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Firing Your Development Director? It's not you, it's me!

picture by mb21 on Flickr

picture by mb21 on Flickr

This post is in response to the Compasspoint report, Underdeveloped: A national study of challenges facing nonprofit fundraising.

Key findings of the report?

REVOLVING DOOR – Development directors are bouncing around and getting fired all the time.

HELP WANTED – Organizations aren’t finding enough qualified candidates for the jobs. Um, perhaps because they are not looking for one person, but for three people wrapped into one person, for the salary of a half-time person? Because based on the job descriptions I look at, that is what they want.

IT’S ABOUT MORE THAN ONE PERSON – File this one under “no DUH.” That’s right, nonprofits are putting all of that pressure on one person, and it needs to be about everyone helping the organization make more money, in whatever capacity they can.

The report finds that high performing fundraising programs promoted a culture of philanthropy. What is a culture of philanthropy?

Well, when “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.”

Sounds just about peachy keen, doesn’t it?

Having a fundraising plan, having a board that cares about fundraising, and having a culture of philanthropy are all vital tools that help nonprofits succeed, let alone development directors.

So often, small nonprofits have none of these things.

In short, the report says the preconditions for success are getting systems in place, making sure everyone knows their role in fundraising, an executive director who comes from fundraising and who loves to ask for gifts, AND a good rapport between the development director and the executive director.

To get all of these things in place, especially at a small nonprofit where there hasn’t been a development director for 6 months to 2 years or longer, is a near impossibility.

What I take from this report is that Development Directors are most often fired for conditions they cannot control. They are fired because they cannot overcome organizational inadequacy, not because they don’t know how to fundraise.

I’ve written how to hire a development director.

And I’ve written extensively about why development directors fail, everything from;

Cheryl Kester responds:

When small nonprofits advertise for development directors, they get so few candidates or candidates they feel are unqualified. This clearly has a direct correlation to the figure in the study that states that 38% of the DDs at smaller organizations have no experience securing gifts.

Why is this? Because most experienced fundraisers do not even look at what are essentially entry-level positions when they come open at smaller nonprofits. I mean, really, I can usually read a position description and quickly assess the huge list of unreasonable expectations of the position and read volumes into that.

YES! I worked for a small music nonprofit that shall remain nameless, where the board’s idea of who to hire for a marketing position was someone who “played an instrument.”

That’s right. That was their defining criteria.

I begged and pleaded with them to do an actual job description and let me post it on craigslist at least, let alone and other places, but they dragged their heels for months and refused. Then they complained they couldn’t find anyone qualified. And I heard this from a fundraising friend who worked for another small music nonprofit, this exact same problem happened to her too.

If nonprofits are complaining that they can’t find anyone qualified, I would agree, what are your criteria, seriously? Are they completely unrealistic or simply untenable for someone who actually knows what they are doing? A job description that could encompass 3 people’s jobs for 1/2 the pay of one full-time person? Because if you look out there, that is a lot of what is out there.

So the experienced people don’t bother, because the salary’s insulting for the amount of work that it will be, and the inexperienced people, who don’t know any better, apply. And fail. And blame themselves, when they really shouldn’t.

And they think, “i’m just not good at fundraising” and leave the nonprofit world, when they should be celebrating their failures and being encouraged to learn from them.

THAT is how you learn. Instead they get the boot and the revolving door starts again.

Nonprofits should allocate a professional development budget to development staff. And in my workshops about how to get fundraising jobs, I do tell people to ask in their interviews:

“Is there a budget for professional development?” and

“Who will I learn from, and how?”

But the key issue, the one that everyone seems to overlook, is that development directors are never supported enough by the organization. Think of it this way.

It’s like a company with only one salesperson and no customer service people. Big companies with a million+ dollar budgets have five or more salespeople, all responsible for bringing in big deals. Not to mention customer service people, and databases, a marketing budget, marketing plan, and clear followup methods. Most development professionals have none of these things. Yet they are tasked with raising a million plus dollars.

What is most surprising is how often they succeed, despite the lack of bonuses, support and rewards available in the for-profit sector.

And even when they succeed, they still get fired. So what’s a fundraising professional to do?

We need to agitate for better working conditions.

