An Alternative to the Risky Development Hire

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Hiring a Development Director is risky indeed.

First, too many organizations more forward with this hire without performing a rigorous, honest self- assessment. Robust governance, clear goals, disciplined strategy and consistent, data-driven execution are all prerequisites for raising significant sums of money. So your organization must first sort out its own development and organizational challenges and have a clear, accountable, urgent plan for action. Or these same challenges will very likely confound even your most energetic attempts to raise money.

Then, even if your organization is run well and fully ready for staff, the hard truth is that you probably can’t afford the best people: they all work in the private sector, or at hospitals and universities. Unless you can afford at least $150,000 a year, you are unlikely to recruit an individual with the key qualifications: a sharp business mind, technical ability, good judgement, excellent communication and relationship skills, and high levels of discipline and energy.

So this leaves the great majority of nonprofits, organizations that can only afford $80K a year in salary, with a thin hiring pool at best.

Having faced this problem ourselves many times with our clients, we’ve developed a workaround. Instead of looking for an experienced candidate, we suggest recruiting smart, charismatic, energetic, early-career employees at starting at modest salaries. Then we provide robust training and a clear structure and process in which the new hire can be successful. Instead of dropping them into an ambiguous, complex environment with unclear roles and a lack of actionable data, we can hire relatively inexperienced staff and coach them to success through an organization-wide management system. Then, with a good business plan and the right training, even low-experience hires can become effective fundraising staff in time.

While we provide a comprehensive training program, clear 60, 120, and 180 performance benchmarks, and supportive mentoring, even the most thoughtful process can result in a hire that just doesn’t work out. So if this is the case, we transition quickly. We make sure we have the right people on the bus.

But if the fit is there, the new hire works hard and hits all the milestones and activity expectations, and is a good team player, then we advocate for aggressive increases in salary, often $10-15K a year.

Put simply, we first create an environment in which the hire can succeed. Then we look for smart people. We train them well and show them how hard work will lead to significant new investments in the organization’s mission– and consequent aggressive increases in pay and responsibility. We’ve proven that, if they are tenacious and apply our methodology, and the appropriate management architectures and organizational development pieces are in place, they will be successful.

Imagine the quality of a candidate pool you will get from a job description that offers “modest pay to begin, but candidates who make good use of our rigorous training program and succeed can expect rapid increases in pay and responsibility, with total compensation exceeding $100K within five years a distinct possibility.”

This is unlike any language seen in nonprofit job announcements for fundraisers, which is why it attracts an unusually capable and ambitious pool of applicants.

This design also puts a stop to the turnover plaguing the profession: the average tenure of a development director is approximately 18 months, another indication of a broken model. The hires we’ve made and trained – hires with no previous major gift experience – have performed exceptionally well.

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