Mending the Broken Development Link

By Armando Zumaya

I recently spoke with a colleague, a fellow fundraiser, who said that working with her nonprofit executive director was like performing on the TV show Dancing with the Stars. She led, and his respect for her work allowed them to make a lot of money-like a wonderful dance, they were in sync and gave great fundraising performances.

From my experience training nonprofit leaders across the United States, that analogy does not hold for the majority of relationships between executive directors and directors of development. And research backs me up. The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund and CompassPoint’s 2013 “Underdeveloped” report found that only 41 percent of development directors said they have a “strong” relationship with their executive director. Twenty-one percent characterized their relationship as “weak or non-existent.”

There are many reasons for this. Most executive directors have a lot on their plate, and fundraising is only one aspect of their role. And yet most institutions prioritize fundraising highly. So why aren’t those relationships stronger?

Let’s face it, far too many executive directors hate-or are afraid of-fundraising. They want someone else to do it and avoid it like a visit to the dentist. I once heard an executive director say, “I just want to see checks come in.”

It frustrates me to no end to see countless charities hiring leaders without fundraising experience. A few executive directors told me nobody even asked them about fundraising when they interviewed for the job.

The report also found that leaders from “high performing organizations” tend to have previous development experience, and enjoy and understand fundraising. It’s just that simple. If you hire someone who doesn’t understand and doesn’t want to understand development, you won’t raise as much money as you could.

Every board member and every nonprofit leader should acknowledge that fundraising matters-and embrace it. They need to be enthusiastic about asking an array of sources and donors for money for their institution.

If you’re a nonprofit leader who works with a development director, perhaps some of this rings true. Here are five ways to build a better relationship.

  1. Respect the fundraising profession-and admit what you don’t know. I once had a great boss who was a brilliant, nationally recognized expert on public school reform. In our first meeting, she admitted she knew next to nothing about fundraising and wanted to learn from me. Her humility and the respect she showed the fundraising profession and me went a long way. I coached her, and we became an excellent team. We raised lots of money.

Fundraising requires skills, experience, and courage. Too many nonprofit leaders working outside of development roles have misconceptions about what the work entails.

I can’t tell you how many board members have told me they “know fundraising.” Can you imagine if development directors said they knew how to be on the board? Tell a patent attorney, “I know patent law” or an optometrist, “Hey, I know optometry.” Unless you have raised money for a living or personally led a major campaign, then you really don’t know fundraising.

Ask your development director for a good book or articles on development, because you want to learn more. Attend an Association of Fundraising Professionals or Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement conference. Better yet, join the meetings: When you engage with major gift prospects, attend corporate funder meetings, or meet with grantmakers, you learn the little details and challenges development directors face in their work. This will make you better at leading and inspiring them, and raising money yourself. Ask your development officer to set up some easy appointments first. Give them a safe place to critique and coach you as you prepare to meet with donors. That kind of partnership and trust will lead to straight-talk and informed decisions on your part.

  1. Allow for time and failure. Understand the time it takes to bring in many types of gifts. I once had a boss ask me to “work my Rolodex.” She thought I had rich people at my beck and call waiting for a phone call so that they could FedEx a check. Raising money from major donors, corporations, and foundations takes time and patience. Ask your development officer what they have in the pipeline so that you can check on progress, but know that many major gifts take years to come to fruition.

Donors also say no. If you get a disappointing response, analyze it with your development officer. Review the amount you asked for and your approach. How did you cultivate the prospect? Was the “ask” too high? Don’t automatically assume incompetence. There are many factors in play beyond the development director’s skill.

  1. See the big picture. Fundraising takes place inside an organizational and community environment. Does your organization have a rocky history? Is the community aware of your institution? Are there many similar organizations competing for support in your area?

Understanding the context in which you’re fundraising can help you set realistic goals and work to mitigate any external factors that might be hurting your fundraising. Maybe you need better press, maybe you need to strengthen your board’s capabilities, or maybe you need a better website. Even if you have the best development director in the world, external factors can get in the way. It’s your job to find out what those are and try to address them.

  1. Set real goals. Executive directors need to set fundraising goals based on what’s feasible, not what program staff or board members want. Doing this takes courage. It is also the top, quiet complaint of development leaders. I knew an excellent development director at a large homeless services organization who for years set fundraising goals according to how much the organization raised the prior year. The only debate was over the percentage increase. One year, the board’s development committee set a new goal based on their desire for new programs and new staff. It was bold and visionary, but unattainable. When the director failed to meet it, she left the organization.
  2. Defend fundraising work. There will always be people questioning the work of development directors, wondering why fat checks aren’t raining down from heaven. Executive directors must have development directors’ backs, and to do that, they need to work closely with them and understand the fundraising pipeline.

As with any relationship, those between executive and development directors require trust. When executive directors understand and engage with the challenges and power of fundraising for their specific institution, they are better supervisors and leaders and have much more opportunity to move their organization forward.