With the at-will-employment in nearly every US state in effect, it’s hard to feel a sense of loyalty to any organization, when they can fire you for no reason. Really, literally, no reason. I think this is also the reason behind lack of diversity in fundraising. We see so many white female fundraisers over forty and so few people of other ages, genders, abilities, and ethnicities. There’s definitely racism in the nonprofit world. There’s definitely classism and ableism and discrimination. Ideally, a union would help address these issues and give people jobs where they know they won’t be fired without a real reason.

I’ve written about fundraising unions before.

What do you think? Are unions the answer? How can we improve working conditions so that our fundraising professionals have more motivation and are better set up to succeed?

So have you been fired? Were you unable to raise the millions they wanted?

In case you didn’t already know, it was them, not you.

17 responses on “Firing Your Development Director? It’s not you, it’s me!

  1. AMEN!!! Your article rings true to many of the experiences of me and other fund development colleagues involved in various aspects of fundraising.

  2. Mazarine Mazarine says:

    YEP! That happened to me too.
    More than once. I think they were actually relieved when i left the room at one point! Too many cross-examining questions!

    You see, I think asking good questions in the interview is a sign of competence. THEY probably thought asking questions was questioning their authority. Not at all!

    But when you don’t get hired, then you have to say to yourself, well, I dodged a bullet there, because there’s just NO WAY you would be happy in a job where people didn’t want to hear the truth of what they had to do to be successful with their fundraising.

    Thanks for commenting!


  3. Robyn says:

    I once interviewed for a position at a small nonprofit that was a perfect fit for the organization you describe above. I talked in the interview about the need for realistic expectations, developing a culture of philanthropy (though I didn’t use those words) and having time to create the infrastructure before anything “dramatic” could happen. Guess what! I wasn’t hired because I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear.

  4. Rosemary says:

    This last summer my fundraising/ marketing contract for a small arts center was not renewed. An influential person joined the Board, learned that I had developed a grant writing system, schedules and templates for support documents over the years and decided a volunteer could just “copy” everything I was doing successfully for state and regional grants. Point of interest, Board held me responsible for all fundraising which was to be accomplished in 15 hours a week for less than $1,000/month. There are only three or four arts organizations within 50 miles that have full-time directors. These individuals are usually responsible for fundraising and the salaries are pitiful because of the economy for the last four or five years.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Thank you so much for commenting Rosemary. That board sounds atrocious. And “copy” everything you were doing? How disrespectful of our profession, and of you! They were lucky you didn’t take all of the grant folders and burn them!

      I know the economy has been bad, but I still see EDs and CEOs getting paid quite a bit more than everyone else. And so I feel like the salaries could be better… because what if they got a development director for half time, for the same salary? That would allow them to have another job, or have a less stressful life.

  5. Valerie says:

    Have experienced it all: ED’s who don’t participate in fundraising or consider themselves the fundraiser and you the grant writer even though your title is director of development, positions that require you to be in charge of fundraising and marketing and public relations and have high expectations that come with a salary that’s laughable, and boards that don’t want to participate in fundraising and leaders that don’t hold them accountable because they are volunteers. I don’t know that unions are the answer; an ED and board that knows what nonprofit is all about, participate in the planning process and hold others accountable would be a start. Same issues, different faces.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Hi Valerie,

      Thanks for sharing your experience, I really appreciate it. that’s a good phrase you’ve got there, positions that have you in charge of EVERYTHING, with a salary that’s laughable.

      Unions would at least help protect us, get us cost of living raise increases every year, and keep us from being wrongfully terminated. I am not sure if union contracts can supercede at-will employment states, but there should be some contract that allows this to happen.

      I agree, we do need EDs and boards that participate in planning and hold others accountable. There’s not a lot you can do about that if they outrank you. I suppose there could be more stringent recordkeeping on the part of the IRS and state government to make sure that board members at least show up to meetings?

      Simone Joyaux has a bunch of resources about how to build better boards on her website:

      Thanks again for commenting! I appreciate it!


  6. Linda says:

    Thank you, thank you. I thought I was the only one seeing this. Especially the trying to roll three person’s jobs in to one and pay them half. There’s a LOT of that going on, and it’s not only in Development.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Linda, yes, it is just awful. I mean, all that responsibility, for so little that it’s unfathomable. So they get people who have no “asking experience” and they wonder why no one else applied?

      Unfortunately, this kind of job description is an epidemic in our society now, and no industry is safe from it. I wrote about this in a blog post entitled “Do You Have A Super Job?” and it’s here:

      Would love to hear what you think of that!

