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

The short answer is sooner rather than later! If a non-profit organization is beginning to ask whether it needs a professional development director, it probably should have hired one months, even years ago.

The biggest mistake non-profits make in hiring their first development director is waiting until the board, executive director, and other key personnel have arrived at a consensus that one is needed NOW. An organization that waits until it is necessary to hire a development director has waited too long.

When I was hired as the first development director of the Cleveland Orchestra way back in 1972, it had already been in existence for 55 years and was recognized as one of the world’s great orchestras. It was also facing a $1 million deficit. I was introduced to the board as, “… a necessary evil …” brought on by that staggering deficit. The orchestra had waited until it was necessary to hire me. It should have hired its first development director years earlier when a fund-raising development professional could have worked with the board to help prevent, or to greatly reduce, that deficit.

So then, what are the universal signals—the indicators—that tell an organization it’s time to hire a professional development director? Well, the sad news is that there aren’t any. Each organization will have its own set of signals based on its culture, mission, budget, size, potential for growth, and a host of other factors. To know when to hire your first development director requires that you know your organization.

You Can’t Add, Subtract, Multiply or Divide
Your Way to When to Hire a Development Director

Looking at the numbers is useful, but numbers alone will not tell an organization when to hire its first development director. It would be wonderful if a formula could be constructed out of data such as operating budget, annual deficit, personnel costs, etc., that would indicate when the balance tips toward hiring a development director.

But any non-profit organization has an enormous number of variables it must consider as it looks at fund-raising and whether it is ready for an on-staff professional to guide its efforts.

They start with the question of just how connected are the board and the process of giving and getting money.

The board of directors is just the start. There are a myriad of other questions that contribute to the decision of whether or not to hire that first development director. They include:

  • What is the community’s perception of the value of the organization’s mission?
  • What is the organization’s fund-raising track record?
  • How strong is the community’s philanthropic spirit?
  • What other organizations are raising money for missions similar to the organization’s?
  • Does the organization need to institute new and larger fund-raising campaigns?
  • Is the organization thinking about changing the way it raises money—beginning telefunding or Internet fund-raising for example?
  • Are there changes in the way the organization operates that will drive expenses substantially higher?

Before an organization hires its first development director, it needs to know if there is fertile ground for that development director to plow, viable seeds to plant, and the possibility of a harvest bountiful enough to meet needs.

Knowing the answers to these and other questions helps to set the stage. Those answers not only let you see the challenges; they shine the light of knowledge on them as they pertain to the specific organization. Always, the question comes back to the particular organization, its needs, and the community it serves.

A Tool That Helps You Decide Whether or
Not to Hire Your First Development Director

So, how do you know from within an organization when and if you should hire a development director? The answer is simple, and it starts with knowing the costs of running the organization as it carries out its mission as set out in the its long-range strategic plan. It continues with the development of a fund-raising plan.

Next comes the assurance that the board will commit to their responsibility to see that the money is raised. Then an assessment of resources is needed to see if the tools are present or can be developed to carry out the plans.

An assessment of an organization’s fund-raising readiness is essential. The article that the preceding link points to contains a checklist that will help you realize where your organization stands on the continuum of fund-raising readiness. Take the time to review that checklist, and I think you will find you have made giant strides down the path of determining whether your organization is ready for a development director.

Explore the checklist in the light of your fund-raising plan, and adapt it accordingly. Ask yourself:

  • What are we doing that we could do better?
  • What should we be doing that we aren’t?
  • Can we do those things?
  • Who in our organization, on our board, or among our friends can do them?
  • When do we need to do them?
  • What will they cost?

Try this process, and I think you’ll get a good idea of how far you can safely and effectively stretch your organization’s resources and volunteers. You’ll be able to see if you’re trying to stretch them too far, and that will help you make the determination of whether to hire a development director.

Are You Ready to Commit the Resources Necessary for a Professional Development Director and Effort?

A final word on hiring that first development director: Too often the question of whether to put a professional on staff turns on, not the money an organization needs to raise, but the money it will have to pay a development director. And too often, even when an organization decides it needs a fund-raising professional, it fails to commit the resources— pay and supporting budget—needed for that pro to succeed. Too little pay and too little budget will invariably deliver too little development director. You get what you pay for, or perhaps more accurately you don’t get what you don’t pay for.

It makes no sense to hamstring an organization by authorizing the hiring of a development director and then setting pay and budget at a level that will not allow the organization to recruit someone qualified to carry out the job.

Nor does it make sense to ask someone to do more than he/she is capable of. Will your development director be able to devote all of his/her time to fund-raising, or are you expecting other functions to be performed?

A development director is not a communications director or a marketing director. Yes, there are people who have skill sets to manage all of those functions. But they will not be equally good at carrying out each. The temperament and expectations of PR professionals and development professionals are different enough that it is almost impossible someone could star in both disciplines. Plus it is the rare organization that looks to hire its first development director and at the same time set up a multi-person development department. Finally, it is even more rare for an organization struggling with the question of whether to go pro or not to be willing to pay for an all-star.

In a Nutshell

In the end, the question of when and if to hire that first development director is pretty straight forward. You hire a development director when the organization:

  • Has fund-raising needs that can no longer be met by its existing staff, board members, and volunteers.
  • Has a plan and is ready to take on the responsibility of that enlarged fund-raising effort.
  • Is willing to commit to the compensation and budget required to attract a professional capable of carrying out the specific job for the specific organization.

Those are my opinions when it comes to knowing when to hire your first development director. What are yours? I would be happy to hear from you.

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