A Development Director Needs More Than “a Smile and a Shoeshine,” But It’s a Good Start

This is the era of high-tech delivery of information in an instant. The Internet is accessible from any telephone line, and lap-top computers let us take the facts and figures—all the facts and figures—to wherever they’re needed. Development professionals must master this technology which lets us massage estate planning scenarios, target solicitation mailings, and develop campaign giving plans. But, we must also remember that, no matter how high-tech the tools, funds are raised person-to-person.
In Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Willy Loman’s rejection of new technology, when he encounters a voice recorder for the first time, is part of his slow and agonizing deterioration. The only thing he knows—selling—is slipping from his grasp, and he tries to tighten his grip on it by clinging to the past. The times are changing and Willy isn’t. But that doesn’t mean that the experience of a lifetime of selling is no longer valid when he declares, “The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.” Willy is talking about being a salesman and having the proper temperament for the job, but he might just as well have been talking about Development Directors.

Those of us who carry the responsibility of seeing to it that money is raised for non-profit organizations would do well to bear in mind Willy Loman”s failure to change with the times. But we should also remember what he says about the process of selling. You won’t be good at selling widgets, or orchestras, or social services unless you have the temperament and the attitude for the job.

Somebody’s Got to Do the Job

While not all non-profit organizations have professional fund-raising officers on staff, any organization that counts on contributed income to provide a substantial portion of its budget should have a professional development director. In small organizations, the development director could conceivably be a volunteer. However, the important thing is that within even the smallest of non-profits, someone is given as his or her primary organization responsibility the coordination and implementation of contributed income programs. A development director’s principal charge is to create numerous, efficient, and compelling opportunities for donors to support an organization and to make the experience of giving satisfying and rewarding.

The Many “Hats” Do Not Always Fit

It is not a good idea for an organization’s executive director to also fill the role of development director. If the organization has a valid mission, the executive director has a full-time role to play in coordinating and carrying out that mission. Fund-raising needs to be someone’s primary concern. To illustrate that point, look at the following breakdown of the time spent by a generic development director on various important activities:

Development Director Time Breakdown

Plan fund-raising campaigns and activities
Manage fund-raising campaigns and activities
Recruit and train volunteer fund-raising leadership
Identify and cultivate prospective donors 10%
Stay on top of advancements and changes that are pertinent to raising money within the community, to the organization's mission and programs, and to the development profession
Forecast and evaluate the potential of fund-raising campaigns and activities5%
Produce solicitation materials and train volunteer solicitors for fund-raising campaigns5%
Manage personnel within the development department and interact with other organization staff members5%

Does this look like a job that can be done well as an adjunct to another? Even more telling is the mix of qualities that make for a successful development director.

No Matter How Great the Talent
You Need the Temperament to Succeed

Two of the best development professionals I know are Joyce Braun and Ellen Feuer. They worked with me for several years at the Cleveland Orchestra and now run their own development departments at major institutions. Over the years, many people came to us looking for work in development and asking for job-hunting advice. After an interview we would often discuss our visitor’s temperament and interpersonal skills “qualities” as a potential development professional. Eventually we made a game out of appraising the development potential of people we came across in situations where we could observe them in action. The best opportunities to play this game turned out to be at meetings that either were held in restaurants or were catered. Depending on the attitudes our often harried and hurried servers would display and the responses they would make to our demands and complaints, we would give a thumbs up or down as to whether we would hire them for a junior position in the Orchestra’s development department.

Would you hire someone for development work like the server who replied when told that a steak he or she served was cold, “But it can’t be,” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with the chef back there”? Wouldn’t you rather hire someone with the sensitivity to respond, “I’m very sorry. Please let me take it back and bring you your steak the way you want it”? Determining whether a person’s temperament is suited to development work is almost that simple. I hire and recommend entry-level development people largely based on their temperament and affability. How well they deal with criticism, are likely to handle volunteers and donors who are disappointed or upset, and show gratitude, are key indicators.

Development professionals must have a temperament suited to serving people’s needs. They have to be attentive, persistent, and flexible. They need to have a thick skin, and be willing to hide their light under a bushel. In fund-raising, the glory goes to the getters, not the facilitators. Part of the development director’s job is to make the volunteers look good, even at his or her own expense.

Development professionals need to exhibit a demeanor that is a little self-effacing. While the trustees, donors, and volunteers with whom we deal may regard us as accomplished professionals, they nevertheless appreciate a touch of deference when we are seeking their help and money. It’s not that they want us to be subservient, but there is an almost imperceptible level just slightly below that of peer where they are most comfortable placing us. Many, many times I have addressed benefactors younger than I as Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss. Often I have had relationships of some years’ duration without it ever being suggested that I call them by their first names.