  7. Karen Dove says:

    Great response. I read this article last week, and had the same reaction.

    One of the things that has held my consulting business back in terms of growth over a long period of time is compassion…I love the opportunity to work with the “little guys”… the small nonprofits. What I’ve learned in the past 15+ years is that the “little guys” are most often clueless and not positioned for growth. That leads to failure, and whether you are a consultant or hired staff…it’s the boot and the door.

    You can’t write grants for an organization with no strategic plan, marketing plan, resource development plan, or financial statements. Thus a few years ago I started working in facilitation and required this as part of the contract for my small nonprofits. I facilitate the planning sessions and I write the plans. We got the plans written, but they took so much time to complete it ate into grant acquisition time, and thus, we ended contracts with little or no funding…and as you can imagine…they did not renew. Das boot.

    Not sure what the solution is, except the idea that if you don’t grow you die keeps coming to mind. Small can be a comfortable place for many reasons… most often control. Hiring administrative staff is difficult for these organizations, and when they feel they are losing control somehow, they let the “do-it-all” novice Executive Director (who is also the Development Director) or the “do it all” single person Development Department go. It’s so sad, but so true. I think we all agree the revolving door has a lot more to do with the organization and its leadership than the abilities of even the greenist of development staffers.

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Karen thank you so much for your comprehensive response!

      Yes. You can’t write grants for a nonprofit that has no strategy, marketing, fundraising plan, or financial statements, let alone a history of funding!

      It’s unrealistic to expect you to get them grants so quickly. Grant relationships take time! Which is why helping nonprofits ask for money face to face will be a better use of time for them. 75% of money comes from people, less than 25% comes from grants. But people hear “fundraising” and they think “grants” and we’ve got to stop the unrealistic expectations! We’ve got to lift up the sector and it starts with us.

      I hope lots of people read your comment, both consultants and nonprofits, and rethink how they are interacting with each other.

      A lot of nonprofits SAY they want to plan, but when it comes down to actually working the plan, there is only so much you can do, and there is only so much that one other person can push within that organization. Nonprofits have to be as nimble as they are small, be able to learn from mistakes, turn on a dime, and do better next time. Maybe clearing out the dead wood on the board level would help? People have to stop being afraid to fire volunteers!

      Thank you again karen!


  8. Elaine Fogel says:

    I love a good rant! So many nonprofits set themselves up for failure when they expect their first or entry-level development director to do it “all.”

    They can’t afford an experienced director, so their options are limited. Plus, many don’t often give their director a “proper” budget in order to accomplish anything.

    Would you hire a carpenter and tell him/her that there’s no budget for nails?

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      Elaine, you’ve “hit the nail on the head”! πŸ˜‰

      I love your metaphor, and I totally agree. I never had a budget approved in the small nonprofits I worked for. it was quite sad. But my last boss did not approve anyone’s budget, let alone mine. He did not want to do his job. later, he was found stealing $2,000, the board let him stay, and then he stole another $50,000. finally, he was booted out. If your boss won’t give you a budget, it’s a red flag!

      This should be part of our interview questions: What is the fundraising department budget? They should have an answer for that.

      Thank you again!


  9. Heather says:

    So many points ring true in this article, particularly the ‘it’s not just about one person’ aspect. So often, particularly in smaller organisations, I think the tendency is to heave a huge sigh of relief that someone is in post and then leave them to get on with it. I work with small non-profits all the time and my mantra is ‘everyone should be fundraising’. That and, ‘it’s about relationship building’. A key problem is that, as soon as a fundraiser is in post, boards and management expect money to start rolling in (despite the fact no-one is or has been doing any fundraising/relationship building except the Development Director). It does sometimes seem like a pipe dream but we’ll get there (surely?!)

  10. Nicely written! I remember my first development job in a one-person shop. The expression applies – you don’t know what you don’t know. However, my boss encouraged me to attend monthly AFP meetings where I learned best practices and met mentors and colleagues, and as a result, we were successful!

    • Mazarine Mazarine says:

      hi amy!

      Thanks for chiming in! I agree, the biggest secret is to have one, and to not know what it is!
      Maybe it’s that you don’t know major gifts, but also, you don’t even know major gifts exist! I remember being like that. So happy your boss was supportive of you! That is the best place to be in!