In a nonprofit organization, no single internal relationship is more important than that between the executive director and development director. One carries the responsibility of leading the organization to the efficient execution of its mission, and the other shoulders the burden of finding the money that makes it all possible. In many ways, these two individuals are joined at the hip.

Why then do they seem at times to be pulling painfully in opposite directions? Far too often, I have received complaints from development directors that their organization’s executive director erects barriers that prevent them from raising money. On the other hand, executive directors have told me of working with development directors they felt hurt the organization because they failed to understand its true needs.

Good development directors work hard to enhance relationships with donors capable of giving gifts of substantial size and scope. If they are to succeed, they need to represent those donors within the organization. They need to be the voice of those donors. They need to be the person driven to meet donor needs and committed to seeing donor desires addressed.

Good executive directors work hard to see that the organization fulfills its mission effectively and efficiently. If they are to succeed, they need to represent each of the different parts of the organization at different times. They need to be the person driven to meet programming needs and committed to seeing that the organization stays in balance.

Realizing that it is the executive director’s job to be organization centered, and the development director’s to be donor centered, it isn’t hard to see how the work of these two people can come into conflict. If fact, I would argue that if it didn’t come into conflict from time to time one or both would not be performing adequately.

How that conflict is resolved is what defines, for the good or ill of the organization, the relationship between executive director and development director. To begin with, both individuals need to be on the same page when it comes to defining what is best for the organization in two crucial areas – programming and fund-raising.

For the development director this means understanding that programming is the reason the organization exists. Program integrity must take precedence over fund-raising expediencies. For the executive director this means understanding that fund-raising is what keeps the organization and its programs in existence. Fund-raising integrity must never be jettisoned in a rush to get the money.

At first blush it would seem like maintaining the integrity of both programming and fund-raising would be a given for any organization. I’ve no doubt that every tandem of executive and development director would say in unison, “Of course we must maintain those dual integrities.” But in the real world of fund-raising and organizational mission, integrity is a clearly and easily stated ideal that can be hard to adhere to.

It doesn’t happen unless both the executive director and development director anticipate the potential for conflict and put in position practices and policies that head it off or, at worst, manage its fallout.

Where the conflict comes from

The conflict that can arise between a development director and executive director most often grows out of the development director’s need to respond to donor concerns. People capable of giving substantial gifts are used to wielding power. They expect the people they deal with to have a range of power and authority compatible with the situation in which they find themselves.

If every time a donor asks for some consideration or raises a concern the development director is forced to say, “Gee, I don’t know about that, I’ll have to check with the executive director,” then that donor will soon realize she or he is dealing with the wrong person. Donors don’t want to talk with messengers. They want their conversations to be with persons capable of making commitments.

Often during my 20-year tenure as development director of The Cleveland Orchestra, I had to “fly by the seat of my pants” when dealing with donors. Had my executive directors not given me the authority to respond quickly and directly to donors, I would have been unable to nurture the relationships The Orchestra needed.

Tickets to a sold-out concert? “You bet. I’ll leave them at the will-call window for you.”

Access to a star artist? “Yes, you can meet the soloist after the concert.”

If my response in situations like these had been, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to check with the boss,” it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard.

I was granted the authority to deal directly with these and other issues because I was trusted not to abuse that authority and because my executive director understood that a large part of my responsibility was to donors. I was the person who represented them within the organization. I was the person to whom they would turn with requests both large and small. An executive director who does not recognize this need is setting up her or his development director for failure.

The harried executive director pedaling as fast as she or he can to keep an organization running well can too easily be tempted to see donors as a necessary evil. After all, the money they don’t choose to give is what makes her or his job nearly impossible. Every department within the organization clamors for more resources, and all of those resources seem to squeeze through the bottleneck of the development department and its precious donors.

What executive director wouldn’t want to be able to just take the money and run away from donor demands for acknowledgement, treatment, and care? That’s why organizations of any real size are best served by having a development director, rather than requiring the executive director to make fund-raising her or his primary responsibility.

Executive directors must be organization centered. Development directors on the other hand must be donor centered. This is a basic difference that the effective executive director must recognize and appreciate.

In my eighteenth year as development director of The Cleveland Orchestra, I received a performance review that drove home that point. My new executive director was just wrapping up his first year when he wrote, “I have more recently begun to understand, and more and more I am impressed, with your absolute concern with the wishes of the donor—a trait I do not possess, as I tend to overstate the needs of the institution.” He was doing his job and I mine. He recognized the difference and its value.

We had not begun our relationship at that level. At first, he didn’t understand and wasn’t impressed with my donor-centered stance. Nor was I appreciative of his organization-driven mentality. There were times I did not expect to make it to that first performance appraisal. Fortunately we each began to see that the other was responding to the imperatives of his position—but it was a bumpy ride to get there.

