When setting up a new development shop or restructuring an existing  one, the last thing you should be worrying about is—well—development! The modern development department succeeds not because an organization has had an epiphany about the need to raise money, but because it assembles the skills, expertise, and focus needed to be able to raise money.

Whether it’s a development department with scores of staff or just a person or two, development isn’t one of the skills that yield successful fundraising. Development is a focus—a mindset—and that focus requires an assemblage of skills. Putting together a competent fundraising effort requires that an organization forget about that word development. Instead it must concentrate on the elements required to create an environment that supports its opportunity and ability to fundraise.

To do that we need to deconstruct what we call development. We need to break it into its components. That deconstruction begins with two foundational questions. Answer these two questions, and the rest falls into place.

  • Who are you going to ask for support?
  • How are you going to ask?

Who: Every donor fits into one of four groups

  • Individuals
  • Foundations
  • Corporations
  • Government agencies

How: Basically there are four means of solicitation

  • In person, usually one-on-one, but can be to a group as well
  • Over the phone, nearly always one-on-one
  • Using mass media such as mail, broadcasting, advertising, printed handouts
  • Using electronic media including email and social media

The answers to these two foundational questions will reveal the direction ahead. Everything you do to solicit donations will rely on some combination of one-to-many communication and one-to-one relationship nurturing.

Similarities with Marketing and Sales

In the private sector one-to-many communication is a type of sales but generally relies on marketing  calculate response rates and other metrics of success for impersonal mass communications. What we traditionally  think of as sales is the one-to-one relationship nurturing. Each is a distinct function, but both are integral to a successful overall effort. A development department needs to be structured to appropriately emphasize both marketing communications and relationship nurturing.

Marketing Communications

Marketing is an important focus of fundraising. Asking for support is one thing and getting it is another. The lead generation and qualification of a donor that take place through marketing efforts play a vital role in moving prospects toward a relationship with an individual within or representing the nonprofit organization. Viable prospects are drawn from an identified and informed community. Identifying and informing are the dual purposes of marketing. You can’t ask prospects if you don’t know who they are and how to contact them. Prospects lacking knowledge of an organization are unlikely to give to it. Once prospects are known and made knowledgeable they are ready to be asked.

A marketing focus requires expertise in direct mail, event planning, graphic design, copywriting, and digital media. But outreach to the broad public isn’t the only way in which marketing contributes to development. Marketing plays an important support role for individual relationship building and the resulting solicitations by developing the media and methods required to deliver accurate, appropriate, and timely information. Competent marketing and communications skills drive the strategic actions of messaging and making a case statement.

Relationship Nurturing

In a large development department the relationship-nurturing focus is usually the responsibility of staff members identified as gift officers. But development department staff members aren’t the only people in an organization who can be assigned relationship-nurturing responsibilities. Often an organization’s CEO, board members, and other high level executives will work to nurture relationships. In small or one-person development operations these relationship nurturing responsibilities are almost certain to be shared by staff, board members, and other committed volunteers. These individuals, whatever their title, typically have specific caseloads of donors with whom to work.

Relationship nurturers play a role similar to certain private sector salespeople. Gift officers aren’t the kind of sales people often referred to as “order takers.” They are more akin to sales people who work with large and complicated products that require coordinating many different facets of the organization over an extended time period. Whether staff or volunteers, these gift officers focus on high-touch, personal follow up, ongoing contact, and bonding. Typically they work with prospects and donors capable of and believed likely to make major gifts. The numbers of donors an organization has and their level of giving will help determine how many of these relationship nurturers are needed.


Both marketing and relationship focuses will need the support of a team able to provide the tools and data to succeed. That team will need to include a variety of elements.

  • Gift processing: A mix of database and finance staff who manage the data, ensure financial information is accurately entered, maintained, and analyzed. They will also need to send out timely and appropriate donor acknowledgements and tax letters
  • Grant writing and management: A very specialized form of marketing staff charged with crafting quality narratives and coordinate all the moving parts of the proposal submission process. Sometimes, it may be best to have a strong program staff member who is also a good writer produce the narratives and another person whose strengths lie in organization and detail managing the tasks of compiling, submitting, and following up on grant applications as well as working with the grantor once a grant has been made for things like needed reports. There is a difference between a grant writer and a grant manager.
  • Prospect Research: The digging through internal and external data to identify potential donors who could later be qualified as meaningful prospects. They also can help gift officers stay abreast of changes with their donors such as promotions, awards, life events, etc.
  • Volunteer management: Many donors start as volunteers. Having a robust volunteer engagement capability is a key to growing a donor base.
  • Administrative and executive assistants: Ranging from receptionists and clerical staff to high level executive assistants who work out scheduling and other conflicts, these people are essential to both planning and executing fundraising efforts.

Funding models can differ. One organization may rely on mass appeals resulting in a high volume of small donations. Another may depend on grants, events, or a small number of large donors. Irrespective of where contributed income originates every organization that reaches out for support will need access to and the ability to carry out the functions outlined above.

Whether an organization has a formal development department with professional staff in multiple positions or relies on its CEO and board to “develop” contributed income it needs to concentrate on the elements that support and achieve fundraising. Organizations that successfully raise contributed income realize that their development effort is built form the ground up out of the multiple skills that are the building blocks of successful development.

Organizations that fundraise will always need someone to generate and direct the development focus. And while a professionally staffed, multi-skilled development department is the most fully realized expression of that focus, it isn’t the only way. An organization can pull together members of a development team from within the ranks of other departments. Volunteers and volunteer leadership can often play a role. Friendly corporations, attorneys, and an organization’s bank may be willing to provide needed services. Outside consultants and specialists can help supply missing skills and expertise.

Does Your Organization Have the Focus?

An organization with a development mind set is one that is ready, willing, and able to concentrate on the components that constitute a development effort and to bring them together for a common purpose. It may not be the easiest thing to do, but that’s what leadership is for—to structure an organization’s available assets and find needed ones to add in order to accomplish the needed tasks, and finally focusing on delivering a successful outcome. Now that’s what I call “development.”