Ten worst reasons for choosing your Director of Development

May 12, 2004 by Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

It seems one of the hardest assignments in any organization is hiring the right person for the job. Many organizations report that finding a great director of development seems a daunting challenge.

Executive Directors or board members often confide to me that their last development director didn’t work out as well as they hoped. When I probe a little deeper into how they came to select that individual, I’m not surprised. Predictably, the decisions to hire the unsuccessful individuals were based on reasons that had little to do with the competencies for successful fundraisers.

Many board members participate in the process of hiring development staff. As a cautionary service, I thought I’d share with you my top ten list of tempting, but ill-advised reasons for selecting your director of development.

Reason # 10. They wore a really nice suit.
Yes, a well-pulled together physical appearance is usually an indication that the candidate took the interview and the job seriously. But just because they dressed nice and sounded great, don’t rely on appearances. It is essential both in your interviewing and your reference checking that you verify they can do what they said they will.

Reason # 9. They showed up.
Don’t hire the best of the worst. If you haven’t found the right candidate yet, keep looking. Like any other industry, the job market for fundraising professionals expands and contracts. Sometimes it just a matter of timing. Try recruiting again. If you continue to have trouble attracting good candidates, do some investigating to find out why. Is the job underpaid? Does your nonprofit have a poor reputation for the way it treats staff? Word gets around. If you are repelling good candidates, you’ve got to fix the problems before you’ll ever find the best person.

Reason # 8. They were referred by your cousin Selma.
While I would certainly give cousin Selma the courtesy of interviewing her referral, I wouldn’t base my hiring decisions on Selma’s say so. I wouldn’t use Selma as my only reference either — even if Selma was a big donor. It is absolutely essential that you put the needs of the nonprofit first in your recruiting effort. Can this person do the job? Take the time to find good candidates, interview well, and check many references.

Reason # 7. They worked at a bank.
I don’t know how this started, but there seems to be a belief in the nonprofit world that people who work around money automatically know how to raise money. (See also Reason #3).While your development director certainly needs to be financially savvy, that doesn’t necessarily mean a good financial manager is a good fundraiser. Often, it’s just the opposite — while we want our money managers to be on the conservative side, we want our fundraisers to be people-center individuals who will take some risks (within reason) in their drive to turn straw into gold.

Reason # 6. They used to sell real estate…or boats, or insurance or whatever.
Yes, one of the earmarks of a good director of development is the love of the “sale.” You should be looking for someone who isn’t afraid of cold calls, meeting new people, building relationships, closing gifts and keeping donors connected. But, don’t expect that someone with good sales skills can just walk into the job of a development director without technical training and support. There is a lot to know about fund development in the nonprofit world — the legal and tax laws of fundraising, proven fund development
techniques, managing volunteers, budgeting and planning, and negotiating the complex relationships between program and fund development, to name a few.

Reason # 5. They are related to the Board president.
(See Reason # 8.) If you think Selma is tough, hiring the boss’s son or daughter is sure to muck up the distinctions between governance and management — no matter what side of that fence you sit on. To prevent this problem, many organizations have conflict of interest policies that prohibit family of board members from seeking employment with them. Only you can decide if that’s the right decision for your organization. If you are considering hiring a board member’s relative, I can’t overemphasize the importance of hiring for the competencies needed in the job and verifying past performance. Plus, I’d certainly want to lay out some ground rules for behavior and confidentiality with both my candidate and their board relative.

Reason # 4. They are the Board President.
The board president might be a great fundraiser. But there are lots of land mines here — not the least of which is the complete supervisory flip flop which will take place between the staff and this person. While it might be tempting to think you won’t have to spend all of that time and money recruiting someone new, you may be missing out on a better candidate who doesn’t come with all of the added baggage. And, according to Jane Garthson, an ethics consultant for nonprofits, the Executive Director should have full authority to hire the best candidate for the job, without the worry of repercussions for not hiring one of their bosses. Imagine continuing to report to a chair you rejected!

Board members who are interested in applying for a job should resign from the board before they throw their hat in the ring — with no guarantees of employment and no return to board service. This should be a board policy. If after reviewing other candidates the former board president is still looking good, make sure that you check references and that you have clearly outlined your Executive Director’s authority before you hire.

Reason #3. They know people with money.
Wow, this one is really tempting. Keep reminding yourself that just because someone has access to individuals of wealth, that still doesn’t mean they have the skills and competencies to do the job successfully. If they’ve worked in another development job and tell you that they will bring their donor list with them — drop that candidate as fast as you can. Donor lists are confidential property — they are not transportable from one organization to another. In any case, even if there are no ethical problems, a good thing to know would be if they’ve leveraged their personal contacts in other circumstances. Chances are if they haven’t been a rainmaker before, they are unlikely to start now.

Reason #2. They write well.
I wish I had a $1000 for every time I’ve heard this given as the number one reason for selecting a certain candidate. Unless your development director will do nothing other than write mail appeals or grant proposals, this shouldn’t be among your top three hiring qualifications. Even grant seeking and direct mail require many other skills — like creative thinking, problem solving, a knack for research and analysis, and, in the case of the grant writer, a talent for program development and relationship-building. The lack of good verbal and writing skills is a reason to screen out candidates — but not the top criteria for hiring someone.

Reason # 1. They are alive and they aren’t you.
Some people hate the idea of fundraising so much, that just about anyone will do. We’ve said it throughout this article — you won’t find the best person until you know exactly what it takes to do the job that you’ve developed. Interview your nonprofit colleagues about their experiences, examine your past mistakes and successes, seek out advice from seasoned professionals, and talk to individuals within fundraising professional associations to learn more about the core competencies and essential skills for all aspects of fundraising.

And when you do hire someone, don’t expect to never worry about fundraising again. Whether you are a board member, executive director or even program staff, raising money is a collaborative effort that requires the support, creativity and commitment of an entire organization.

You can learn the right way to hire a director of development in Bringing a Development Director on Board, #3 in the Ready Reference Series of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, www.afpnet.org. Gayle is a co-author of the booklet with Susan E. Geary, CFRE.

Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE and her colleague Jonathan W. Howard at Cause & Effect Inc. help nonprofits from the grassroots to international create strategic change for a more just and peaceful world. With over 30 years of nonprofit experience, Cause & Effect helps nonprofit organizations with strategic planning, board development, fundraising and communications needs.