


Ian was invaluable throughout the complex process of setting up our accounting and payroll system, developing our internal controls and reporting systems, and launching our financial management in an efficient and sound manner. Ian is simply delightful to work with.

Amy Hawthorne |  Former Executive Director
Hollings Center for International Dialogue