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Finding the Right Development Professional for a Tough Job

Finding the right development professional can be quite a job, and that's especially true for several different and very tough groups:

  • Brand new non-profits just getting started.

  • An international organization based in the US.

  • A non-profit transitioning from Board fundraising to recruiting their first development officer.

  • A group that is recruiting an Executive Director for the first time; the same person must also be a major gifts expert.

  • An organization that has a development officer who is well liked, but actually not producing--that's a particular challenge.

  • An organization that is working with a very demanding director who is expecting the development professional to really produce for him/her as quickly as possible--and layers urgency on top of everything.

We all understand what a good development professional needs to do to seek major gifts--or at least most of us do:

  • From identification to cultivation to solicitation to stewardship they build relationships with prospects who have the capacity and affinity to donate a major gift.

  • Help donors accomplish their key goals through their relationship with the organization.

  • Manage systems and software to track and cultivate donors and prospects.

  • Work with the organization to align efforts and set goals.

  • Make direct, face-to-face solicitations and assist the board and other staff with their solicitations by scripting and coaching and talking them through any of the hurdles they may identify.

  • Report on progress and understand how to initiate plans to counteract less than productive progress.

  • Deliver excellent written and verbal presentations, as necessary.

All of these responsibilities are important and this list could easily be much more detailed. For those organizations outlined above, well, they seem to require added strengths from an already established development professional. Here are some of the things to look for:

  • Can the individual help to foster a culture of philanthropy in the organization? Ask them how they plan to do this. Have they done it before? As them for an example.

  • Can the individual translate broad goals into achievable steps? Set and manage appropriate expectations? Ask them to give examples and listen carefully to the outcomes.

  • Can the individual lead the organization by example, arranging solicitation meetings for him/herself or just expect others to do it? Ask them: Give me the best example of a donor you identified, met with, and secured a significant gift--individual, corporation or foundation. Ask them how they did it? What are the expectations for the donor for the future?

  • Does the development professional have courage and a sense of entrepreneurship? Can they think creatively about how to generate a listing of prospects at various levels when no donations or prospects currently exist? Can they actually be successful at contacting prospects? Ask them for an example of this and how their work impacted their last organization.

  • Can they generate plans that involve all tactics--not just relying on the direct mail pieces or an annual fund drive? Can they identify true major prospects and then devise a strategy to go to see them? Ask them to tell you about their annual fund, the progression of their donors up the gift ladder, the prospects for a particular individual for the future; ask them about the level of development for their major gifts program and the ups and downs annually for the last few years. Ask them to tell you about the most significant gift that they secured.

  • Can they deliver results? If the organization is just getting started or if it has had some financial setbacks, can the development professional rise to the occasion and secure major gifts? Ask them to tell you a story about how they have done this in the past. A confident development professional will be able to answer this question, but this question will cause less confident (translate: less effective) professionals to back off of the interview process--and that's what the interviewer should want and look for.

  • Are they enthusiastic? You should see this during the interview. Ask them if they can survive a setback and how they know this?

When you are one of the organizations listed at the beginning of this article, you cannot afford to spend six months waiting for the development officer to make a move. If funding is what you need, whoever you hire needs to be ready to go out and secure some major gifts as soon as possible--hit the ground running. For example, they need to be ready to survey the foundation opportunities and bring the organization to the point where a solicitation is made and works.

I urge anyone who is hiring to give some time to getting recommendations for the candidate. Find out what the individual's past organizations have to say and make sure an outstanding recommendation is corroborated by others. Does the individual have the temperament to do the job? Are they persistent with donors--but not too persistent? Is the individual passionate about their work? Can they approach their work with a sense of authenticity--even when a mistake is made, authenticity makes up for it.

I am not suggesting that any one is going to turn the organization around in a short time, but progress just must be seen and confidence and trustworthiness must be exhibited every day and every week. If there are problems along the way one must communicate this--regardless of on which side you are sitting--organization or development professional.

If the organization is not really ready to hire a development professional but needs fundraising assistance, then sometimes hiring a fundraising firm for a brief period is a good alternative. Even then there are some less reputable firms out there so it is important to do the homework to find out what the firms have actually accomplished before they would be hired, really interviewing the individuals who will be leading the charge, not just those whose names are on the corporate headquarters. Many people can talk a good game. You must feel confident in the person with whom you are relying day to day.

Once a development professional is identified and your organization is in agreement on hiring them, lock it down with a contract, a set of expectations, articulated goals for the organization and a built in sense of communication with the individual. Support them at each juncture. And by all means, pay them what they are looking to earn--they could be worth their weight in gold.

Questions? Write and ask or simply call me. This is too important to let go to chance.


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