Job Title vs. Job Content

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 11th, 2012 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Based on reading CEO/ED profiles in various media outlets and listening to them talk, what the vast majority of these leaders dislike most about their jobs is anything related to HR.  The issue within this expansive area of executive director responsibility where I hear the most gnashing of teeth, tearing out of hair, and, most disconcerting to me, self-flagellation, has to do with the director of development position.  Executive directors beat themselves up because they can’t seem to “get it right;” as a result, executive directors find themselves hiring—again and again—for the position of director of development in their organization.

It isn’t entirely executive directors’ fault.  There is, and always has been and will be, a certain degree of turnover in any organization.  Historically, the turnover rate for nonprofits has hovered around 24%, give or take a percentage point or several.  The 2010 Opportunity Knocks survey on turnover, found that the turnover rate at nonprofits averaged 16%, down from 21% in 2008.  This low level of attrition in 2010 is attributed to the economy, a time where people were more concerned with having any job rather than having a perfect job, or perfect conditions, or a shorter commute, etc.

The area of development, however, has always been known for having higher than average turnover rates than other positions in an organization, with the possible exception of front-line delivers of social services, where some organizations can have an average tenure of just under 12 months.  Over the years, the data on tenure for front-line development staff has been pretty stable:  well under two years.  That data point for directors of development has hovered around three years.  In 2010, Cygnus Applied Research, Inc. cites anecdotal evidence that those in senior development positions receive an inquiry of interest for another development position (at another organization), on average, about 90 days after starting their current position.  The fact of the inquiry doesn’t mean they take the job; but it does indicate the amount of opportunity and temptation that is out there.  When asked why they do leave, almost half of the senior development professionals in Cygnus’ survey said it was for a higher salary, almost 40% said they’d achieved what they set out to do and almost a third said—and boards and executive directors please take note—to escape old-school ways of thinking about and doing fundraising.  Turnover is a fact of the workforce, and, thus, to a degree, executive directors must learn to live with it.

That is not, however, to say that executive directors—and, now, I’ll bring in boards–aren’t responsible for a good deal of the turnover; they are.  First, there is the easy to correct factor of under-payment and a failure to balance of rewards and deliverables:  paying too little and expecting way too much and too many miracles.   Frequently, too, this imbalance is accompanied by an unwillingness by the board to assist in the development process.   In that scenario—low compensation, high expectations, no support–the development professional is set up for failure and for this both the executive director and board should be held responsible.  It is relatively easy to correct that picture; unfortunately, too few organizations do.  So, the cycle of hire, unrealistic demands, a whole in the wall and a development director with a very sore head, moving on, continues

Second, is the all too common mistake of not thinking things through.  Way too often, people come to me and say, “We need to hire a director of development.”  When I know the organization, my comeback is frequently, “Really?”  (This is a similar exchange when representatives from an organization that has no paid staff say to me, “We need to hire an executive director.”  I say, “Really?”)  I don’t know the psychodynamics that cause people to jump immediately to job title when it is time to hire rather than job content, but it is not a healthy one.  When title drives content, we all too frequently end up with what we don’t need.  Think about it:  if you were to write a director of development position from scratch or an executive director position from scratch, there are certain responsibilities that would absolutely end up in that description.

For example, in writing the job description for development director, particularly if this were for a one-person shop, there would need to be a little knowledge of everything in the requirements for the job and a little bit of everything in the responsibilities.  But the reality is that one-person shops don’t—because they cannot—do it all.  Thus, it is much better to figure out what the bread and butter, on-going development strategies are that an organization uses, write the position description and title it accordingly.

A recent conversation I had with a group of executive directors reveled that the number of events each organization had per year ranged from 7 to 17—and that was based on a quick, on-demand request for the number.  Not one had a dedicated events person, yet every one of the executive directors was complaining about the drain on staff, tensions with the board, and questions about “whether it is worth it?”  (Please:  do not read this incorrectly; I am NOT advocating for hiring a dedicated events person so an organization can do lots of events.   I am among the loudest anti-events voices because so few nonprofits use them as they should be, yet spend—dollars, human capital and good will—ridiculous sums doing so.)

What is worth doing is the following:  first, first analyze fundraising strategies to determine clear-out successes and failures and where there is potential for turning in a fence sitter into a success; second, identify the skills and experience needed to maximize the return on the successes and convert the fence sitters; third, write that job description; fourth, title the job appropriately; fifth, identify the stretch compensation that you can afford; sixth, hire as well as you can; and, seventh, and last, have the board and executive director prepared and ready to work with and support this new hire.

Is this going to guarantee that the development professional is going to be there 15 years from now?  No, and that’s all to the good.  Develop needs and strategies shouldn’t be static over time.  Nor should development professionals; some want to grow broader while others want to grow deeper.  Needs and abilities—in all positions—need to be periodically assessed and determination made if there is still a good fit.

Executive directors, stop beating yourselves up because you seem to be hiring new development staff more frequently than any other position on your organization chart.  Staff turnover and longevity are not categorically always bad or always good, respectively.  Being clear about what you need, hiring to fit that need and not a title, and accepting that fit is moveable is, however, always good.



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