I believe the forces that were at work in my situation are common to countless other executive directors and development directors. Over the months, my executive director and I were able to “get on the same page.” He grew to understand the value of my donor-centered approach and I developed an appreciation of his need to balance the institution. We got through it, but in too many instances that is not the result. That’s why the effective executive director needs to understand how to deal with her or his development director.

Nine Shoulds and Shouldn’ts for an Executive Director
When It Comes to the Development Director

An executive director should be a true believer in the organization and its mission. If an executive director has dedication, passion and purpose, the rest of the organization is far more likely to have it as well. They in turn will then convey that belief and passion to donors, prospective donors, clients, and volunteers. And that all makes fund-raising easier.

An executive director should be in the job because it is where she or he wants to be, not because it is a steppingstone to something “better.” I’m not saying that executive directors shouldn’t have ambitions to run bigger, more complex organizations in the future. But an executive director who would rather be someplace else now is a poor fit for an organization that needs leadership today. An executive director who is counting the months till the next job will not be organization centered. His or her personal agenda will get in the way.

An executive director should understand the role of a development department as an integral part of the organization. If an executive director sees the development department as standing outside the mainstream of the organization or her or his view of what a not-for-profit development professional is, she or he will not be committed to giving the development department every reasonable advantage in its efforts to raise money.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with the head of a large hospital with which I was consulting on a fund-raising campaign. I wanted to have a solicitation letter go out over this person’s name. The hospital head said, “I don’t do that sort of thing. That’s what I have a development director for.” To say the least, I was taken aback. This person, operating in an executive director role, failed to see that development was part of the “sort of thing” that the organization did. It wasn’t that I wanted this executive director to be a development director. I wanted him to be organization centered enough to support the organization in all its efforts, not just those that appealed to his self-defined personal or professional perception and agenda.

Executive directors need to see the organization and its needs as bigger than themselves. The mission of a nonprofit organization takes precedence over personal agendas and private objectives.

An executive director should not second-guess the development director, at least not in public. If the executive director wants to call me on the carpet for something I did which the executive director did not know previously, the place to do it is in her or his office behind closed doors. Conversely, as a development director, I need to keep my executive director well informed. My executive director needs to know the good and the bad of my contacts with donors, volunteers, and others important to the organization, and she or he needs to hear it from me first.

An executive director should not micro manage fund-raising efforts. One of my executive directors made frequent and unannounced visits to my development department to seek to change the way my gift posting specialist recorded contributions. Individual donors gave their money on a calendar year basis, but at times two such calendar year gifts fell into one of our (June 1 through May 31) fiscal years. Thus, a donor making gifts of $500 in each of two consecutive years, but received in one of our fiscal years, was still considered by my department to be an Annual Fund donor of $500. The executive director could not, and would not, understand why we would next year solicit the renewed gift on the basis of the $500 gift. He kept insisting that we remind the donor that that their previous gift was $1,000.

An executive director should place the authority to manage development operations in the hands of the development director and leave it there. I once had an executive director cave in to a women’s auxiliary and allow them to hire their own development person for a campaign. The resulting disruption of my carefully integrated and coordinated campaign plans and goals was a disaster that was recognized by both the auxiliary and the executive director almost too late. The real and great risk of making conflicting solicitations to the same prospect with no opportunity to establish priority, moved the development office from acting as an effective clearinghouse for such fund-raising solicitations. The development director must know when other staff and volunteers contact whom and for what reason. It must be remembered that all requests for funding need to go through the development office.

Another time, I had an executive director who began a process to interview consultants to help on a major campaign plan I was developing. I was not told those interviews were going on, and I was not at all involved. When I learned about the interviews, I reminded the executive director that such associations were necessarily partnerships and that the chosen consultant and I would need to have the right chemistry if we were to work as a team. We had to know each other. I absolutely needed to be directly involved and to have a hand in the final decision for the hire.

An executive director should understand when it’s appropriate for a development director to deal directly with volunteer leadership and when it isn’t. There was a time when my attendance was required at board finance committee meetings. The idea was that I was responsible for the raising of the money so I should be there to hear board concerns and to take some of the heat. I argued to my executive director that there was danger that a committee member would ask questions I was ill prepared to answer.

Sure enough, at one such meeting, the chair of the finance committee asked if I thought funding was reasonably assured for a major and expensive project under discussion. Unbeknownst to me it was a pet project of the executive director’s. Analyzing the numbers I had at hand, and using my best judgment, I said no. The project was tabled. My executive director was angry with me for not giving the answer he wanted. It was the last finance committee meeting I attended—and I was glad.

