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Cut to the Chase, We Need a Fundraiser! The Complexity of Conducting a Development Search


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“Half of your board may be seeking a fundraiser, while the other half is committed to uncovering a development professional; ultimately, there must be consensus about what the organization needs or the search will inevitably fail.”

At a recent PMA-facilitated retreat with a small but emerging, Charlotte-based nonprofit, development search became the impetus of an elevated debate amongst board members. It began with a claim – “we need a comprehensive search process to ensure that the candidate is equipped to handle the many complexities of development” – and was perpetuated by an emphatic response – “cut to the chase, we need a fundraiser.” What began as a seemingly straightforward conversation about recruitment, had morphed into a dispute over the distinction between development and fundraising, begging the question, “how does this distinction impact the complexity of a development search?”

As smaller nonprofits develop, they often wrestle with the ever-increasing need to increase revenue. Ultimately, they must succumb to the reality that hiring a development professional or fundraiser is essential to the survival of the organization. Though the reality is staring them in the face, the decision to hire is often no less difficult and perhaps for these reasons:

  • They’re skeptical that the investment of salary – capital they often have little of – will produce more capital than they currently raise/earn.
  • The board hasn’t yet accepted its own role in development/fundraising
  • The organization hasn’t yet established an adequate infrastructure

If this sounds like your board, it’s likely they haven’t taken the critical step of determining exactly what the organization needs and therefore are struggling to speak judiciously about the search for a development professional vs. a fundraiser. Half of your board may be seeking a fundraiser, while the other half is committed to uncovering a development professional; ultimately, there must be consensus about what the organization needs or the search will inevitably fail.

The complexity in conducting a development search can be viewed through the following matters:

1) Distinguishing between development and fundraising
Many of us have heard the distinction characterized in this way: “In fundraising, you make do with what you have. You keep the organization going and out of debt. In development, you start with what you have and you help it grow.” This is not an elitist effort to hype the importance of our trade or an attempt to disguise the tactlessness of raising money, but instead a rational distinction between development and fundraising.

While fundraisers work to bring in the money an organization needs to carry out its programs, a development professional is primarily responsible for overseeing fundraising strategies and all those (e.g. staff and/or board members) involved in its successful execution. A development professional may be responsible for raising money – writing grants, researching individuals, foundations and corporations, and implementing other fundraising strategies – but he/she must also work behind the scenes to establish and maintain structure, processes and systems for effective fundraising.

The development professional works closely with staff, board and other volunteers to ensure that they are aware of goals and objectives and equipped to fulfill their commitment to the mission. While a fundraiser might be hired to flex their rolodex and/or pursue a financial goal unaccompanied, the development professional is a project manager who seeks to achieve sustainability for an organization by engaging its leaders. Board members and staff may imagine that hiring a development professional will save them from further fundraising tasks; however, he/she recognizes that “Let’s pay someone to do this so we can do the real work” is most certainly a disastrous suggestion and works to involve leadership as part of the expanded development program.

2) Understanding organizational needs
Making the assumption that all nonprofits require a development professional or fundraiser is the fastest way to collapse an already complex development search. An organization much first determine that it necessitates a hire and then guarantee that the hire is a reflection of the organization’s needs. Simply put, their needs may not lie in development/fundraising, particularly if they don’t answer yes to three or more of the following questions:

  • Is your board active in fundraising?
  • Does every member participate in fundraising in some way
  • Does the board and perhaps staff spend more time planning for fundraising than actually raising money?
  • Do board members and other volunteers involved in fundraising seem to suffer from a lack of knowledge of what to do, rather than a lack of enthusiasm?
  • Is the executive director or other staff constantly pulled away from program development and organizing to fundraise? Does he/she feel torn about setting priorities?
  • Is your budget over $200,000, or do you need to raise more than $100,000 from non-government and/or non-foundation sources?
  • Is the organization overly reliant on high number of small, annual gifts, rather than a targeted group of major, multi-year gifts with which you can cultivate, solicit and steward more effectively?

Once the organization has determined that a development professional or fundraiser is required, it is critical to align that recruitment with the organization’s needs. Unfortunately, many small nonprofits often rush to identify and recruit new development/fundraising talent in an effort to address their growing financial tension.

This complexity can be combatted by a careful assessment of desirable areas of expertise, qualities, and characteristics in the context of organizational priorities. This is not a universal checklist of needs that do not necessarily reflect your organization’s unique strengths, challenges, opportunities and threats, but instead a commitment to being thoughtful and good stewards of the organization’s mission and resources.