Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 18th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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You have a mole in your organization who is thwarting your development function.    Do you know who it is?  If you are an executive director or board member reading this, the answer is you!

Senator William Proxmire  created the Golden Fleece mock award for research projects that he deemed wasteful because all they did was demonstrate what we already knew.

But the truth is that we don’t know something until we have the research that proves that something to be so.  Without that research, we don’t know;  we assume, we hope, we think it is a fact, but we don’t know.  In alignment with that, those of us who work in the nonprofit sector day in and day out have “known” of the difficult and tenuous plight of development staff who have heaped on their shoulders the false expectation that raising funds is their job exclusively.

We know of the relentless frustration so many development staff face in trying to convince their executive directors and board members that part of their jobs is to assist in the development function.  Too many talk until they are blue in the face—well, actually, until they are on the ledge—to absolutely no avail.  And they are the ones who are fired, unless they resign first.

Now we have the cold hard data to know this picture is not merely anecdotal, perhaps swayed by the self-selection of the company we keep, but real fact.  CompassPoint’s latest study, Underdeveloped:  A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising, paints the true picture of the life of development staff, especially that lone staff member who is also the development department, based on surveying 2,700 development directors and executive directors from a great array of nonprofits all of which have a senior development staff position.  And it isn’t a pretty picture.

We have known for a long time that the tenure of a development director was short:  approximately three years in a position.  According to the CompassPoint study, 22% of executive directors have already given notice, while 50% are planning on leaving in two years or less.  (Compare that with 17% of executive directors who have already given notice, according to CompassPoint’s Daring to Lead 2011 report, and 34% of executive directors who think they will leave in two years or less.)  There is an inverse ratio between the size of an organization’s budget and the percentage of development directors planning on leaving:  57% of development directors at organizations with budgets under $1 million are thinking they will leave within the next two years compared to only 38% of those working at organizations with annual budgets over $10 million.

Executive directors aren’t very happy with their development directors—or the options they are seeing for replacing them.  One quarter of executive directors said they fired their last development director for poor performance; one-third are unhappy with the present person in the position (but with satisfaction, we find a direct relationship between budget and satisfaction:  the larger the budget the greater the executive director satisfaction); and 52% were displeased with the caliber of the candidates the last time they hired.

No surprise at all, directors of development aren’t very happy with organizations.  Forty-one percent of both directors of development and executive directors say there is no culture of philanthropy[i] at their organizations.  But executive directors’ glasses are rosier than those of development directors:  Breaking the group out, however, development directors are much more dissatisfied with the culture of philanthropy than are the executive directors:  20% of executive directors and only 12% of development directors strongly agreed with the statement that a culture of philanthropy existed in their organizations.  It seems that organizations regularly ask development directors to perform without the necessary supports that would increase chances of success.  Almost a quarter of organizations have no fundraising plan; another fifth have no fundraising database; only 9% of all respondents indicated that their organization has the capacity to do what needs to be done.  Additionally, 25% of executive directors admitted to insufficient knowledge, skills, experience to get gifts; 17% of the EDs say their fundraising program is somewhat or not at all effective, compared to 43% of development directors; and 75% of executive directors said their board member involvement in fundraising was insufficient.  Talk about being set up for failure!

There are important, basic lessons to be learned from this.  Not new lessons but important lessons that apparently too few executive directors and boards have yet to grasp.  Perhaps this new writing on the wall will compel executive directors and board members to learn these lessons now.  Briefly, they are:

  • hiring development staff does not free the executive director or board from having to be directly involved in cultivating donors and fundraising;
  • development staff can never, ever do it alone, nor should the executive director be expected to do it alone;
  • it is essential to hire an executive director who a) gets the importance of fundraising, b) is skilled in fundraising and c) is willing and able to do it;
  • fundraising is an organization-wide responsibility and is not something that can be passed up, down or off;
  • fundraising is most effective when there is a clear and agreed upon strategy with a documented plan that is embraced and adhered to by all;
  • you get what you pay for; and
  • executive directors and boards might be able to extend the tenure of their development directors by supporting and working with them, as opposed to dumping on them.

To directors of development who toil unsupported, affirmation is a wonderful thing.  To executive directors and board members, stop passing the buck; stand up and assume your responsibility

[i] Here is the definition of culture of philanthropy used in the study:  Most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving. Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Organizational systems are established to support donors. The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.



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