Development professionals are a unique breed. We are a critical part of any nonprofit organization yet our work lives are necessarily externally facing. We face intense pressures and high expectations, and while we are (often) compensated well for it, it takes its toll. Within organizations, there are a lot of negative myths and misperceptions about development, fundraisers, and even wealth itself. Furthermore, many executive directors have never held a formal development position, which can result in a major disconnect around development strategy and organizational priorities. It’s no wonder that according to a recent study by CompassPoint 50% of fundraisers are actively looking for another profession and 50% of executive directors report they can’t find high-quality candidates.
As someone who has worked in development for 15 years in multiple roles at multiple institutions, there are a few things that I do to make sure that I stay happy and sane in my job.
- Find the kernel of truth. Fundraising is all about integrity. I look people in the eye and ask them for real money. I can’t ask for funding if I don’t authentically connect to the mission of the organization and believe in the people who are hired to implement it. Otherwise, I’m asking philanthropists – whether individuals, foundations, or corporations – to waste their money. Whether you connect with a specific program, staff person, or story, figure out a way to make the asking authentic each and every time.
- Build a kitchen cabinet. If you are doing it right, fundraising is a lonely job. Your relationships with external partners and prospects come first, not your relationships with your colleagues. Throughout my career, I’ve always invested in peer relationships that can give me a fresh perspective when I feel stuck. Whether a regular breakfast group, a professional development conference, or a couple of former colleagues on speed dial, this kitchen cabinet is an essential part of my positive mental health as a fundraiser.
- Teach the program staff how to fish. At the end of the day, donors belong to the institution, not to the development officer and organizations are better when these relationships are nurtured together. Help program staff understand fundraising by taking them on a prospecting visit. Ask for their feedback on a proposal. Show them how you deal with feedback and objections. Explain how you think about engaging new foundations. Lead a staff workshop on effective employer engagement and motivations for giving.
There are also things that an executive director can do to ensure a solid partnership with a fundraiser, and to develop fundraisers motivated to stay and succeed in their current roles.
- Acknowledge the pressure and be realistic about expectations. Fundraising is no joke. I know damn well that the money I am raising represents people’s mortgage payments and groceries for their kids, not to mention the change we’re trying to create in the world. I sell the need for our organization, so I am constantly in touch with the problems we aim to solve. I face rejection on a daily basis, and hear NO a million times. And every single time, I pick myself up again and look for the next lead. Building relationships with donors – especially major donors – takes time. It takes time to get a first meeting. It takes time to thoughtfully answer their questions. It takes time to get a second meeting. A good executive director also knows that sometimes he or she needs to be MY cheerleader, acknowledges that fundraising takes time, and shares the work of keeping each other optimistic in the wake of rejection.
- Listen to what your development director has to say. Fundraisers are smart, strategic people. We know about money, how to manage relationships, and navigate complex organizations like foundations and corporations. We also deal with and respond to program feedback on a daily basis, and are deeply familiar with what makes our work special and unique. We are internal consultants for the program, so use us to help think through strategic questions and issues. I was once told by a program leader that “there was a time and place for development, and he would let me know when it was.” Please don’t tell me I have nothing to offer your program – it’s insulting to me and a huge missed opportunity for you.
- Build appreciation for philanthropy. At a recent major non-profit conference, I was shocked to hear many non-profit professionals rail against capitalism and “those rich people and big corporations.” Wealth, in and of itself, is not evil. It’s a tool for social change. And big companies have big influence, and assets that can help non-profits deliver their message, bring their programs to scale, and meet more community needs. Donors are your partners. There’s no need to automatically say yes to any donor request, no matter how off-topic, off-mission, or inappropriate it is. But you also can’t cast off their questions, feedback, and objections as annoying or mis-informed.
Development is like landing planes at a busy airport. Development has to trust that the runway is long enough, and doesn’t end with a cliff or a brick wall. We have to have faith that staff will take care of the plane and its passengers once it lands, so that it’s fueled up for the next flight. The airport needs to trust us to land planes safely, and communicate about our flight plans ahead of time so they can know what to expect. When it is working, it’s an amazing operation. My hope is that more development directors and executive directors can use these strategies not just to avoid accidents, but also to build powerful partnerships that change the world.
This post also appeared on Common Good Careers blog.