An executive director should involve the development director in all decisions affecting fund-raising. I once had an executive director recruit from the board a new chair of the development committee without consulting with me. The new chair was ill equipped for the position. Professionally, as a highly regarded attorney, he was not attuned to the “sales and marketing” mentality required for successful fund-raising. My need to respond on the spot to donor and volunteer concerns ran counter to his need to analyze outcomes before taking action.

An executive director should support the development director and strengthen her or his position with volunteer leadership. Once at a board meeting I was recounting the volunteer leadership’s and the development department’s success and praising the board and my staff for having done it. After the meeting an influential board member went to my executive director and asked, “What in hell are we paying Poderis for if everybody else is raising the money?” He was deadly serious with his question, and wanted an answer.

Instead of explaining that like any good manager I was distributing credit to my hardworking volunteers and staff, the executive director promised a full accounting of Poderis’ value or lack thereof to the organization. I spent many hours going through all our gifts and grants and assessing my contribution in our getting them. And what a waste of time, when all the executive director had to do was say, “One of the real reasons for our fund-raising success is Tony. He knows how to do his job. He directly raises money, and he participates with others to raise money, but he knows that fund-raising must necessarily be seen as an organization-wide activity in order to encourage the participation of others, and you can see that in how he gives total credit to the volunteers, and shares credit with his staff.”

Temperament Is a Key to a Successful Relationship
Between Executive and Development Directors

That’s a lot of talk about the executive director, but what about the development director? What should an executive director expect in a development director? Experience, education, and belief in the organization’s mission for sure. But in the end, the difference between a winning development director and an also-ran comes down to one word—temperament.

A successful development director has the temperament to work in the shadows. She or he must be comfortable as a facilitator, someone who helps create the environment, rather than the person who does the deeds. No matter how you cut it, a development director is a support person. The mission of a not-for-profit organization is not to raise funds. Yes, the money raised is necessary if the organization’s mission is to be carried out. But the work of fund-raising is an enabling endeavor.

Another aspect of development-director temperament is the willingness to say what needs to be said. Like a biblical prophet, the development director has to be ready to speak up even when no one wants to hear what she or he has to say. When programming objectives can’t be supported by realistic fund-raising expectations, the development director has to point out the discrepancy.

Optimism is part of a successful development director’s temperament. In nearly every campaign I have been involved with, there came a time when the storm clouds gathered and the only light came from the optimism manifested by those of us working hardest to reach goal.

Along with that optimism a development director needs dogged determination. The best development directors just don’t know when to quit. Their natural tendency is to put their head down and push a little harder.

No executive director should ever hire for a development director a person who needs glory, wants to be visibly in charge, discourages easily, or sees the glass as half empty. No matter how smart, creative, or knowledgeable such a person is, she or he will not succeed as a development director. Without a development-director temperament, this individual is almost guaranteed to come into serious conflict with the executive director.

I know from considerable experience that the problem grows when an executive director ignores a development director’s temperamental incapacity for certain jobs and functions. The executive director wrongly imagines that because a development director has the skills, knowledge, and expertise, that he is thereby suited to the job.

When a development director is temperamentally not suited to the job, the relationship with the executive director can easily become one “made in hell.” If that is the case, the executive director must make a judgment of whether the person’s performance can be fixed or if he or she has to be replaced. The executive director needs to move on with the real business of the organization, and the organization needs a well functioning development director.

Most of the time serious problems with a development director arise because either the development director is temperamentally ill suited for the job or there is a clash of styles with the executive director.

I have always believed that a good manager (executive director) adjusts to the style and personality of her or his people as much as possible. Getting good work out of direct reports is part of the executive director’s job and challenge. Good executive directors set their staff up to succeed. The best executive directors are flexible. After all, the theory is that the person at the top is the one most capable of adapting and accepting different ways. That’s why he or she gets the impressive title and the big bucks! An executive director new to an organization needs to adapt to the organization, not the other way around.

If a new executive director inherits a nightmare development director, then there is little to be done, except separate that person from the organization. If an executive director makes a bad hire of a development director who then creates a nightmare relationship, the fault may be the executive director’s, but still there is little that can be done other than to replace and move on.

I strongly suspect that protesting, agonizing, and long-suffering executive directors do not look at themselves hard enough when they talk about “nightmare” development directors and relationships from hell. To my mind, in any such relationship failure the person with more power and authority (the executive director) gets the lion’s share of the blame for doing nothing about it and for letting the nightmare linger on.

A final word

It’s the first day of autumn as I write this in my Cleveland, Ohio — USA — home, and a football analogy about the relationship between an executive director and a development director comes to mind. Think of the executive director as the team’s quarterback and the development director and the development staff as the team’s offensive line. The quarterback needs to appreciate the line’s work, be thankful for its protection, and remember that without it the ball either never gets in the quarterback’s hands or the quarterback is knocked flat on his back. The line needs to never forget that the only reason it exists is so that the quarterback can lead the team on its mission to score and win games.

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