Why, a client asked, is it so hard to hire a good development person?

I’d like to say the correct answer is that it is hard to hire a good staff person, period. But the truth is, finding good fundraisers is harder than most.

I don’t think that people who go into fundraising as a career are inherently bad.  After all, I was a fundraiser and perhaps you are one, too.  And I think I was pretty good.  I suspect you are, also.  But I also know that most development staff last only around 18 months on a job.  Many don’t last that long.  And many shouldn’t last as long as they do, no matter what the timeframe.

Part of the problem is that most of the people responsible for hiring fundraisers have zero understanding of the field.  To them, fundraising is fundraising is fundraising, and that is bringing in money, regardless of the resources we can provide to them.

Along with that is the sense too many people have that fundraisers need to be “perky” and have “personality” whatever that means.

Sure, a fundraiser should be able to get along with a wide variety of people, but the relationships they should be developing are between the organization and the donor.

To hire good fundraising staff, start by tossing out the generic job description of a fundraising professional.  It is unhelpful to declare that you need someone to “identify, cultivate, solicit and steward donors.”  Or that they are responsible for “all fundraising activities from individuals, corporations, foundations and government entities.”  What you need to do is:

  1. Get very clear about what you need this individual to accomplish.  Raising funds, sure.  But are you an organization that has a large donor pool and what you need is someone to maintain your donors?  Or do you need someone to enlarge that pool?  Is the fundraising you expect that person to do relational or is all your fundraising transactional?  Do you need someone to develop corporate sponsors or it is a grantwriter you are looking for?  All of these are very different skill sets, and you need clarity about your needs and expectations.
  2. Understand the corporate culture and what that means for any hire but especially for a fundraiser. After several years a development director at a large research university with a lot of leeway in how I did my job, I took a position as the director of development at a small organization where, on my first day, the president informed me that he saw my job as “inside” and he expected me at my desk from 8-5 every day.  Needless to say, I did not last long there.
  3. Be realistic about your fundraising expectations. The client I mentioned wanted her new development person to raise $1,000,000 in her first year.  The only trouble was, the most the organization had ever brought in was $250,000.  That kind of leap was just not going to happen.
  4. Know what resources the development director will have at his/her disposal and plan accordingly. Resources include your donor database, prospect pool, willing fundraising participants from among your board and your staff.  Without these, the fundraiser, no matter how skilled, will not be terribly successful.

Over more than 40 years as a manager, I hired many people.  One thing I discovered was that 50% of all my hires turned out to be  other than what I thought they were based on their cover letters, resume, interviews and reference checks.  Sometimes that was a good thing; more often it was not.

And if it’s not, the best advice I can give is part ways quickly.  Hires are like shoes.  If they are uncomfortable when you first wear them, it is unlikely that you will “break them in” and you will end up with a comfortable pair.



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