All Hail the Development Director

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on February 27th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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I am not a fundraising professional, nor would I ever want to be, although I have been raising funds since high school. If I am passionate about a nonprofit, I am all in, helping to bring in money to support that organization. But as an executive director (my paying job) and board member (my volunteer job), I want—no, I need—to be guided by a fundraising professional in the work of raising funds and ensuring organizational sustainability.

Sadly (or is it cheaply?), too many organizations fail to realize the need for that professional. Everyone involved in the activity of bringing in resources for an organization—and that is everyone on the organizational chart, from the very top to the very bottom (and if your organization isn’t using everyone, then you aren’t taking advantage of all of your resources) – needs help. Raising funds is not a solo effort. Raising funds is not something you do on a wing and a prayer or by the seat of your pants. It needs to be organized and shepherded by skilled people working on a coherent strategy.

Not too long ago, I was invited to attend a board meeting to discuss our interim executive director program. The organization, which has been on the brink of going under for the last several years, was newly leaderless and still struggling financially, to the point of wondering how even their very small payroll would be met. The board negotiated a larger draw down on their endowment and three board members secured some solid, one-time grant dollars. Some of the board members were feeling quite cocky. Why did they need an executive director? Besides, all of the previous ones had been part-time. And, as one board member from the triumvirate told me, he’d been in sales for 40 years and he could fundraise because fundraising was “just sales.” No diversified, comprehensive development plan and tactics are needed; you just knock on doors and sell your product.

It would shock that board member, and so many like him, to hear me say that one of the dumber conversations I hear repeatedly is that among boards and executive director pondering whether to have a dedicated development person. Seriously? How do you debate this? Every nonprofit that wishes to be sustainable needs a dedicated development person. I’m not dictating full-time or part-time; director, vice-president, manager, coordinator. But you need someone to design and push, encourage, support, analyze and measure. Start from that premise and go from there.

I have spent the last month or so blogging about the complexities of raising funds in the 21st century. Kickstarter launched in April 2009, one of the first on a handful of crowdfunding sites. According to its website, since that inception it has enabled 8 million people to donate $1.5 billion to 78,000 creative (not all nonprofits, mind you) projects.

Four years later, CrowdsUnite, which defines itself as “the biggest crowdfunding review site in the world” launched and now estimates that there are about 1000 online crowdfunding sites. The fact that a CrowdsUnite even exists—and it exists not just to review sites but also to help seekers of funds find their perfect crowdfunding site(s)—tells the story of the complexity of this one fundraising tool, incredibly useful for some, but nowhere near all of a nonprofit’s funding needs. (And, don’t forget the crowdfunding options of “Blue Jean Fridays, ” “Casual Dress Days” and other similar pay-to-dress-a-certain-way days and the proceeds go to charity; some employers even match the funds paid out by employees.)

We went from MySpace to Facebook to Flickr to Twitter to Instagram, and on and on, for sharing so that the average person can’t keep up with the options, let alone who prefers which option. In January 2014 we didn’t have ApplePay; by the end of the year we did. Mid 2014, we didn’t have Bitcoin; January 2015, we do. And we must offer each donor what s/he wants where s/he wants it—or risk losing that donor to one of the other 1.6 million, and growing, nonprofits.

The science of why people do and don’t donate to charities has grown exponentially in the last 15 years (and I have talked in this blog about it). Any nonprofit would be foolish not to pay attention to that research and learn how best to pitch and “win” that donor. One of the more pleasing areas of research is that coming out of the Science of Generosity Initiative at Notre Dame. Put simply: giving of your time and money makes you feel happier and lowers reports of depression. And it isn’t just self-reports that show this; there are physiological changes to our brains when we give time and money that produce “pleasure chemistry.” And the discoveries go on and on.

And I could go on and on, too, but I shouldn’t have to. The complexity of getting all of this right and, therefore, maximizing the return, is not something that can or should be done by someone who is doing development as an “also and” part of her/his job. It is not something that can be done by lay volunteers. It needs to be done by the professional who stays steeped in his/her industry of development, just as the social worker working with single dads stays current with his profession and the educator teaching organic farming stays abreast of hers. We would no more suggest that board members go off unguided to work with drug addicts than we would want the finance director to curate a show. We want and need the experts to guide the work.

Those who want less than the expert practicing her/his craft in a nonprofit are the very ones who don’t take the value of nonprofits seriously. No board would be dumb enough to hire a product liability attorney to represent the organization in an unlawful termination case. Then why let a nonprofessional fundraiser, like an executive director or a board member, take charge of the campaign to secure the organization’s future?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.