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A Matter of Survival: A Solid Development Professional in a Small Shop

When you have a small non-profit development office, it is important to understand how effective your development officer truly is. This is a question that some of my clients ask--what do you think of the quality of our development officer? Do you think he/she is doing everything they can?


This always stops me short because it signals that they suspect a problem.


At the same time, it is a sad fact that many senior organizational leaders don't really understand development and do not know how to evaluate the effectiveness of their senior development officer or the team itself. Instead of knowing what to look for, they make decisions about the individual based on personality or on what has been raised that month or that year or the past few years. Flying blind, they have no idea if a development officer is actually maximizing opportunities for the organization or not.


Unfortunately there are many mediocre and ineffective people in the development field. I have often heard it said that "anyone can do development." I scoff, I cringe and then cry inside when someone says this and I feel sorry about the impact that type of thinking makes on their organization.


While it is very difficult to predict who is going to be good at their job and who is not, past results can be used to anticipate current and future outcomes. There are criteria that have been outlined in my own past post that would be helpful if hiring is underway (Finding the Right Development Professional for a Tough Job).


For a development officer whose fundraising skills are less than outstanding it is a little easier to "hide" if they are in a large organization--much of the work can be team focused so the individual can actually get lost in the "crowd." But in a small office, there is little room to shade the reality.


If you are the senior executive at a small non-profit, chances are you have done fundraising yourself. Now a development officer reports to you. Let's look at the kinds of things you should be examining to determine effectiveness:


  • Has the person met the first year's goal? If not, why not? Does the individual present a fact filled assessment of why? Do they have meaningful recommendations of what should be done in the next years? Has he/she prepared you if they were not going to meet the goal? Have this year's revenues exceeded last years?

  • Is the board participating in fundraising? If not, why not? Has this individual reached out to work with them--with support from the board chair and the senior executive? What is the feedback that board members give you? Call them and ask.

  • Does the development officer really have a plan? Has he/she presented it to the senior executive and board so that they know how to proceed? Does the plan include board engagement? (It is surprising how many organizations are without a fundraising plan.)

  • What do your donors or prospects have to say about the individual and their fundraising skills? Is this individual really out and about and soliciting funds? Or bringing prospects to meet with the CEO? Or taking the CEO to meet them? How many meetings have there been with potential major donors or prospects lately?

  • What was the level of activity in the past few months? (One can review the contact reports from the organizational development data base to determine if there has been productive activity--that is, are there meetings being held to advance the relationship with the donors and prospects? How many and how often? ).

  • When the development officer has reached out to donors and prospects, has the contact been meaningful? What does the donor or prospect say? Ask someone who is close to the organization to get a more objective assessment.

  • Is the development officer in the office all the time or out on calls? Or a combination of both? This will tell you something important. While keeping records is critical, there are no important records without ongoing fundraising activities.

  • Does the development officer have stories to tell about the beneficiaries of the services being provided? Are they heartfelt--are they delivered with passion? One would see this during a joint solicitation or just in casual conversation.

  • Does the development officer speak with affection about some of the prospects and donors? Has he/she outlined the next steps anticipated?

  • When you review the proposals that are being submitted are they clear and presenting a solid case? Why or why not?

  • Ask the development officer about their top ten prospects...how are they progressing? I have sometimes asked about these top prospects and the development officer's eyes get wide--like a deer in the headlights. Not a good sign.

  • Is there a mix of various fundraising initiatives or is there a focus on one thing? Every office, no matter the size, should be raising annual funds, major gifts, and organizing recognition events and/or special events. These each interact and promote fundraising, maximizing the work being done in each area.

  • Are there complaints that have surfaced from the donors, prospects or volunteers? Have they been meaningful? How did the officer resolve them?


These are just some of the questions that can be asked...this provides a basis for the executive to generate his/her own inquiries. Please note: At the end of a year, if little has changed in an office following the hiring of the development officer, there is a problem that should be investigated...and a planning process put in place to correct the course. And if that doesn't work? Well, change can be difficult but necessary.


Whether an executive is hiring someone new, or whether he/she has worked with the person for a year, if a problem is suspected, there probably is one. Where there is smoke...don't ignore the clues. Notice them and listen to your instincts.


I have watched very complex fundraising organizations be directed by uninspiring senior development officers--senior leaders who really have not even had successful careers in fundraising but may have talked a good game during the interview. These are the kinds of people who many times enjoy policing the fundraising of others, but cannot model effective fundraising. They are not familiar with creating platforms for success for their employees. Is fundraising really being maximized under these circumstances? Of course not.


I have watched organizations hire an outstanding individual who just doesn't have the skills to handle fundraising effectively in a small organization. Where there is little wiggle room for the organizational budget, it is difficult to lose six months or a year due to ineffective effort.


Both situations clearly result in under-performance, which is heartbreaking for the community and the organization--as well as any other fundraising employee. (Part of the fall-out of employing a weak development officer, of course, is that outstanding employees reporting to an ineffective leader will be the first to find something better for themselves, further reducing departmental effectiveness.)


At the same time I have also watched outstanding people be hired in both cases. No matter the size of the organization, outstanding development officers can create strategic plans and fundraising programs that enable the organization to create a sustainable advantage--growing every year--donors thrilled with their participation--new programs being funded--increases in clients--now that's exciting. And that's what happens with the right mission and the right person. Magic.


As a senior executive, if you are not sure about your approach to hiring, if you want to get the right person, reduce the risk. Take action to ensure that your organization does the best it possibly can:


  • Work carefully with your talent acquisition team, explain what type of candidate you really want; if your recruiter doesn't have experience in recruiting development officers specifically, urge them to get outside help;

  • Partner with a respected outside senior development officer or consulting firm to help review resumes and interview candidates until you have confidence in the candidate under consideration,

  • Outsource...secure a search firm and be sure to work with them to ask all the right questions during the interview process.


These are risk reduction strategies, they do not guarantee success. Take your time and find the right individual.


This is something that a senior executive must get right.


Large or small, every non-profit needs a healthy fundraising program. It's truly a matter of survival. One of my next postings will be about just the, creating the magic. Watch for it.