Forgo The Ego—Remember It’s About The Organization

Knowing your place as a development officer is a practice which I believe made me more effective during my 20 years at the the Cleveland Orchestra. Let me illustrate. Whenever I chanced upon important female contributors in the lobby prior to concerts and during intermissions, I would extend my hand and lock my arm to receive their handshake, avoiding the obligatory kiss on the cheek they reserved for friends and social acquaintances. I did not want major donors to see me as one of them on a social level. What I wanted was to be one of them in the context of support for the Orchestra we all loved. At all times, I worked to keep my relationships with donors on a professional, not a social, level. As a result, my donor acquaintances felt comfortable calling me with requests for assistance and special treatment. Had they seen me as someone they needed to treat as a social equal, it is unlikely I would have been asked for help in that way. My willingness to provide deferential assistance, in the name of The Cleveland Orchestra, indebted them to it and disposed them toward making even larger gifts.

Don’t Steal the Scenes—Lead from Behind Them

A development director must be capable of functioning in a support role and deriving professional satisfaction from working in the background. As development director of The Cleveland Orchestra, I was not its artistic director, nor was I a musician. The work I did behind the scenes made it possible for others to make the music and be in the spotlight. I found that personally and professionally satisfying. No matter the organization, development professionals make an indirect, not a direct, contribution to its accomplishments. When they do their jobs well, they function in the background without calling attention to themselves. Just as public acclaim for fund-raising achievement is reserved for the volunteers, the glory of an organization’s accomplishments belongs to those who have direct responsibility for fulfilling its mission.

The skills of a good development director are much the same as those of a good sales manager. It is the job of an organization’s development director to inspire his or her salespersons—the volunteer solicitors—and arm them with all the tools they need to be successful. At the same time development directors must be able to run a tight ship and bring a sense of control, perspective, and order to the process of raising money.

Good development directors are donor-driven, rather than institution-driven. They function as the donors’ voice within the organization, bringing donor cares and concerns to staff and trustees. Yet they must remain conscious and protective of the integrity and purpose of the organization. They are in the best position to say no to a request which asks too much of the organization and undermines its mission.

We Need to Develop More Development Directors

The number of cultural, health, religious, social service, and educational organizations that must conduct fund-raising campaigns has increased dramatically in the past decade. Well-trained and experienced development officers are in high demand. A perusal of the Sunday want ads in any big-city newspaper turns up a surprising number of positions for experienced development directors, and national non-profit trade journals such as the “Chronicle of Philanthropy” are packed with such advertisements. Yet good development officers are hard to find. One reason for this may be that there is no proven training ground for development officers other than the process of apprenticeship in such mid-level and junior positions as associate and assistant director; director of annual, endowment, or capital giving; and development associate (which is often largely an administrative-assistant job.) However, except for colleges and universities, only a relative handful of really large non-profit organizations budget for more than a single professional development position, with the result that only a shallow pool of development professionals have had the opportunity to grow incrementally in experience and responsibility.

It is unfortunate that more organizations do not see the parallels between the role of development director in the non-profit community and that of sales manager in the business world. Corporate downsizing has put on the streets many mature, capable persons experienced in sales and customer-service management who could function well as development personnel. Both sales managers and development directors need superior organizational and communication skills, a service orientation, analytic capabilities, and conceptual skills. What the former sales manager lacks in knowledge of fund-raising-specific management can be learned from seminars and publications.

Fund-Raising Is Selling Not Promoting

Instead, organizations often turn to persons with public relations or promotion experience within a non-profit setting and try to convert them into development professionals. Almost invariably, this approach is a mistake. PR persons are usually idea generators who are great at creating a favorable climate for an organization. Where they fall down is in the day-to-day care and feeding of a campaign: the slogging process of building a network of volunteers, training them, and so on. The temperament and expectations of PR professionals and development professionals are different enough that it is almost impossible someone could star in both disciplines.

If I were hiring a person to run a development operation and had to pick someone with no previous professional fund-raising experience, I would look for someone such as the head of a department within a retail operation like a department store. This person would have managed a sales staff, worked at making products available to customers, handled customer concerns and complaints, conducted special sales programs, and attended to the minutiae of day-to-day operations. Exactly what a development director does!

While being “way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine” was okay for Willy Loman, when we do it let’s always be sure they’re smiling back!

Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

Note: Additional resources relating to staff development professionals are available on this site:

Those are my views on the subject. What are yours? I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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  1. Hi

    Could you offer some insights in the advantages of hiring a full-time staff Development Director versus a consultant? Also, is it advisable to make the long-term job prospect dependent on amount of funds raised? Thanks.

    • David,
      There is a very wide range of possibilities regarding your question.

      On one hand, a consultant could serve an important purpose with his or her thorough assessment and evaluation of the development picture at the non-profit, then to make recommendations.

      Be absolutely sure that person is a true consultant, and not one who will claim to be himself or herself the solicitor of donations.

      — To Consult, Or Not To Consult, That Is The Question

      — Consulting Agreement For An Annual Fund Campaign

      On the other, those recommendations and tentative plan suggestions would surely trigger an array of needs and resources the consultant would see as necessary for the organization to move apace in its fund-raising activities. So then you would need to move to put those resources in place.

      But, an experienced development director could step right in and do the same thing—if the organization is willing and able to pay a salary commensurate with experience and capability.

      The following three links are to articles I believe you should read.

      When Should a Non-Profit Organization Hire its First Development Director?

      What’s a Good Director of Development Worth?

      When The Development Officer Is Obliged To Raise Her Or His Own Salary

      Finally, the following is a draft of a possible article we might post on Raise-Funds sometime. I think it addresses your last question to some degree. You can easily adapt what I say to the hire of just the Development Director.

      Development Staffing To Fund-Raising Goals

      I have often been asked, “Have you ever heard of a formula or guidelines for the number of development staff you should have in place relative to the organization’s fund-raising goals?”

      I always reply with firm assurance that I have never heard of such a benchmark or formula, because there simply cannot be such a process developed with any meaning. No way, no how.

      From the following common activities and circumstances found in the non-profit world, there is no way to come up with a formula to know exactly, before fund-raising goals are set, or when they are presented to the chief development officer, how many development staff she or he should have at work to meet those goals:

      — The basic wide range of operating budgets in the multimillions to the thousands (even hundreds of dollars.)

      — When there are earned income revenues coming close to meeting all expenses in some organizations (educational institutions, hospitals), versus those organizations having no earned income at all (abuse shelters, foodbanks, etc.), requiring the raising of 100% of the expense budget.

      —Startup costs for new and emerging organizations.

      — Initial “investment” costs for new major campaigns, such as for capital, endowment, sponsorships and underwriting.

      — Focus on telefunding, direct mail, and Internet fund-raising activities.

      — Impending and costly new and expanding program, project and service initiatives to be installed as directed from the long-range strategic plan.

      — How much, how little, or not at all, the Board of Trustees directly assist and participate in the development activities. (This makes a huge difference from non-profit to non-profit.)

      — The quality, skills, experience, and capability of any given development staff person. (This is perhaps, by far, the biggest variable which would influence the number of staff per given organization.)

      — All too often, the “development” person is required to perform other activities within the organization which are out of the fund-raising activity, such as handling marketing, PR, communications, etc., thus further complicating an assessment of the development staff’s responsibilities.

      — The degree of coordination required and desired with fund-raising volunteers, and the number of them in order to carry out the various campaigns and special events to their fullest capacity and effectiveness.

      And there are no doubt even more reasons why you will not find such a formula—or if you do, you should ignore it.

      You can see the problem. There is no possible formula. It must be a case by case situation. This, from long and significant experience. The number of professionals, and what they do in the development department has everything to do with the budgetary need, priorities, available resources, and the capability of the staff campaign facilitators.

  2. I was contacted recently by a development officer from the university I attended. I graduated in 1993, with a masters degree, and I also received my undergraduate degree from the same school, a few years prior. This is the first time anyone has ever contacted me from that school, for anything. She was insistent that we meet. So we finally did, and she was very very nice. It actually took me half way through the coffee hour she’d set aside for me, to realize she was really meeting me for money. She was that smooth. I didn’t even know she was with the Development office, until I asked specifically. I thought she was alumni relations, which– indirectly, I guess– she is. So we had a great conversation- she was terrific. She promised to send me some links to stay connected to the school, and she wanted to stay in touch herself, blah blah.

    Well, I never heard from her again. I can only assume she realized that my potential gifting of money wasn’t the type she was looking for, or she’s simply incompetent. If that were my position, I would have emailed the person a follow-up as soon as I got back to the office, with promised links. But, you know, that’s just me. As it is now, I’ll continue to send my money to the school my daughter attended.

    • Dinah,
      Well, that’s just you. And, that’s a very good thing, because it’s simply the right thing to do.

      Those born with, or trained, to have a customer/client/donor-relations mentality, very well know that when they make any promise, no matter what, they follow through in a timely manner.

      If that development person did not have at the ready paper and pen to, among other things, make a note to send those links, that would have been the first clue. Either way, such a lapse not only damages alumni relations, but could very well result in the loss of a gift to the university.

      At any time, I welcomed all requests, whether Orchestra-related or not, requests which I would always speedily fulfill. After all, I was given another invitation to make yet another contact with someone who could do something good for our Orchestra.

  3. Thanks for sharing these valuable insights. This is a great resource!

  4. Very insightful and straightforward. I am currently looking for work as a development officer/coordinator, but having a hard time finding an organization (whose goals/mission I support myself) that would hire me entry-level. I find that volunteering is giving me some additional clout, but it's a tough world out there right now. I think this article is good for both those who would hire and those looking for these jobs.
    Thank you.

  5. Ruth: Thank you. Good luck to you.
    To help further your knowledge and understanding of what a Director of Development does, note that there are several other D of D-related articles posted on the site.
    From the Table of Contents, scroll down to the last section, titled "Development Team," and you will see a number of other articles which all contribute to the full array of skills and duties found (and required) in most D of D positions.
    — Table of Contents

  6. Thank you for this valuable information. Currently having the title of Development Director for a small nonprofit, my duties and responsibilities are somewhat foggy. This article helps clarify what my purpose and role are.

  7. what a lovely gift!  thank you.

  8. thank you for the great information.  i am in the process of interviewing with a larger non-profit for a development director role however my background is in corporate marketing and sales within the consumer product goods industry.  i believe your article has just given me a better handle of what is expected in the role and will allow me to interview well and translate my experience better. 

  9. Siobhan: From both sides, I well understand. I began my non-profit development professional career under the mentorship of a caring, experienced and talented professional. Once established, I worked to to continually extend the same opportunity to individuals who had little, or no, experience. One of the ways was to compose a road map of sorts for those having the spirit and interest in learning and working the development profession. I think it to be the best way, and if you follow the suggestions to the letter in the following article, I feel confident that something good will come your way. Best wishes for success.

    — Beginning A Career In Non-Profit Fund-Raising

  10. I have about ten years of telephone fund-raising experience as well as a BA in Communication. I am currently a care provider at a mental institution. In my current job I was faced with a customer service dilemma that most of the staff were not able to address, to make a long story short I satisfied the demands of a patient’s angry parent. Since then,and I will be honest before then, I missed fund-raising and working in the nonprofit charity sector. Before this experience at my current job and reading this article I didn’t think I had the experience or chops for a development position but now I am thinking again. I would like to break into development and would one day soon like to become a director of development. Do you have any advice on where I may be able to glean more experience and wisdom for the field? I don’t think I am prepared right now but I don’t know what I can do to prepare myself.

  11. Jerry: You are correct. There is no real formal training program for developing development professionals available, save for some university certificate programs, and fund-raising taught as part of a university non-profit manager’s course/degree program.

    However, getting a certificate or degree for non-profit fund-raising is a good thing, but in my opinion it will mean little, if anything, when seeking a job in fund-raising development. The dreadful word “experience” mostly carries the day, as when you are fortunate enough to be hired as an associate to an experienced and capable boss/mentor. That’s the real development classroom.

    From experience, early on as a receiver from generous and capable mentors, to from then on being the best mentor I could be, getting under the wing of such a pro is just about the only way to go. See what you think about what I recommend in the following article:

    — Beginning A Career In Non-Profit Fund-Raising

    As well, note the attention I devote to the profession, for the reasons stated above, from the considerable number of development-professional-related articles posted on this site. Just go to the “Articles” Table of Contents, then to scroll all the way down to the section, “Developing The Development Team.” Just take the time to read those articles, and you will, in short order, have an even better idea of what development officers do, thus to be in a better position to feel at home once you have the chance to get noticed.

    When I hired development staff, I looked first for the right temperament. Not experience. Teaching such promising individuals was easy, and took a short time, because the fund-raising concepts are simple in design, but very hard work. You just need the opportunity, and i hope if that is your wish, that it comes your way soon. Be ready. Know the principles and concepts, and you will be well ahead of most others.

  12. I bemoan the fact that there are not formal training programs for developing development professionals, however, your description of the personality of a good development professional as well as the correlating skills and aptitude are a good starting point.
    Oklahoma City

  13. Great article. Thanks.

  14. Hey, these are brilliant and very clear insights. I am Director of a newly established Not for profit organisation, and was battling setting up fundraising campaigns. Thank you so much for all the material, and do not hestitate getting in touch directly, for we have a long way to go.


    Pretoria, South Africa


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